In the mid-2000s, Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) members had a listserve discussion on sustainability – marketing professional design and construction services that were environmentally responsible and responsive. The discussion even touched on the value of having a firm's total staff (including marketing, accounting, etc.) achieve LEED AP status.
As the discussion progressed, a seed was planted in my mind, ultimately blossoming into two questions: First, while we were learning to market "green," was there also such a thing as "green marketing" – marketing in a green manner? Second, if there was such a thing, what form(s) might it take?
My column in the Aug. 1, 2005, issue of The Zweig A/E Marketing Letter was called, "Marketing Green vs. Green Marketing," and presented my earlist thoughts on green marketing – developing sustainable messages and using environmentally responsive methods to convey those messages. My train of thought went something like this:
1) The U.S. government was committing itself to sustainable design; the phrase was starting to appear in federal RFPs. Any firm that wanted to be perceived by public-sector clients and relevant regulatory agencies as a "cutting edge" project resource needed to demonstrate its green design and/or construction practices.
2) In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Mayors developed its Climate Protection Agreement. Since then, mayors in 1,054 American cities have signed the agreement.
3) Over time, "sustainable" has become the only way many AEC firms work, rather than a special set of practices implemented for the occasional client that requests it.
4) Does it make any sense for an AEC firm to describe its sustainable design or construction philosophies and activities in a brochure printed on paper using (potentially hazardous) chemical inks? Were we creating an environmental hazard to show how we protect the environment?
The AEC industry has known about sustainability at least since the 1990s, although many firms took longer to learn about it. I know one team that lost a major downtown development project in the early 2000s when the client asked the team's civil engineer about sustainable design practices and he thought "sustainable" applied to architecture and MEP engineering, but not to civil engineering.
Having finally understood that marketing green involved performing services in a way that considered and protected the facility's natural environment, financial considerations and the uncertainty of dealing with the U.S. Postal Service moved us to the early applications of green marketing – emailing brochures in PDF format and placing PDF files on our websites for downloading – saving trees and reducing the use of chemical inks, resulting in little or no hazardous waste for such marketing efforts.
The cost of updating printed brochures helped make the case for some form of electronic distribution. When digital brochures need updating, you don't have to choose between using out-of-date materials and throwing away a lot of expensively printed brochures.
Another new idea that arrived with the millennium was electronic SOQs or brochures, often distributed on DVDs that could be mailed to prospects and handed out at conferences and trade shows. This quickly became a common practice. Today, we see delivery of brochures on a thumb drive. This item is also becoming ubiquitous, as firms look for name/logo-bearing trade show "gimmees" with ongoing utility.
However, anecdotal information indicates that the making of plastics for the disc, media, case, and thumb drive sleeve could be just as harmful to the environment as paper-making and printing with chemical inks. And you still have to print and attach some kind of label (with the giver's name and/or logo) to the DVD or thumb drive and the box it comes in. And distribution often involves mailing in a bubble wrap-lined envelope – a negative triple whammy! These facts help make the case for electronic submittal of proposals, SOQs, brochures, etc., and for posting marketing materials (brochures, white papers, etc.) on websites or sending via email.
A firm's commitment to sustainable design and construction practices as their standard way of working often results in projects whose marketing value lasts a significantly longer time. When your signature projects are LEED certified, you can leave them in brochures and websites longer, rather than replacing with newer projects, because sustainable projects tend to be recognized and admired longer (especially LEED Gold or Platinum).
When a workflow system works, you don't replace it after six months or a year unless you've developed something better. When your projects use cutting-edge technology, materials, or construction methods, you don't abandon technology, change materials, or design new methods just for the sake of change. You should think the same way when developing marketing messages because they represent your brand, which needs to be consistent over a long period of time to avoid creating confusion in the minds of your clients and the public.
You don't spend months developing a mission statement – then put it into your website and use a short version as a tagline on your letterhead, thank you notes, advertising, proposal page layout design, etc. – and then change the mission statement after six months, just when your clients are starting to associate your name with those phrases.
