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How sustainable is the public's current enthusiasm for sustainability? It's a fair question, since environmental fervor has swelled several times in recent decades, only to recede. This time, however, a permanent sea change does seem far more likely. The reason, one could argue, is at least partly linguistic.
It's undeniable that the current wave of environmental concern is driven by global warming and climate change?more specifically, two casually related buzz-phrases that have gained widespread acceptance. That's a pivot point in the dialogue on sustainability, especially as knowledge about weather patterns is so accessible today. When the weather goes wacky, it's now seen as a flag that something is wrong (think Hurricane Katrina, for example).
The sounding of this climate change alarm could significantly influence purchase behaviors believed to have environmental consequences, and food is certainly not immune; as consumers we vote with our mouths at least three times a day.
Supermarket operators can reduce their substantial carbon emissions in many ways, and many grocers are making such moves, often with a neutral or even beneficial financial effect. Case in point: A Loblaws store in Montreal uses warm exhaust from its refrigerators to heat the store in sub-zero temperatures, thereby cutting costs and reducing peak-period energy demands.
However, like the above example, many such environmentally friendly improvements lurk behind the scenes, and seem to offer no evident or direct benefit to consumers. Switching to high-efficiency bulbs to light your supermarket is laudable, but it's hardly cause for the PR department to sound the trumpets. As marketers, we're interested in initiatives that we can brag about.
The best bet for marketing traction is on environmental virtues that fulfill two essential criteria: visibility and taste.
Ecologically superior packaging can reduce consumption of resources and energy?and it can explain itself in the bargain. It can grab consumer attention, boost sales, and drive sustainable differentiation. This is well suited to private label, and can be propelled quickly to market, with accompanying fanfare.
That said, the mother lode in green marketing for retailers may be found in the phenomenon of local production. Consumers are convinced that it's better for the environment, and that it tastes better, too. True or not, it's nonetheless a golden formula.
White-tablecloth restaurants have pounced on this opportunity, but supermarkets are perhaps even better positioned to capitalize on it. Heavy sourcing of local, seasonal produce can allow large "Eat Local" displays of well-priced, flavorful food. Additionally, POP brochures can lead shoppers to other locally grown foods throughout the store.
The "Eat Local" opportunity would appear to leave mass-market manufactured foods on the sidelines. Not necessarily so! With the help of retailers, big food brands can tap into this phenomenon via consumer engagement and communications activities.
For example, a cooking brand's recipes can call for local produce, or sampling events can serve up a branded ice cream topped with seasonal fruits grown nearby. All it takes is some smart partnerships with food brands eager to exploit consumer demand.
Will consumers adopt a new food attitude?
Encouraged by the right marketing messages, consumers can significantly change their ingrained food habits. Ten years ago, veggie burgers were far from mainstream, until our firm launched Gardenburger into national retail, with a little help from the final episode of Seinfeld. The promotion created buzz, interest soared, and Gardenburger sales rose 400 percent the next year.
We also leveraged a real-life weight-loss testimonial to drive sales at Subway. At the time, fast and healthy food was an oxymoron?until the Jared phenomenon publicized Subway's low-fat menu. Record sales followed, and after 10 years, a still-slim Jared continues to drive consumer demand.
Similarly, enterprising retailers can find powerful ways to capture consumers' imaginations and forge strong bonds around concern for the environment, especially climate change.
No one knows for sure how far green marketing will take retailers, but odds are good that the marketplace will reward early adopters with gains in both revenue and reputation.