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It's still not easy selling green, experts say

Marketing experts say companies that deal in environmentally friendly products can’t expect most consumers to buy their products simply because it might help save the earth. The products also need to appeal in other ways. By's Allison Linn.

The Prius hybrid may be cool among Hollywood stars and the DVD of “An Inconvenient Truth” may be flying off shelves, but it’s still not so easy selling green.

Marketing experts say companies that deal in environmentally friendly products can’t expect most consumers to buy their products simply because they might help save the earth. To convince people to fork over their hard-earned cash for a funny-shaped bottle of detergent or unusual-looking light bulb, the products also need to appeal in other ways.

“It’s a very small niche market that’s interested in buying green,” said Edwin Stafford, associate professor of marketing at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. “Most consumers buy on consumer benefit.”

In other words, eco-friendliness may make consumers feel good — as long as it comes with other attributes, such as superior performance, cost effectiveness or health benefits, says Stafford, who has done extensive research on the topic.

In fact, companies that sell eco-friendly products sometimes have to do even more to convince the consumer it’s worth the investment — especially if the product requires a little more investment than its conventional counterpart.

It also can be tougher to convince consumers that eco-friendly products such as household cleaners work as well as the better-known brands.

“Sometimes when you present the environmental benefits, consumers have a perception that environmental products don’t perform,” said Cathy Hartman, a professor of marketing at Utah State University who also has researched the topic.

Even companies like Seventh Generation, which has been selling environmentally friendly cleaners and other products for 19 years, is realistic about how far eco-friendliness will take a company.

“I don’t think we would ever suggest that you can market on the green positioning alone,” said spokeswoman Chrystie Heimert. “The product needs to be efficacious — it needs to work.”

It also helps to tout other potential benefits, such as health and wellness. Heimert said sales of Seventh Generation products have grown rapidly over the past six years as consumers have become more interested in organic produce and other foods devoid of potential toxins.

It didn’t take long before the same consumers who were painstakingly picking out organic apples also began to realize they were cutting that piece of fruit on a countertop that had just been wiped down with a conventional cleaner that might contain toxins.

Heimert believes many of the company’s newest customers are first-time parents who are worried about the potential health effects of exposing their young children to conventional products.

“When you get your kid the organic baby food, it’s not such a leap to be looking then at diapers and wipes,” she said.

When Whirlpool Corp. is marketing products such as its Duet line of front-loading washing machines, the company isn’t shy about promoting the potential energy and water savings the products offer. Still, J.B. Hoyt, the company’s director of government relations, said customers may interpret that message quite differently.

“Some people will read that as, ‘Gee, I’m doing a good thing for the environment. Other people will read that as, 'Gee, I’ll save (myself) money,'” Hoyt said.

Others, he adds, may buy the machines because they are supposed to be gentler on clothes. Some may just they think the machines look stylish.

The Duet line does generally cost more up front than less-efficient washing machines, although the company says consumers can make up for that with energy savings.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has launched a major environmental initiative aimed at cutting its costs along with its environmental impacts, is running a series of ads focusing on eco-friendly consumer offerings such as compact fluorescent light bulbs and organic clothing. But the massive retailer also is seeking to reassure customers that it hasn’t lost sight of its major allure — cheap prices.

“Earth-friendly products won’t save the Earth if they don’t save people money,” the company proclaims in one ad.

Still, some marketing experts say there is merit to marketing products for their environmental attributes, especially since going green has become such a hot trend.

Rick Boyko, managing director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter and a former advertising executive, said he thinks more consumers are growing frustrated that government officials aren’t doing more to fight problems such as global warming.

That’s left consumers thinking more about what they can do to change things — and created an opportunity for companies that can market a message of self-empowerment and environmental benefit.

“I think the consumer is becoming ready to act at every level,” he said.

Still, Boyko said consumers aren’t likely to sacrifice quality or other attributes in the name of eco-friendliness.

“You’re not going to buy a bad product just because it’s going to be green,” he said. “Inherent in that, you have to have a product that makes sense and is good.”

Boyko admits that he, too, has been taken in by the eco-friendly message. Two weeks ago, he traded in his BMW for a hybrid Toyota Prius. Now, he’s starting to wonder whether he should buy a reusable cup for his Starbucks runs.

With three grown daughters and the hope for grandchildren down the road, the environmental impacts of his life had begun to loom large.

“You start to question everything you’re doing,” he said.