In Sustainable Marketing, Words Matter

by | Sep 7, 2010

Today, we face a sophisticated language problem – and therefore opportunity – when it comes to green marketing. It seems that the meme of “greenwashing” has subsided a bit. In fact, the “gotcha” green marketing moment in 2009 was not about greenwashing at all.

The most exciting moment for authentically green marketers was the promotion of ABC’s re-released mini-series “V.” You may recall that ABC was planning to skywrite giant red V’s above national monuments to promote the series’ return.  Lisa de Moraes, writing for the WashingtonPost, pointed out that Disney (ABC’s parent company) had “only seven months earlier announced — one day ahead of its annual shareholder meeting in its ‘corporate responsibility’ report — that it would cut carbon emissions from fuels by half by 2012.”  ABC cancelled the promotion.

So the watershed moment in green marketing was not about misleading green marketing claims, it was about a promotion that was not in line with a parent company’s own sustainability goals.

Clearly, this greenwashing thing is getting more interesting. The ways and the words we choose to promote literally have more meaning today than in Ogilvy’s day. Language shapes culture and culture shapes language. I won’t rehash the complexity of Linguistic Relativity, just suffice it to say that language influences thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior. 19th Century philosopher/linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt saw language as “the expression of the spirit of a nation”. Understanding this is a huge opportunity in marketing and progressing the sustainability agenda.

Let’s take the word “hybrid” for example. In the short history of the modern marketing meaning of the word, “hybrid” has gone from a word used to define the mechanics of an automobile to a lifestyle identifier by Keen shoes in their ad campaign anchored in the phrase “HybridLife.”  In this manifestation, “HybridLife” becomes a conjunctive badge defining the wearer as athletic and pro-environment. Linguistically, “hybrid” is now a modifier. Culturally, it modifies.

The inverse is true was well. Language can be a destructive force on culture as well. For example, “anchor baby” used to define the children born to illegal immigrants, has been a sleeping phrase since the early 80’s when it was used to describe Vietnamese emigrants, has come back with the recent legislative controversies in Arizona. This divisive language serves as, literally, a cultural divide. But, more theoretically, it also serves to drive culture backwards away from completing its contract to be a socially just society.

In short, words matter – but not in a “choose them wisely” kind of way – words matter because they can be used to engineer or derail progress.

In terms of greenwashing, we should not just be looking at the factuality or obfuscation of marketing messages.  Instead, we should be expecting them to do more than market in accurate and sometimes entertaining ways. The words we choose, the way we use them, can change our culture for the better. They can create genuine dialogue and move the proverbial needle to a more just and verdant place.

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.

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