Park&Co founder and CEO, Park Howell, knows a thing or two about branding and marketing. Lucky for us, he’s also got an award-winning perspective on how to successfully incorporate sustainability into your brand. We sat down with Park to talk shop on building a sustainable brand, avoiding greenwashing and putting your green initiatives into context your audience can relate to. Park will also be leading our Green Branding & Marketing panel at GoGreen ’11 Phoenix on November 15—so if you like what you read, consider joining us for our first event in Arizona!
GoGreen Conference: Park & Co. focuses on the storytelling aspect. It seems like a lot of companies sometimes get nervous because they think, “Well our story is not perfect. In one aspect of my business we are working on sustainability, but in others we might be falling short.” How do you think businesses should handle talking about sustainability while they are still early on in their journey?
Park Howell: It’s a great question. You always hear that you want to be completely transparent and accountable—and all of those buzz words. That’s all true, but I think where some companies miss the mark is they think that they have to be perfect to tell the story. There is no such thing as a perfect story and, if you think about it, any great hero has to go through something really tough, otherwise they don’t have what it takes to be a hero. It’s the same with a company.
Even throughout the process of “greening themselves” or becoming more sustainable, companies need to be talking about the journey—answering the questions of what’s working for them and what’s not working for them. Second thing to consider is: Are you sharing best practices? Because that helps educate everyone else on a couple of different levels. First, it tells the consumer they are dealing with an honest company and that your company is not only trying to do better, but its also bringing people along for the journey. Most people like that. There’s a humanness about that kind of behavior from a company that people can relate to.
Number two, it shows leadership by example. People and other companies can learn from their experience—especially from where someone has blown it and it’s not quite working for them. I can apply those lessons to my own life—whether it’s personally or professionally through my company.
There’s also something really endearing about a company that admits it isn’t perfect, but can show the steps it’s taking to improve. I think Patagonia does a really nice job with that. It earns trust. I’ve seen immense distrust lately in large corporations, specifically because of their role in bringing on the worldwide recession. Wearing your greenness on your shirtsleeves in an ethical way—both the successes and the things you’re working on—is going to help win over consumers and earn back their trust. You’ll also likely find evangelists and experts willing to help your brand take sustainability initiatives further.
GG: What are you looking for in potential clients at Park&Co? How do you determine if a company is far enough along in their sustainability journey for you to work with them?
PH: We work on a case-by-case basis, but we can start from the very beginning—at the zygote stage, if you will. Even if a company is just thinking about embarking on this kind of journey, and figuring out how to start enacting green practices within their business, we can help them build a brand story around those values.
A good example of a company where we did that is Adelante Healthcare. The whole case study is up on my blog (www.parkhowell.com). What they were, and still are, is a 30-year-old community healthcare center here in Arizona. Their roots literally started in the fields working with migrant workers and those who didn’t have a lot of healthcare insurance, or those with no healthcare insurance whatsoever. Well, times have changed since they were founded, especially in Arizona with our immigration laws and the decline of farming in favor of development and so forth. The result of this is that their market completely changed. Despite that, Adelante still wanted to maintain their mission—which is to make healthcare available to everyone insured or not.
In order to maintain relevancy for the next 30 years, we had to change their brand and their approach to healthcare through the development a brand of sustainable healthcare. For Adelante that goes well beyond just saving the planet. There’s really three legs to their particular sustainability stool.
1. Sustaining the health of their individual patience through world class, comprehensive care.
2. Sustaining the availability of healthcare for everyone by pursuing their original mission of treating all patients regardless of their ability to pay.
3. Sustaining health in the home, neighborhood, community and planet by advocating for healthier consumer habits.
In developing the sustainable platform for Adelante, one of the first tasks was to quickly start assessing how their operations needed to become more sustainable and making changes for things like handling bio-waste and recycling. They took a really comprehensive viewpoint of things when switching over their brand.
For instance, instead of just completely gutting all of their clinics and rebuilding them, they saved as much of the leftover materials as possible for reuse. And if they couldn’t reuse something in the redesign of the building, then Adelante made the materials available to local non-profits or contractors. We helped them create a new vision for themselves and discover new relevancy in their market based on core values that had always been in place. And we helped them tell this evolution of their story in a way that resonated with their audience.
GG: You mentioned that Adelante was taking a “balanced approach” to sustainability. In general, should brands lead with their green credentials or is sustainability something that plays more of a supporting role for the most part?
PH: Sure, if sustainability really is your primary brand attribute, then certainly lead with it. But I think for the vast majority of companies, their primary brand attributes are something other than being green. Take Adelante, for instance, their main brand attribute is to provide the best, most efficient, highest quality healthcare for their patients. Sustainability supports that, but it’s a secondary brand attribute. I think that’s pretty true with about every brand.
