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Environmentally Friendly Promotional Products

By Tonia Cook Kimbrough, CAS

If you have any preconceived notions about "green" marketing, throw them out (with the recyclables, of course). Environmentally minded consumers are on the rise, and smart companies are addressing their concerns.

If you equate environmental marketing with limited markets and unlimited expense, you should know there are a growing number of companies using "green" (as in environmentally friendly) products to help them rake in the green (as in cold, hard cash).

For example, McDonald's Corp. recently used 2.5 million seedling trees in plastic tubes as a tie-in for children's Happy Meals. Think the fast-food giant did this solely because it was the right thing to do? That was likely part of its intent. But the planners behind the campaign were also well aware that almost 100% of kids today have had some form of environmental education in school, according to American Demographics magazine.

That's not to say there aren't challenges to marketing with recycled, biodegradable and/or environmentally friendly promotional products. However, there are other elements – such as real benefits beyond peace of mind, and a real market beyond the "granola" crowd.

The Green Marketer
Some of the largest and most successful firms in the world – American Airlines, Target, Patagonia, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, among others – are committed to increasing their use of environmentally friendly products. And why not? These companies represent just a few of the members of the 2001 Steering Committee for the Buy Recycled Business Alliance.

Are you a business-to-business marketer? The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) has 4,500 members which include many large, small and mid-sized businesses.

Increasingly, in an effort to reach out to the "green-minded" consumer, firms are sponsoring environmentally related events. For example, Home Depot and Ford Motor Co. are two premier sponsors of America Recycles Day (November 15th).

Add to this list a growing number of socially responsible companies like Ben & Jerry's, The Body Shop, Worldwise, Honest Tea, Sus-tainable Harvest, CitySoft, New Leaf Paper, Village Real Estate and Wild Planet Toys – and you have an idea of how broad this market has become. They're diverse, successful companies producing everything from software to teabags.

There are also instances when an environmentally friendly promotion can go far to help companies make up in PR and promotion for how they're portrayed in the press. Those firms in the chemical, oil and communication industries come to mind.

The Green Consumer
Bottom line? Where there's strong supply, there's clearly demand. Consumers are buying green products at a rate substantial enough to drive supply.

In fact, a recent study by Cone Inc. revealed that the environment has remained one of the top three concerns consumers expect companies to address. Little wonder, given that 87% of Americans now say they're worried about the environment.

Faced with such statistics, a growing number of firms are embracing promotional product programs centering around the green theme.

"I have found many nonprofit organizations, healthcare providers, schools, outdoor adventure and waste management companies are good targets for green marketing," says Aeon Turner, a California-based counselor.

Does It Come In Green?
For Turner and counselors like him, it had long been difficult to find green promotional products for their clients. But that's changing. There are now several hundred choices available.

Jacqueline Keywood, another promotional products counselor, finds her clients appreciate assistance in sorting through the options.

A few examples of green products:
  • seedling trees and flower seeds

  • recycled cotton apparel; Eco-fleece garments

  • recycled glass bottles, jars and glasses

  • outdoor furniture from recycled milk jugs

  • seed-embedded bookmarks and note cards

  • recycled paper products, including mousepads
These products and others like them have become popular in part because of counselors like Turner and Keywood, who desire to transact business in an environmentally responsible way. "I'm aggressively advocating the use of recycled content merchandise," Keywood says. "Even if you can only do one item out of many, it's better than none."

Ideally, each use of an environmentally friendly will add up to more. By promoting with green products, Turner explains, it's possible to raise general consumer awareness while also promoting the use of other green products in nonpromotional areas – the idea that if a demand for green is developed, more items will be produced.

This is exactly how one manufacturer became involved with such items. Two years ago, a promotional products counselor approached the firm seeking blue spruce seedlings in logoed tubes for a client's ad campaign. The firm it now offers a whole line of green products, including "Plant-A-Tree" awards and imprintable garden stakes tipped with seeds.

Objections And Responses
Finding environmentally friendly products, however, isn't the only challenge. Some firms hesitate when it comes to buying green. "The same old myths are still there," says Mary Rosen, director of marketing for a recycled paper manufacturer. "Recycled costs more. Wrong. It's inferior. Wrong."

Case in point: Eco-Fleece, a 14-oz fleece produced from recycled plastic soda bottles. "This fabric meets or exceeds all industries' standards for strength and colorfastness," says counselor David Bearman. "The garments look like new after years of use."

Of course, some products made from recycled materials can look different. "With glass, recycled products have a distinctive rustic appearance," says promotional consultant Jeff Sacks. "This look is definitely growing in popularity."

Another challenge is ensuring the "greenness" of a product. Here are a few terms you may want to become more familiar with:

Biodegradable – item will break down through natural means such as bacteria causing decay. A product that claims to be biodegradable may be only partly so.

Postconsumer waste – waste generated by consumers in their consumption of goods.

Pre-consumer waste – aka/post-industrial waste, from the production process, such as plastic scraps, material fibers, etc.

Photodegradable – chemically degradable under light; not too effective if buried in a landfill.

Recycled – product contains a percentage of recycled or reclaimed materials. Exactly what percentage can vary widely.

Recyclable – products are reclaimable, in whole or part, through various processes.

The Right Questions
How to choose? Ask your counselor for help. Take a green shirt you're considering using for a program. What percentage of the cotton is recycled? Are the buttons plastic or wood – or are they crafted from tagua nuts, a renewable resource?

Another consideration is how a product is imprinted. For example, soy ink is an alternative to petroleum-based inks, which are more toxic to the environment.

How will the product be packaged? If you cushion recycled glass bottles in landfill-unfriendly bubble-wrap, the environmental message may be lost when the package is opened by the recipient. The same goes for foam "peanuts." The alternative? Use popcorn or excelsior – or include a note requesting that the peanuts or bubble wrap be saved and re-used.

Ultimately, the promotion will come down to the value of the message green products can send. Image is everything. A company's advertising vehicle is one of the main ways consumers judge its commitment to certain causes. When appropriate, the extra mileage gained from association with an environmental cause can make a few extra pennies a product worthwhile.

Green Thoughts
Naturally, creative applications are important in a promotion. "Most [companies] who use green products are using them as they would use traditional products," Turner says. "If the product is made from recycled materials, oftentimes we'll make sure that this is easily identified by imprinting the recycled logo on the piece itself."

Hangtags are another popular method of identifying green products. The tag should not only indicate if something is recycled, recyclable or biodegradable, but also take the opportunity to explain why it's important – cleaner air, less landfill, etc.

There's a multitude of applications. Consider these ideas: Trees and seeds can make great gifts for malls, realtors at open-houses, banks ("Come grow with us"), hospitals (expectant mothers) and so on. A "Tree In A Box" has been used by the thousands by Lockheed Martin and Paine Weber as direct mailings and by Cigna Healthcare as promotional gifts targeting women.

Other plants in mini-pots or compressed "dirt pellets" can also generate creative themes – cayenne or jalapeno peppers for "hot" news, aloe for health care clients, etc.

Recycled glass has become a favorite of the hospitality industry because it helps give hotels and restaurants a homey feel. Recycled glass infusion (spigot) jars have been popular promotional tie-ins for liquor distributors.

Shirts of recycled cotton might be an incentive to test-drive new "hybrid" cars. When you start considering all the possibilities, the narrow path for green products suddenly becomes 5th Avenue. Your firm can join those who've already discovered that "going green" ensures both environmental friendliness and economic viability.

Not a bad pairing.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Tonia Cook Kimbrough, CAS.

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