Save a Dollar or Save the World?

August 1, 2007
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Save a Dollar or Save the World?
BY BRIAN ERDMAN

My embarrassing oddities, global inequity, and an emerging trend— a story of opportunity for your brand.
I can’t sleep on planes; i have a tremendous fear of flying, which tortures me on every trip. It’s very irrational, I know. And I’m trying to overcome this anxiety. But that was no consolation to the nice gentleman seated next to me recently in 11a whose knee I grabbed for comfort when we encountered what most of you would consider normal turbulence. (Sorry again, sir, wherever you are.)
So while my fellow frequent fliers are able to enjoy a little R&R with ease, I am left to find other ways to occupy my time. How do I cope during my cross-country jaunts? Lots of reading.
Like clockwork, I load up on reading material before I depart for a big client visit. On the first leg of my trip, I usually immerse myself in thought and preparation for the business task at hand. Once prepared, time permitting, I pull out Magazine No. 1, your typical business genre— Brandweek, Fortune, Fast Company and the like—to occupy myself until we land.
Fast forward to the return trip. At this point, I’m typically mentally and physically spent after a (hopefully) successful client meeting. And here is where I take part in a ritual that I hesitate to admit. My embarrassing secret? I am a “celebrity” junkie. I admit it. I Tivo Access Hollywood. Enough said.
On this leg of my trip, I look for pure enjoyment—the more mindless the better. And I proceed to pull out Magazine No. 2—always People magazine—to fulfill my addiction. (For those extra-long flights, I might throw in an Us Weekly for good measure.)
A frequent consumer of this “enlightening” material, I open the cover, anticipating how Brad and Angelina might be saving the world this week: Another adoption. Rebuilding New Orleans. United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.
Why do they do it? Well, they obviously have the means and surely feel compelled to “give back”. In some ways, it probably even lets them sleep better at night (in their mansion of choice). But for me, it’s become so routine to read about this, so common to hear of their—and the rest of Hollywood’s—charitable endeavors that, sadly, I am a bit used to it, a bit numb. Oh look … Oprah has opened a school in South Africa. Well that’s nice. 
It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
I think the same thing is happening in the world of consumer products. Remember when the buzz first started about being green? And when organic was a “movement”? Save the planet. Stop poisoning your bodies. Let cows and chickens roam freely. There was a time when these were emerging ideologies, when consumers were hearing something mind- and heart-opening, when they realized they could vote to save the planet with their product purchases.
Forget that organics and green products cost more. Do you want to save a dollar or save the planet? More and more people feel compelled to choose the latter. (Do you really think that guy roaring, er, humming down the highway in his hybrid Prius has really calculated how many years of federal tax credits are needed for a positive ROI? Of course not. He’s too busy for that. He’s out changing the world.)
And now? Well, people get it (and increasingly so)—they understand that we are consuming the earth in unsustainable ways. And, yes, each day brings greater awareness that in our rush to leverage science and technology to drive productivity, we’re employing more and more questionable methods without fully understanding the long-term effects.
So as a result, and by definition of the word, we are still on the upward trend of consumers adopting green and organic products. But my point is—is it really new to us anymore?
I think we are actually becoming a bit numb to its message. So your brand can contribute to a better environment? It’s got no growth hormones? Well that’s nice. 
When organic foods are a $21 billion industry, and the planet’s number one retailer has a stake in the ground on sustainability, we’re no longer talking about trends. It’s mainstream. That’s just the way it is. Green and organic are trending toward being expectations. If you’re not green, you are simply going to lose out.
So what’s next? Well, we’re on the cusp of the next big step in goodwill. We’re moving beyond helping the environment to helping our fellow man in the far reaches of the planet. The idea of cause marketing is not new. But we’re now seeing a more direct and compelling link between consumer behavior and a bettering of humanity, which has spawned the likes of conflict-free diamonds and textiles certificably made using adult labor.
And CPG marketers are taking notice. It won’t be long before it will be common practice for you to be able to spend a little extra at your local grocery store to give a better life to someone a hemisphere away. It’s already all over the coffee category—with Starbucks, Green Mountain and others all offering fair trade products. Ethical claims, coming to every grocery aisle near you.
Is this an opportunity for your brand? Well, let’s put it this way. If you think green is big and saving the seals in Antarctica is important to consumers, wait until people realize they can save humanity. Talk about mind and heart opening.
Give your consumers a more direct way to touch human lives, and they will go with you. They will open their wallets and chose to save a life over a dollar. And in the end, it will help us all sleep better at night (that is, unless you’re me, stuck on a plane).
Brian Erdman is a brand consultant at laga, a design and innovation firm with offices in Cincinnati, New York and Chicago. He can be reached at 513.961.6225 or berdman@laga.com .

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