With the economic downturn, the green discussion seems to be somewhat muted. Not "Silent Spring"-like, but certainly palpable and, frankly, disturbing given the severity of global warming and other signs of environmental degradation. Similarly, just when so-called "green mail"—recycled envelopes, soy inks, green seals, environmental messaging, etc.—was building momentum, the economy tanked and seemingly took the green gang with it.
The questions are: Will green mail become a priority again, in marketers' minds and budgets? Will prospects respond in a different way in the future to green efforts? Will the association between direct mail and environmentalism become less paradoxical, or more?
The answers, of course, depend on who you ask. I spoke to many prominent folks in the direct marketing community, and I'd categorize their responses in the following ways.
Not a Big Deal, for Some Marketers or Prospects
For some, the fact that pro-environment practices among both marketers and prospects declined over the recent year says it all. "It's just not that important to people, important though it may be to the planet," says Bob Bly, copywriter.
Others simply interpret direct marketing's uneasy alliance with green initiatives having to do with the almighty dollar, regardless of how prospects behave. "In marketing, it never has made much difference. And I doubt it ever will," asserts Peggy Greenawalt, president/creative director of the direct marketing agency Tomarkin/Greenawalt. Incidentally, in contrast to Bly, she does see personal practices going greener.
It's the Right Thing to Do, Even If Green Has No Impact on Response
Concerns over whether or not green initiatives can be fit into a marketing budget or make sense for prospects can take a back seat to a company's commitment to be greener, however. "Marketers should 'go green' when doing so is a core value, that is, when they care about the environment for its own sake," states Steve Cuno, chairman of RESPONSE Agency. "They should not expect going green to be a general business-driver. Except, of course, when the target market happens to be ardently earth-friendly."
Mal Warwick, founder/chairman of fundraising agency Mal Warwick Associates, agrees wholeheartedly. There are simply bigger concerns than the bottom line, or perhaps consider the most important layer of the triple bottom line (people/planet/profit) to be the planet rather than profits. "It's time for us all to wake up to the fact that global warming is going to leave our planet uninhabitable by human beings. If we don't continue becoming greener, our children and grandchildren will suffer," he declares.
In fact, most marketers I spoke to brought up a similar sentiment: that continuing green practices was essential, but that the communication and comprehension of green has to improve. "I believe our industry needs to do a better job of communicating to the public that paper comes from renewable resources and can be recycled," mentions Gary Hennerberg, president of direct marketing agency The Hennerberg Group.
"I grew up on a farm so I have an appreciation for harvesting crops in the fall after planting them in the spring. It's really about the same with trees. They are planted and harvested, and replanted and harvested. And there are millions and millions of acres of land in the U.S. to harvest trees from. The Direct Marketing Association should be getting out this message because the planting and harvesting of trees as a crop, and paper recycling opportunities, isn't probably understood by most consumers," relates Hennerberg.
Makes Sense in Certain Demographics ... and for Certain Companies
Some believe the emphasis on "green" will do more to push targeting advances than production advances, at least for the immediate future—and that a profit can be made. "There are some market segments in which green messaging has far greater hold: automotive, architecture/construction, energy development, etc. These segments offer a significant return on that investment," says Bob Merrigan, president of direct marketing agency Merrigan & Co.
Green efforts will continue to be tested, "but their impact will be most assuredly segment-specific," agrees Grant Johnson, CEO of direct marketing agency Johnson Direct. "It will be a good tactic among niches but not as a whole, unless regulated as such." And clearly, at this point, there's unlikely to be any environmental regulation of direct mail anytime soon.
Rather, it's often about certain companies taking the green lead. One such company is Kiehl's, the skin care business. Janet Ecke-Beamer, production director at Story Worldwide, was the associate director of production services at Wunderman when Kiehl's was a client. She recalls a mailing "that was on recycled paper, with the logo, that was part of the look but also about them being conscious about going green."
Of course, certain prospect segments are just as likely to take the lead and say no to non-green efforts and companies with poor environmental records. For those folks, being green "is going to be a requirement to play in the game," believes Keith Goodman, VP of corporate solutions for Modern Postcard. "Instead of 'being green' being the differentiator, it will be actively shunning companies that are not."
For Most, the Future Remains Green
In conclusion, the environment appears to remain on the agenda for a large percentage of companies and prospects. Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer at direct marketing firm Wilde Agency, relates that some of her clients are asking about "green" right now. "I think as the economy recovers, green interest will remain strong," she predicts.
Pat Friesen, copywriter and owner of Pat Friesen & Co., concurs and says it really comes down to whether or not marketers are "ready to spend more on 'green' production ... to be green."
Meanwhile, the other question hinges on the prospects and their level of commitment. "Once the economy fully turns around, I believe the green messaging will return," says Merritt Engel, vice president of Merrigan & Co. "Yet, I'm uncertain, given the economy, whether the majority of consumers will be willing to pay more for companies who use green materials or offer green products."
In other words, we'll have to wait and see. It sounds like "going green" will come down to dollars and sense ... not one or the other.