Skip to main content

The Mean Green Marketing Machine

Green is getting a makeover. Once considered outside the mainstream, even bordering on radical, the moniker and the environmental concerns associated with it are now embraced by the media and public. For programmers looking to tout eco-friendly series and specials, this poses a unique marketing challenge — the shifting landscape means they're not just promoting their content, but they're also helping rebrand the very concept of green itself.

Jeff Boortz, president of Concrete Pictures, an agency that consults on branding and promotion, points out that when Lime started (it originally included a cable network, but now offers its content via platforms such as broadband and video-on-demand), “the research showed that they should not use the word 'green' in their name.”

Yet in 2007, Boortz, who recently moderated a Promax/BDA panel on marketing green, points out that Sundance launched a programming block called “The Green” and Discovery Communications announced a channel (and cross-channel marketing initiative) called Planet Green.

Meanwhile, HGTV is considering promoting segments of existing series that are environmentally conscious. “We want to move green to the forefront and label the content that way,” said the network's senior vice president of marketing and creative brand strategy Lori Asbury.

Said Sundance senior vice president of branding, on-air and creative services Sarah Barnett: “We're trying to find a fresh image for green that shows green as beautiful and is more in touch with a younger, less hard-core audience. Now that green is all around us, people are much more receptive to it.”

However, Boortz cautions that as the word's meaning changes or it simply gets overused, its status may change once more. “Check back five minutes from now and no one may be using green again,” he said.

In fact, it's not just the word green, but the entire notion of environmentalism — and especially the climate crisis — that is so slippery in the public perception, said Discovery Channel vice president of marketing Marina Anglim. When Discovery aired Global Warming: What You Need to Know last year, Anglim said executives debated the name long and hard, trying to find something neutral — the network even downplayed host Tom Brokaw in the marketing campaign, focusing more on Discovery's reputation for neutrality.

And Anglim's research, begun nearly two years ago for the Planet Earth series, showed that 45% of respondents didn't believe global warming was a problem. “It was so polarizing,” Anglim said. “You have to be really delicate about who you're going to turn away.”

So Discovery had to avoid an overly green message, although Anglim says environmentalists encouraged the network to be more direct. “We couldn't tell people they needed to care, but had to show them why they should. We marketed the series to make people fall in love with the planet in all its wonder and glory.”

Still, she said that while the “strong enthusiasts are still a small pocket of the population,” the mainstream has moved so far since her research was done that if she was pushing Planet Earth today, “people would be much more open to an environmental message. Now people can be rallied with it.”

In fact, Anglim noted, people viewed the program through a prism that was unimaginable when production started five years ago. “People say to me, 'That was a great environmental campaign, I'm proud to see you working on it,'” she said.

Even with the “rising tide of consumer awareness,” Lee Heffernan, whose Heffernan Marketing agency consulted for Lime, said that just 12% of Americans are “dark green,” or really passionate about the issue, while 68% are “light green,” and the rest are not really interested even in recycling at this point. More significantly, Heffernan said, the “dark greens” are very light TV viewers, while the non-greens are the heaviest viewers.

“That means television has to take baby steps,” Heffernan said. For most people, but especially the light and non-greens, Heffernan sees three spheres for marketing — the core is pure self-interest, secondary is the home and family and last is the environment itself.

“That's the hurdle marketers and programmers face, they must speak to the central core,” she said, saying that showing people how to lower their electricity or gas bills is a good example of an entry point that can inspire people to start living more consciously. “If you are preachy or guilt people or even if you just start by talking about the planet, you make less of a connection and lose your potential audience.”

Barnett agreed, saying Sundance weighed various options but decided to try and cast a broad net, figuring that any TV-watching dark greens would show up anyway. “We tried to take a positive and even playful approach that used humor to play off viewers' lack of awareness. We wanted to make the problems seem human-sized.”

Anglim added that the marketing must not tell viewers their current life is contributing to the problem but instead must show the viewers that they can be part of the solution. “It's a quarter-turn but it's an important distinction,” she said.

It's also essential, according to Boortz, that a green program “does not get sold as homework but as a lifestyle innovation” — an attitude Barnett echoes when describing the efforts for green programs like Sundance's Big Ideas for a Small Planet.

“The message wasn't just, 'this is good for you,' but, 'this is entertaining,'” Barnett said. “And we wanted it to feel hopeful and inspiring, saying, 'Come to us, we're there to help you figure out what you can do.'”

Because networks generally must avoid overwhelming viewers with the green-ness of the message, Boortz said everything must be filtered through the network's own brand first. “You must sell a component of your brand without letting it take over the brand.”

Asbury agreed: “There's no way we can own green, but we can make it part and parcel of who we are as brand.”