Sustainable messages stand the test of time; you don't have to craft a new identity every year or so. Think of it as the difference between a coffee table book and a monthly magazine. For how many years has Zenith Electronics told us, "The quality goes in before the name goes on"? Maytag started telling us that their repairman was the loneliest man in town in 1967; that concept is still in use after 45 years, with new commercials and new actors periodically.
Just as selling new work to existing clients is less expensive and time-consuming than developing new clients, producing a new visual or written message for an existing concept is faster and less expensive than developing a totally new concept. And it is much less confusing for the people who visit your website, look at your brochures, and view your advertising.
Further, sustainable messages not only help you keep costs down, but they actually help you reinforce your brand. Think of it: For the last 45 years, Maytag's sad, lonely repairman has branded their washing machines as so dependable that almost nobody with a Maytag washer will need to call for repairs.
If you get it right, these sustainable messages carry your brand – the promise(s) that your firm makes and lives up to every day, every year – and can be remembered, top-of-mind, for many years. In living up to the promise of quality and service that is your brand, the recognizable message helps sustain your firm through the ups, downs, spirals, and dislocations of multiple business cycles.
Every time you change the overall concept, redesign your logo, make a drastic change to your website's visual layout and navigation, or redesign the marketing pieces you send out, you create confusion. Your clients, prospects, jurisdictional agencies, and others will have to relearn the message that goes with the new words or images. Unless such changes to messaging mark major announced changes in your firm, wholesale changes may make clients and the public nervous. Such changes may leave them wondering what else is changing that you haven't announced yet.
AT&T, my Internet provider, just implemented a total redesign of the home page, and the new page cannot be customized. One AT&T employee told me they looked at how a great many people use the home page and came up with a functionality that reflects the most widely used features. Then, they created a new design with a new color palette and a different navigation system.
All the special things I had put on my home page during the last few years are gone; they cannot be put on the new home page. And I cannot get rid of the features/functions for which I have no need. From my perspective, the redesign makes things easier for a lot of people, but not for me. So I'm in the market for a new home page. Somehow, I don't think losing users was AT&T's goal when they decided it was time to redesign.
I have had the same website for more than five years. When my clients go there, they know how to find what they are looking for. When I tell people how long ago the site was launched, some of them tell me that a company website needs to be totally redesigned periodically – new concept, new color palette, new pictures, new verbiage, new navigation – so that it looks totally new. Depending on who is telling me, the time period ranges from six months to two to three years.
Since launching, I have replaced some visuals, added a new page for an idea I really liked, and updated the verbiage, client, and publications lists. I don't want a total redesign; a client who can't find what he or she is looking for quickly, in the same place as the last time they looked, might leave me altogether. If I'm going to make a big change, there needs to be a reason that I can explain to people who ask why the change happened.
Ecologists have long complained that the United States has become a "throw-away" society. We design and build products with planned obsolescence to ensure they will have to be replaced. We sell items in packaging that cannot be reused, so it must be thrown away.
Because of this, and in combination with the fact that electronic distribution of digital messages is free, many of us develop visual and written marketing messages for very specific purposes – messages we use once and forget about.
I know of one firm that changed its tagline – which it uses in the footer on its letterhead and proposals, and on its website– three times in the last two years. Each tagline has a different focus: one about quality, one about customer service, one about the firm's services. All are intended to describe different aspects of the firm's personality. But to the client reading a letter, a proposal, or their website, each new tagline looks like the firm is now "about" something else, that something else has captured the firm's attention, like a shiny object creating a distraction.
Someone recently said that to be effective means to do the right thing and to be efficient means to do the thing right. So, is green marketing an idea whose time has come? Is it an idea that will allow marketers and their firms to be both more effective and more efficient?
I believe it is; it is the right thing, and we should all learn to do it right. Sustainable messages can have a very long coffee table life. If you don't believe me, just ask Zenith or Maytag!
Bernie Siben, CPSM, is principal consultant with The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultancy located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559-901-9596, through his website at www.sibenconsult.com, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.