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Are Green Brands a Thing of the Past?

We are witnessing an explosion of green products onto the North American market. By some measures, launches tripled between 2008 and 2009, and show no sign of slowing down.

True, of late there's been consumer fatigue in green sales. But this seems to be a natural reaction to the number of products flooding the market, and a symptom of the ongoing recession. It certainly hasn't put a damper on the pace of green products being launched.

The inevitable conclusion would seem to be supermarkets glowing green with brands espousing sustainable, organic, or fair trade credentials. But there are signs this scenario could be off the mark.

Shhhh, it's green

Nike is arguably one of the greenest consumer brands in the world. The company itself just won a gigaton award for carbon reductions at the Cancun climate talks. And shoes like the Air Jordan have been celebrated for their green innovation. But you won't find a green logo on the shoe.

Nike believes sustainability is simply a new criteria to be applied to all its designs. Technical merit and athletic performance are the company's calling cards — green is simply baked in as part of the package.

This isn't an isolated case. In conversation with Christine Kennedy, Sustainability Manager at Unilever, I asked about the brand ramifications of Unilever's ground-breaking Sustainable Living Plan.

Kennedy said that sustainability is part of the entire company's agenda; all brands and countries are working on sustainability goals. But green is not a marketing strategy, or a platform. Much like Nike, green credentials will be built into Unilever products without fanfare.

Kennedy underlined that Unilever products are used by two billion people a day, and those people want efficacy and value first. In short, they need a brand that promises to work for them, before it promises to work for the world.

Henry Demone, CEO of High Liner Foods, echoed Kennedy's sentiments.

His company, like Unilever, has made the news with an ambitious sustainability program. High Liner's plans include purchasing only from sustainable and responsible sources by 2013.

But Demone believes green branding is going to be less and less of a differentiator in products. In fact, in a few years " ... it will be like quality control or hygiene—something buyers and consumers simply come to expect."

Like Unilever, High Liner is not launching a green brand line. Instead, Demone's vision is to have his company stand and be counted for quality. Part of that quality, alongside taste, safety and value, will be sustainability.

What to learn from the leaders?

Is your company developing its green brand? Are you looking for signs of what the future might hold?

If so, remember these pointers:

1. The future is a pipeline. We counsel clients to think of innovation as a continuum. In the short term, existing products can evolve to meet current consumer needs. In the long term, however, clients need to consider entirely new products to stay relevant and fresh. Given this, evolving your brand message to encompass new green credentials may make sense today. But it will lose its competitive advantage in the future.

2. A successful innovation needs to start with a strong consumer need. That need has to include both friction ("I want something, but can't get it.") and universality ("A million of us need the same thing.") As Christine Kennedy of Unilever pointed out, two billion Unilever customers want personal products that perform in terms of efficacy and value. That need surpasses their need for products that work for the environment. That doesn't mean sustainability is off the agenda. But it shouldn't be the lead claim on the packaging.

[Photo by WallyG on Flickr]