Green products and services have firmly taken hold in the marketplace. Indeed, the green industry has exploded into a multi-billion dollar phenomenon. As a result, brand owners are struggling with best practices to effectively market their environmentally-friendly products and services, and consumers are burdened with the daunting task of understanding the message associated with green brands, while attempting to decipher varying claims of environmental friendliness. When developing environmentally-friendly branding programs and evaluating strategies for creating new trademarks, brand owners should be mindful of a few practical tips.
Brand owners must beware of the increasing phenomenon of “green gridlock” or “green fatigue” that is beginning to plague the green products industry. The abundance of green claims accompanying products can actually exhaust consumers such that they no longer pay attention to environmental claims. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly important for a brand owner to catch the attention of consumers, especially through creative trademarks and branding strategies.
Overall, there is a tendency for brand owners to adhere to highly descriptive words when naming products or attempting to distinguish services. The result is that there are a multitude of product names, slogans or other indicia that are virtually non-distinguishable. As with any trademark, brand owners should strive to select trademarks that are unique and arbitrary, which provide for easier registration and stronger brand identification compared to merely descriptive marks that may not even qualify for the primary trademark register. For example, the very successful Toyota Prius® trademark does not, on its face, reveal to the consumer that it is a “green” brand. Only through Toyota’s advertising campaign has the mark become associated in the minds of consumers with Toyota’s hybrid car.
After selecting an effective trademark, i.e., one that is not generic or too descriptive to be registered upon initial application, brand owners must next decide how to introduce the product to consumers. Brand owners should avoid initially touting the green benefits of a particular product or service, and instead, highlight other benefits to the consumer, such as saving money, health benefits, or the reasons why the particular product works better than others. For instance, rather than highlighting the benefits of energy efficiency of a light bulb, a brand owner might consider stressing the cost-savings associated with the product as a result of the energy efficiency. Once a benefit is established, the next step is to educate the consumer on how the product or process at issue is environmentally friendly.
In connection with the marketing of a green product or service, a brand owner might be tempted to make “green claims” about their products or services that can be misleading to the consumer, such as claims that overemphasize energy efficiency benefits without sufficient facts to demonstrate the claims being made. In particular, green claims most frequently arise in the toy, baby product, cosmetic, and cleaning product industries.
In order to promote truthful advertising, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has established some rules related to environmentally-friendly labeling. The FTC has published guidance that cautions against environmental claims that are overly vague or subjective.2 Notably, a brand owner may be tempted to use the terms “natural,” “organic,” or “eco-friendly” in connection with developing the brand identity of a particular product or process. But assertions that certain products contain “natural” ingredients have been criticized as being misleading because even harmful elements can be “natural.” To avoid allegations of vagueness, brand owners should be specific about the advertised benefits of the product.
Another potential pitfall related to “vagueness” is the claim that certain products are made from recycled material. Unless a product contains 100 percent recycled material, the brand owner must specify exactly how much of the product is recycled material.
Genuinely “green” products tend to excel in today’s marketplace. Brand owners can most effectively build brand equity and loyalty in their “green” products by: (1) following the basic rules for selecting trademarks; (2) establishing a branding plan that focuses on how the particular product will benefit the consumer before empowering the consumer with the idea that they can make a difference by using a particular product; and (3) disseminating specific, detailed and truthful information about the product.