SOI 2013 - Eco Status Quo

Distributors Continue To Sell Category That May Have Seen Its Peak

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Eco FriendlyHow distributors are continuing to sell a category that may have seen its peak.

When it comes to eco-friendly promotional products, enthusiasm has been replaced by cynicism.

"One of the reasons why the bloom may be a little off the rose in terms of green products is because there's a lot of skepticism out there among consumers driven by people who aren't really following the rules vis-à-vis good green marketing," says Jacquelyn Ottman, founder of J. Ottman Consulting and author of The New Rules of Green Marketing. "They're overpromising and making it sound like the item has more environmental benefit than it does."

Joan Landorf, executive vice president for Axis Promotions (asi/128263), agrees that the initial green craze within the industry has died down, but with the right marketing approach, distributors can still successfully sell items that are either made in an eco-friendly fashion or are in some way tied to the betterment of the environment.

"The reality is it's rare that our clients are choosing to purchase eco products. I think what you're probably seeing from this industry trend is from a promotional trend, the so-called hype has passed," she says. "But I think it's still very much in the forefront, and it is for our clients. I also think that as soon as we can figure out how to make eco-friendly products that cost the same as regular products, people will prefer the eco products."

Until that day comes, here are some strategies for successfully engaging environmentally-savvy consumers who have become more discerning in their green-oriented promotional product purchases.

Pitch Functional Green Items
According to Ottman, eco-conscious consumers – and even those who aren't – have little interest in green items that serve little purpose.

"In the promotional products industry, sometimes I see vendors who have these things on display like squishable planets (stress relievers) and funny little things that all look like they're saving the planet," she says. "But if you've got a promotional product like a shower water timer or something that will remind your kids to turn the lights off – something that's really useful, timely and will save people money – that's welcomed across the board by consumers.

"I'd advise them to focus on promotional items that will really mean something significant to employees, students, club members – whoever it is they're trying to target."

Explain the Value
Ottman says taking time to educate clients on the financial benefits of eco-friendly items – which will empower clients with the ability to do the same when passing them along to their customers – will yield results.

"Tie them to real benefits. If you've got promotional products that save consumers money, they can focus their marketing on highlighting money-saving and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, it's helpful to the planet,'" she says. "That's what's nice about the environment – because it's about saving resources, you can also tie it into saving money and make it doubly relevant."

Landorf recommends informing clients that investing in eco-friendly products will create a sense of goodwill and trust between them and their customers. "There's a lot of positive synergy that's tied in to companies that have made a commitment to using eco products," she says. Procter & Gamble has an initiative called Future Friendly, and it's all about being green and making changes in your day-to-day life.

"There is a major commitment to investing in green products at a very senior corporate level, and it's taking more time to get into the individual budgets, but I think in time it's going to, so I would not walk away from it."

Target Specific Sectors & Audiences
Despite the growing skepticism, there are still certain industries that have not wavered in their support of and desire for green goods.

"It's still very strong on our end because we work with major consumer products and beauty companies, and they are still very much interested and concerned in eco products and sustainability," Landorf says. "They sort of lump it all together under social compliance."

Landorf says the financial sector is also keen on green these days. "We're seeing that Bloomberg is very eco- and sustainable-focused," she says.

Ottman recommends searching the Newsweek Green Rankings, which lists the world's most eco-friendly companies, including a Global 500 list of the world's most green-conscious businesses, to obtain ideas for additional target markets.

Landorf has noticed that those who are the most environmentally conscious also tend to be socially aware across the board. "I think there's a connection between clients that are eco-conscious and clients that are concerned about sustainability and social compliance," she says.

"It all gets locked under product safety and social compliance, and green is a subset of that.

There's also fair trade that's coming up as a major issue. The New York Times had a front-page article about how retailers are making goods domestically and trying to track things overseas so people can see they're being made in good factories with eco materials – and also, the carbon footprint is much less if you're making and buying locally."

In terms of fair trade, Landorf has clients who purchase products in areas within the country that are in need of the most economic growth. "If you go into Appalachia, for instance, and you're supporting the workers there who have lost their jobs, you're actually creating more jobs through the use of the products they're buying," she says. "These are initiatives that we're seeing with our clients, and it's becoming more important."

Prove Products' Eco-Friendliness
Of course, if you can't persuade your customers that the products you're promoting are truly eco-friendly in nature, you likely won't get very far with them. "Companies are saying things like corn-based plastic items are biodegradable when nothing will biodegrade in a landfill," Ottman says. "So, I hate to say it, but there are a lot of people in the promotional products industry who really don't understand these things and they're using the term very loosely, and I would imagine they're losing credibility as a result."

One way to regain that credibility, according to Ottman, is by following the Federal Trade Commission's Green Guide, which includes specific green marketing guidelines. This guide is available online at www.ftc.gov.

Another way to build confidence is to provide details of how and where green products were made. "There's an online retailer called Everlane (www.everlane.com) that describes where its products are from and how they're made," Landorf says. "There's a definite interest in consumers wanting to make sure they're using sustainable products."

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