How SunChips Could Have Saved Its Loud, Biodegradable Bag

SunChips let negative press derail its biodegradable bag. A new study examines the best ways to pitch people products that are good for the planet.


Green products did not fare well in a recession. When people are flush, they’re happy to spend a little more to help out the environment. But when things get serious, that money dries up quickly. To wit: Sales of Clorox Greenworks dropped from $100 million in 2008 to $60 million today. The ad whizzes at OgilvyEarth, though, have never met a concept they can’t sell, and so they’ve put out a lengthy paper (PDF) about what we need to do to make people more likely to buy eco-friendly products. The main trick: enough of the “green” crap. Sell products on their merits.

This is because while 82% of people have good intentions about buy eco-friendly products, only 16% do with any regularity. They care much more about products being cheaper or working better. It’s a simple question of which aspect you put front and center. Let’s look at the case study SunChips bag. Last year, the healthy chip company introduced a new bag that was entirely biodegradable. There was one slight catch: the bag crinkled loudly. Incredibly loudly:

A loud crinkle is seems like a poor reason to not buy a product. But somehow, the echo chamber of the internet took over. Soon there were viral videos of loud bags being compared to jet planes, and a popular Facebook group. And, as it turns out, a loud bag was a reason to not buy a product. Sales dropped 11%.

Instead of defending the benefits of the bag, SunChips retreated and pulled the innovative product. Ogilvy’s report says this was a missed opportunity: Instead of trying to sell a biodegradable bag that was unfortunately loud, SunChips should have used the loudness as a marketing gimmick. “That noise factor could have been a good opportunity to bond with consumers. It was a great opportunity for some humor,” says Graceann Bennett, one of the authors of the study. “Once people starting going crazy in the blogopshere with how loud the SunChips bag was, they should have just gone with it and make it a cultural phenomenon. They could have made the loud Sunchips packaging into a popular movement a la ‘Where’s the Beef’ or ‘Wassup?'”


Instead, the loudness was a crippling factor caused by forced environmentalism. No one really cared that the bag is biodegradable, just that it didn’t seem to “work” as well as a normal bag. In most cases, the paper argues, these products need to be sold as more effective, cheaper alternatives (which they need to be) that happen to be environmentally friendly.

And when some coaxing is needed–like when sales of Clorox Greenworks plunge, say, or when a bag is extra loud–it needs to come the right way: “The route we’ve been going hasn’t been sufficiently successful so it’s time for a new approach,” says Bennet. “It makes more sense to let people fall in love with the product and then let them know the benefits they are enjoying are brought to them by sustainability rather than trying to argue them into caring about green first. Sustainability is the end goal but that doesn’t mean sustainability is the marketing strategy.”

Image from Flickr user j_lai

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly