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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

The New Green Marketing
Quick serves must figure out the right way to market their green efforts in the wake of greenwashing.

Given that greenwashing claims pour water on the flickering flame of eco-marketing, one might ask whether this so-called green movement is just another marketing fad. Funny, that’s just what people used to say about the healthy eating trend more than two decades ago!

The fact is that interest in eco-minded businesses is only going to continue to grow, experts say, and restaurants simply need to continue tapping into the right ways to address and spotlight their practices to gain customer favor and avoid criticism.

Targeting and Timing

Green messaging has to be tailored to the right audience at the right time. Greg Menken, vice president and director of sustainability at Beckerman Public Relations, acknowledges that so far, it is mainly “influencers,” such as environmentalists and CEOs, who have voiced the most interest in eco-friendly practices, while the awareness level among consumers is relatively low. According to him, it is still about “knowing what the customer wants. If you figure your customer base is not interested in green, then clearly you’re wasting dollars.” But, he warns, even though a restaurant’s direct customer base might not yet be interested in green stories, “there might be other audiences to appeal to, such as getting government on your side.”

In terms of timing, Jeff Jensen, CEO of Vesta Green Marketing Solutions, advocates moving ahead with green initiatives now instead of waiting for greenwashing waves to subside. “You have a choice today as to how responsible your behavior is, but this trend is only going to continue to be magnified over time,” he says. “So you can wait until the consumer hits you over the head, or you can get out in front of it.”

This group happens to be not only the most heavy users of quick-serve restaurants, but also the core demographic for the green movement, says Bill Roth, a green business coach and author of The Secret Green Sauce.

“The Millennial generation born between 1982 and 2001 sees this as their future,” he says. “They’re communal decision makers. They come together and decide whether they’re going to this or that restaurant. They define things as ‘cool’—organic, wellness, or no toxicity in materials.”

Messaging and Medium

The good news is that no one is expected to turn green overnight, but brands are expected to be truthful about their progress.

“Restaurants should be honest about the extent to which they’re green. It’s OK to say you’re taking steps and not where you want to be,” Roth says. “This is much more credible and believable to a customer. British Petroleum’s tagline is, ‘It’s a start.’ In the past, BP would say, ‘We’re investing, we’re the greatest.’ Now they admit they’re not perfect, so they’re working around the greenwashing problem.”

Roth’s “secret green sauce” recipe to help avert the skeptical activist is to “prove it conclusively.” He cites the Green Restaurant Association, which is a third-party endorser of legitimate green practices by restaurants that has been around for 15 years but only recently gotten the industry’s attention.

“I’m enthusiastic about their methodology because it’s about progress: It’s easy to enter, but to maintain affiliation you have to get progressively better every year,” he says.

In terms of getting the word out, social-media vehicles seem to be the method of choice among the experts I spoke with. Menken says that since it is only the activists and business people who have been getting the word out about green practices, “quick serves need to reinvigorate their messaging by going directly to the consumer. In the consumer space and the restaurant industry, these companies need to directly engage customers through blogs, online, and Twitter. Skip the influencer and go peer to peer.”

Restaurants should be honest about the extent to which they’re green. It’s okay to say you’re taking steps and not where you want to be.

Roth agrees. “It’s a new paradigm,” he says. “With the development of social media, companies who are effectively communicating green practices are engaging their customers through this medium.

“Engage your own consumer as if you, the entrepreneur, are involved. It’s a communal premise—it’s not advertising.”

Benchmarks and Basics

That premise is exactly what seems to have helped Amanda West launch her restaurant, Amanda’s, in Berkeley, California, in 2008 that serves “quick-service foods that are better for both customers and the environment.” West’s background as a blogger on healthy and enviro-friendly living gave her the perfect forum, and credibility, for attracting dozens of local media, including television, restaurant guides, eco-publications, and other grassroots endorsements to create buzz about her store and attract patrons.

“I started out doing monthly e-mail newsletters to anyone I met,” West says, including to a local news reporter she met at a city council meeting who became Amanda’s first TV interview. “Networking is really effective. I met a woman at a Chamber of Commerce meeting who does East Bay green tours. We’re the first stop of the tour.”

West says she also donates a lot to community organizations involved with health and the environment, including the local public radio station. “A lot of people say they heard about us from that,” she says.

In some ways, small-scale operators like West may have an advantage in the green marketing trend. For example, a large company can promote its groundbreaking sustainability program on a national level, but still miss the local piece that consumers experience.

No matter the size of the quick serve, West’s advice is that “it is important to be authentic when you’re marketing. People appreciate our Google spreadsheet we embedded in our Web site that says what we’re doing well and what could do better. That’s really transparent. If you say you’re doing something well, why not say what you’d like to do better?”

Sure, it’s a new green frontier. But Jensen assures quick serves that there are many companies that have been able to effectively spread the word about their legitimate green efforts since the movement began. “[They’ve] enabled marketers to get the message across to consumers who are most active or interested in green practices. The consumers who are most likely to be endeared to a brand for sustainability efforts will recognize legitimate efforts.”

Christopher Wolf is QSRís marketing columnist, reporting on industry trends in branding, advertising, and social media marketing.