Walmart founder Sam Walton once said businesses should focus on what customers want and then deliver it. It may sound obvious, but when it comes to eco-friendly consumer goods, it’s taken marketers a while to figure it out.

Go back a few years to the unveiling of the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric sedan that sold for $35,000 and sported a range of just 100 miles. The car was neither powerful nor roomy nor sexy, but it had one distinct advantage — it generated no emissions. Nissan harped on this fact.

In a 2010 commercial for the Nissan Leaf, a polar bear flees the melting Arctic and travels south to civilization. He discovers roads and cities and growls at a couple of trucks. Eventually, he comes upon a Nissan Leaf parked in the driveway of suburban home. Overcome with gratitude, he hugs the owner.

You don’t need to be Don Draper to see why the ad was a flop.

“It’s horrible,” said Ed Stafford, a professor of marketing at Utah State University. “People were like, ‘I buy a car to save polar bears?’ No, I buy a car to get me from point A to point B.”

For decades, companies marketed green products based on their environmental benefits. “If you walked into a health foods store in 1990, it would look like the same dusty place as it did in 1970, with the same Birkenstock crowd and the laundry detergents with the planets on them on the bottom shelf gathering dust,” said marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman.

Planet laundry detergent. Source: Planet Inc.

This strategy appealed to a small subset of consumers, but alienated many of the rest. That’s what happened with the Nissan Leaf. “They went after the wrong target audience,” Stafford said. “If you focus just on, ‘Hey, this product is green,’ you’re going to miss 95 percent of customers.”

Making matters worse, underlining the ecological benefits of a product can actually turn away people who don’t identify as environmentalists — namely men and political conservatives. A 2016 study found that men were less likely to buy green products when they felt their masculinity was threatened. A 2013 study found that political conservatives were less likely to purchase an energy-efficient lightbulb when it was advertised as being good for the environment.

“We start off with well-meaning, non-monetized environmental things and everybody’s good-intentioned, and we’re saving the planet. And then we find out that there are a lot of people who do not want to wear the green badge,” said Ottman.

This package emphasizes the environmental benefits of compact florescent lightbulbs. Source: Feit Electric

That’s not the only challenge to marketing eco-friendly goods. A recent study found that many consumers — particularly those who don’t care about the environment — doubt the quality of green products. Even among eco-conscious consumers, price can be a deterrent. Environmentally friendly products often cost more, meaning buyers pay a premium to go green.

In a 2006 paper, Stafford warned against “green marketing myopia” — the tendency of companies to emphasize environmental impact over customer satisfaction. Like other marketing experts, Stafford argued that firms need to highlight convenience, efficiency, safety, performance and social status. “If it’s going make an impact on the world, you’ve got to make your product mainstream,” said Stafford. “I don’t buy carpet cleaner to save the planet. I buy carpet cleaner to clean my carpet.”

Some companies have taken the hint, giving up green-tinted marketing tactics to focus on quality. “I would say that I have seen more and more ads focused on consumer benefits,” said Stafford. Advertisers now say that LED lightbulbs save you money. Natural cleaners are better for your health. And, organic fruits and vegetables taste better. Look at how Whole Foods markets itself.

Excerpts from advertisements for Whole Foods Market. Source: Whole Foods Market

“What the organic produce people figured out is that if they positioned it as ‘the new gourmet,’ the old yuppies will come down and pay more and put the gourmet food on their table and show off and feel like they’re doing something better for their families and themselves,” said Ottman.

Perhaps the best illustration of this shift comes from the Energy Star program, which awards a seal of approval to energy-efficient consumer goods. Its slogan has changed over the years, reflecting shifting approaches to marketing. Early on, it read “EPA Pollution Preventer.” Then it was “Saving The Earth. Saving Your Money.” It was later updated to “Money Isn’t All You’re Saving.” The last slogan is careful not to alienate consumers who don’t identify as environmentalists.

Energy Star logos. Source: Energy Star

The Texas State Department of Highways and Public Transportation figured this out decades ago. In the late 1980s, officials determined that was primarily young men who were trashing Texas highways. So, they identified the values of this group, which include strength, honor and loyalty, and they devised a slogan that emphasized those values: “Don’t Mess With Texas.” By all appearances, it worked. Between 1986 and 1990, highway litter dropped 72 percent.

You can test this approach to marketing yourself. How do you feel when you read the words “recycled toilet paper” or “eco-friendly laundry detergent”? How about when you read the word “Tesla”? Does it send electricity up your spine?

Tesla could market its flagship product much like the Nissan Leaf, as a green ride for eco-conscious consumers. But it isn’t. It’s selling a status symbol. The Tesla Model S is as a plaything for high-earning car geeks. “Their innovators were basically race car enthusiasts,” said Stafford, “and so they emphasized the electric vehicle’s performance.” They focused on customers “who could appreciate the speed and the performance that a Tesla could deliver.”

Tesla Model S. Source: Tesla

Famously, Tesla doesn’t doesn’t invest in TV ads or spreads in glossy magazines. But, it recently held a video contest, soliciting homemade commercials from Tesla devotees. The idea came from a 10-year-old who enjoyed watching fan-made commercials online, like the one below, which Elon Musk said he loved.

This video gets at the ethos of the company. Filmmakers draw a contrast between the past and the future. People wandering across a desert landscape littered with oil rigs set down their petrol cans and march toward a chic, white Tesla. They get in, escape their dreary black-and-white world and drive into a technicolor future.

Tesla’s tactics have worked. The Model S is the best-selling luxury sedan in America, and the company has received half a million preorders for its soon-to-be released Model 3. Consumers are willing to shell out for speed, safety, fuel savings and status.

“Electric is more expensive, so they figured out if you want to sell it, you have to sell it to people with money in their pocket on the grounds that they want to buy one,” said Ottman. For her, the lesson is clear: “Find the consumer benefit behind the environmental feature. Push that.”


Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.