Reevaluating the Marketing of ‘Stuff’

by | Sep 13, 2011

If I want to live in a more sustainable/efficient house, I know what to do.  I do a blower-door test, install double paned-Low E-argon filled windows, insulate my attic and maybe install a passive solar hot water system. After all of that, my house will be far more sustainable than it was. These adjustments are mechanical in nature. They are predictable and can be measured against their costs over time.

But the next 50% of making my house more sustainable will not be mechanical. The next 50% (I realize that sustainability does not exist on an scale from 1 to 100, but bear with me) will be cultural. It will require me to reevaluate how I use my house, where it sits in relation to neighbors or work, how big it is, how few people live in it, and ultimately the very meaning of “house” itself in our culture.

This house is a metaphor for green marketing.

Thus far, green marketing has been about mechanics – about engineering bad out. It is process, supply chain logistics, ingredients, materiality, embodied energy and lifecycle analysis. And we’re not done there. But we are now ready to come at it from a new angle – cultural. In the parlance of our times, we need a two-front shock and awe attack on unsustainability.

The most important cultural reevaluation will be our relationship to our stuff. It seems clear that it is not enough to simply keep on accumulating less bad products, and still live in a verdant and just world.

It is said that trend is manufactured in the margins of culture, and we can indeed pinpoint movements where people are engaging consumption from per perspectives. From “buy less crap” campaigns to “right to repair” initiatives to “freecyclers” to the “rent-as-business-model,” there are shifts from ownership to access as a new relationship with consumption. But these are fringe instances.

Brands will need to lead the charge to reach scale, and that will mean going against the grain and into the wind. It would be one thing if mainstream consumers started demanding a reevaluation of stuff. Then the market-economy could simply respond. But that’s a long shot. It has taken significant effort just to create a desire for better products within the market system, let alone the complete reimagining of our relationship with products.

For brands, promoting de-consumption it is a hard fight to pick for sure. But part of the lubricant to make it happen is anchored in the ad-agency water cooler buzzword: “authenticity.” Of course (like “green” and “local”) it starts with the popularization of “realwashing.”

Hyundai’s latest campaign “unscripted” for example, has real (we are told) Hyundai test drivers touting the amazing (!) quality of the cars. But, of course, we all know that “unscripted” is a very different authenticity strategy than “unedited.” The prevalence of major brands today struggling to appear authentic is evidence that a trend is brewing.

But this appearance of authenticity in a culture built very much on the lack of authenticity (Disney, Hollywood, Vegas) may be the sustainable brand’s most compelling opportunity. We can use it to engage consumers in a dialogue about the difference between want and need.  Authentically sustainable brands should be developing strategies to understand this bubbling seachange.

One strategy we use to help companies understand their place in the consumption culture is the completion of a Parallax View. A parallax is an apparent difference in an object created by different vantage points. Using the Parallax View methodology provides unique insights into any business from multiple vantage points simultaneously. This view permits a deeper understanding of impact from different cultural vantage points, and reveals gaps in understanding. Discovering the meaning of and within the perception gaps reveals insight into the perceived impact of the consumption of product. How do consumers view their role in the consumption of your product compared to how you view the consumption of your product? Recognizing the gap in perspective reveals innovation strategies, market opportunities, design improvements and new genuine conversations with consumers.

Back to my house. A house looks different from the inside than it does from the out. It is the perspective of the thing that gives it different meaning, not the physical thing. Understanding several perspectives and the difference between them allows us to better understand the role of ‘house’ in our culture.

Soul singer Luther Vandross sang it best “a chair is still a chair even is there’s no one sitting there, but a chair is not a house, and a house is not a home when there’s no one there to hold you tight, and no one there that you can kiss goodnight.”

Yes – Earth will persist long after humans have destroyed it (and we will), but it won’t be Earth any more than a house is a home without you in it.

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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