Consider, GreenWorks from Clorox. Do you buy it solely because it’s a greener cleaning option? Or do you buy it because it works well—oh and by-the-way it’s green as well? I think most companies should first lead with their primary benefit and then secondarily they can benefit from building and sharing brand attributes around being sustainable.
GG: What are a few examples of things you see in the marketplace that make you cringe? Anything that makes you roll your eyes, because it’s so overused?
PH: Ha! Well, I’ve gotten to the point finally where I am so tired of leaves—green leaves on logos are starting to make me cringe. It’s such a visual cliché at this point.
The word is green is also getting overused. It’s not just about saying, “I’m green.” It’s also about how you’re going about being green. What are the actions and operations of what you’re doing to back up your “greenness”? The use of the word ‘green’ in company names products and services is getting old. And there are others too. I just did a post on 10 big green clichés that you want to avoid—and one of them is to avoid calling yourself green unless you’ve got the kahones of Greenpeace to back it up.
GG: How do you approach incorporating hard data in more compelling ways in order to avoid both greenwashing AND going over people’s heads?
PH: I see companies doing that more through their corporate social responsibility reports. And they’re doing a better job of getting consumers involved. Gamification of reports and information—where you are rewarding the consumer going through information and at the same time making it fun for them to take in the data—is an interesting new trend you’re starting to see sparks of life in.
It’s difficult, and you have to find and cater to a very motivated consumer that’s going to take the time to dig into what your product is about. But, it goes beyond offering simply offering a product benefit. You’re also asking the consumer to be accountable in their purchases.
I was just talking to Jacquie Ottman, who wrote a really terrific book called, The New Rules of Green Marketing. She’s been doing this a long time, and what she and I were talking about is that it goes beyond the basic consumer and product relationship. Consumers have to be engaged and pay attention to how they will use, repurpose and recycle that particular product. And even more so, Jacquie will go as far as saying there is no such thing as a truly green product because you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet—and that’s true in every green or non-green product’s case.
There’s always something. Diapers are a good example of this concept. Maybe you want to use cloth diapers and keep waste out of the landfills. But then you have to account for the energy and water that it takes to wash those diapers. So consumers have to get involved and be accountable if they are really interested. And for brands, it’s most likely going to be a secondary thing, because what consumers want to know first is: Does the product work? Is it convenient for me to get? Is it an affordable price? Is it healthy for me? And after they’ve gone through all of that—then they start digging into the numbers.
GG: What ways do you see people most connecting to sustainable stories? Is it on things that relate human health or perhaps on locally relevant issues?
PH: Geography and health are certainly going to factor into it. But I still get the sense that consumers are being bombarded with so many things in their lives—from the recession, to regular advertising, to getting their families though the day—that the green industry is a bit of a blur to them. They don’t know where to turn. It may come down to product placement—when they walk into a store and see a Seventh Generation product and roll with it because it’s right there, on sale and buying it makes them feel good.
Another area that’s interesting is the automotive industry. Rising and fluctuating gas prices are forcing auto companies to develop greener cars very quickly. But they’re also building gamification into their product. The gamification response mechanisms are built right into the dashboards, so that people can see just how effectively they are driving in terms of fuel savings and efficiency. That sort of education plays really well in the operation of that product, but it also gets ingrained in people’s minds and transfers to other activities in their lives. They may start to think, “Well, how can I apply this to my dishwasher, my swimming pool and my electrical use?”
GG: What message are you bringing to GoGreen attendees? What are you hoping they will learn from your session?
PH: What I want to do in that session is based on your first question: Is it OK, if you’re company is not beautifully green or perfectly green, to still talk about your journey into sustainability with the world and see if you can get them to come along with you? I want to show and talk about ways to do that through real world examples. And we’ll talk about inspiring consumers to change their behavior. Not just the behavior of purchasing a greener product or service, but the behavior that transcends these things and makes people more responsive participants of the planet Earth.
GG: Real quick coming out of your last response—why do you think sustainability is important? What is your particular entry point to perusing a lifestyle that places sustainability and social responsibility in the forefront?
PH: It’s really simple—I’m in it to protect this planet for my kids and grandkids. We have three kids, and humanity has absolutely ravaged this planet. We’ve got to get global warming in check and do something about conserving our resources. The amount of waste we produce is mind-boggling. Now, I am not a perfect green individual and I think that’s one of my strengths—I talk to consumers from a relatable standpoint. I advocate doing your part in incremental ways, which can not only save you a lot of money and avoid stress, but it can also save the planet. We can all be a part of the solution for saving the planet.
Park Howell is Co-founder and President of Park&Co, a full-service advertising agency based in Phoenix, AZ. He’s also the moderator for the Green Branding + Marketing panel session at GoGreen ’11 Phoenix, November 15, 2011. For more information about GoGreen ’11 Phoenix, please visit: phoenix.gogreenconference.net. Follow us on Twitter (@GoGreenConf) and Facebook.