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Question: Should businesses be responsible for promoting healthy lifestyles?

Joel Makower: I think it’s the responsibility of business to make products in a green way and make products that are perceived to be responsible both in terms of the products themselves and how the companies behind them operate.  Companies can only go so far in terms of getting people to eat well, or exercise, or not abuse their bodies in any number of different ways and not abuse the planet, as well.  But there’s a lot that companies can do.  Companies have a tremendous communications cloud.  And a lot of companies I talk to say, "Well, customers aren’t demanding that.  We’re not hearing that from the consumer."  Well, consumers buy lots of things they didn’t demand.  It’s things that we make available tot hem that we convince them that they want.  And so there’s an opportunity here to help promote a lifestyle that’s more environmentally responsible.  Probably healthier for families and communities as well. But they have to, as I said, be better products, or perceived to have some value beyond that. 

People want to change without changing.  When it comes to change, people love the noun, hate the verb.  Right?  So, it’s very hard for people to really, you know, want to make dramatic changes in their life unless they see some specific improvement for themselves. 

So the unfortunate part, but it is the reality, is that when it comes to "saving the planet" it’s really about, what’s in it for me?  Me first, and then the planet, so I’m not going to make the big change in my life.  I’m not going to switch brands, I’m not going to go out of my way; pretty much I’m not going to pay any more for the privilege of doing the right thing.  I have to get something out of that.  And maybe it’s just pride, it maybe that people just do that, maybe it’s a badge of honor, maybe it’s just self-satisfaction.  But in more cases than not, it has to be some financial or performance or other kind of benefit. 

So I think to the extent that companies can help us understand what those benefits are and can, in fact, design products and services that aren’t just greener, but better, there will be opportunities here. 

One of the other realities is that companies aren’t very good at storytelling around this stuff.  Companies are really good at storytelling in general, but when it comes to the environment, storytelling takes on a particularly important part of this. When you think about what we’re talking about here.  On one hand we’re talking about incredible complex, geeky, scientific, technical issues about which even the experts don’t always agree.  And on the other hand, we’re talking about our bodies and our families and our kids and our community and our future and our planet.  So, it’s head and heart.  Right?  And if you ever spent any time talking to anyone about this, you know, that if you go one millimeter too far in either direction you lose your audience.  You’re either too over-you-head, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  This is too complex for me. Or you’re too sort of California woo-woo around this and you lose your audience in either case. 

And so storytelling is how we integrate head and heart.  It’s how we take complex things and make them accessible, and companies haven’t done a very good job of doing that.  You know, there’s this line that’s just, you know... if I just say Kermit, you’ll know exactly what the line is.  "It’s not easy being green," is the song lyric that Kermit sang.  You know how long ago that was?  Forty-one years ago, in 1969.  It’s older than Earth Day.  And that still represent the state of the art of green marketing. 

I get press releases every day, come-ons, pitches, advertising slicks, all kinds of things from copywriters, advertising agencies, PR firms, and the like.  And I know that the person... they contain that Kermit line and some version of it, "It isn’t that easy"—and I know the copywriter that wrote that thinks the she or he is the most clever person for having come up with that.  And the fact is, it’s tired, it’s hackneyed, and it’s not even true.  It’s not that easy being green.  It actually takes some work.  So we need to find better ways to communicate and tell those stories.

Question:
What’s a better way to tell these stories?

Joel Makower: You know, in the 1990's, during the dot-com boom of the late '90s, there was this, this axiom that "content is king."  That those companies that had content would be the ones that ruled the universe in the new connected digital internet world.  And a lot of those companies, most of them went away.  And it turns out that it wasn’t content that was king, it was context.  Context is king.  And if you look at the companies that survived, the eBays and Googles and Yahoos, and others, those are the ones that... Craig’s List, and those are the firms that made sense in all that massive information out there that give it some kind of context.  Some ability to organize and find things and have things elevate to... things that are the most important of all and relative to your interests or relative to your friends.  And so context is what's missing here in terms of company storytelling.  They want to know that something is good or better for the environment.  They want to know the context.  Because if you say this is green and don’t know if you should buy it, well how green, or is it really green, or how is it... is it the only issue that product as.  Is the company trying to say you're green as a result of that? 

So I think people want to know that you understand as a company, what your environmental issues are.  They want to know that you know your problems, that you’ve done your homework.  And then they want to know that you’re on the case; that you’re doing something about that, that you’ve got some plan and some kind of commitment. And that you have some... and that you’re talking about this openly and authentically and not just waving your arms and quoting Kermit and saying, hey aren't we green.  But actually putting it into context and giving it some, some sense of this is what we’re doing right now, but this is part of a journey that we’re on.  This is a part of a long-term proposition.  We’re not claiming that by doing this that we’re a green company. 

I think that people who... the companies that can demonstrate that they understand their problems from an environmental perspective, have a plan in place to do something about it—even if it’s long-term and imperfect and never gets them to be perfectly good, which no company really ever will be—and are talking about that openly and authentically will be in... will have laid a foundation for being able to make specific environmental claims and put out environmental products and talk about environmental issues in a credible way and even to innovate and fail and still land on their feet and not be charged as green washers, or as phonies, or just ignored.  And I think that companies don’t lay that foundation, they don’t create that context that the need in order to make that specific environmental claims. 

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

 

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