Nov 16

Marketing for Environmentalists: Sell Benefits, Not Features

used-car-salesmanOne of my favorite blogs right now is Naomi Dunford’s Ittybiz.  She writes about ethical marketing for small businesses without marketing departments.  She also has a buzzed haircut and swears like a sailor.  Awesome.

Go ahead and take a second to ask yourself what the hell that has to do with Frugally Green and then I’ll continue.

OK, enough postulating. The answer, interestingly enough, is “everything.”

I’ll prove this by asking you a few questions:

  • Do you enjoy saving money and improving the environment?
  • Do you sometimes wish that other people enjoyed saving money and improving the environment, too?
  • Have you ever had someone ask you what this “green movement” is all about?

If you answered yes to those three questions then, whether you realize it or not,  you’ve had to market your frugally green lifestyle to someone else.  If you’ve ever stumbled over your words and left them with a puzzled look then, unfortunately, you’ve marketed poorly. But that’s okay, we can fix that.  I know you never wanted to be a marketer, but as long as you have to be one, you may as well be good at it, right? That’s right.

On the other hand, if you answered no to those questions, I’m not quite sure why you’re here.  Maybe you aren’t, either.  Hmm…awkward.  Feel free to stick around anyhow.

Anyway, I know a lot of us hanging out in the anti-consumerism camp have a strong distrust of marketers.  We think they’re constantly conspiring to find new, slimy ways to convince us to buy junk we don’t need. Well, yeah, a lot of them are.  But some of them aren’t.  Some of them find a deeper meaning in connecting people with ideas and products that will truly change their lives.  That’s the kind of marketer Naomi is and I know that’s the kind of marketer you want to be.

The other day, Naomi taught me about the difference between selling features and selling benefits.  As environmentalists, I think this is one of the most important lessons we can learn about getting and keeping others interested in the movement.


We care about our environment…a lot.  Sometimes we care about it more than we care about other people.  In fact, sometimes we create an adversarial relationship between our environment and other people because we’re so passionate about it.

That’s why, when people ask us why we “sort our garbage” (sometimes also called recycling), we answer with something like, “Because we’re running out of space in our landfills.”

That’s why, when someone wants to know why we ride our bike around town instead of driving, we retort with, “Because it emits less carbon dioxide into our suffocating atmosphere.”

That’s why we say, “Because it clears our mind of the consumerist culture,” when someone asks us why we don’t watch TV.

These are all examples of selling the features of environmentalism.


Technically, they’re all true, but the problem is that all these “other people” we’re trying to get our message out to don’t care about features.  They care about benefits.  Benefits are what they get out of making the changes we want them to make.  Benefits are more compelling to people than features because they can tangibly relate them to their personal life.

Ideas like landfill depletion, carbon emissions, and the consumerist culture are too psychologically far away, too disconnected from the every day goings-on of normal people.  They can’t relate to them in the way they can relate to the benefits they see when they make a change that affects these ideas.  Does that make sense?

So, the next time your neighbor asks you why you sort your trash, instead of going on about landfill depletion, kindly inform them that you call it “recycling” and doing it can save them a bunch of money each year on trash hauling that they can use for something else they care about.

When your co-worker wants to know why you would ride a bike instead of take a car to the grocery store, let him know it’s because it’s fun and the exercise you get saves you money on a gym membership.

If your sister wonders why you got rid of your TV, tell her it’s because you’ve found that it allows you to exercise your creative mind by finding new ways to spend your time and the money saved from the cable bill helps fund your new hobbies.

As backwards as it might sound, true environmentalism is about people before it’s about the environment because, well, what good is a clean, beautiful world without anyone to appreciate it?

What do you think? Is marketing an important part of our “job”? Are people more important than environment?


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Used car salesman image by bonkedproductions


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  1. Jackie

    I think marketing is an important part of any “job”, but it’s especially important for causes we are passionate about. It’s also good to stay on the marketing side of things and not slip over into heavy-duty wild-eyed evangelism, because people tend to dismiss that sort of thing. And I definitely agree with you about benefits, they are much more powerful than features.

  2. Michael Thomas

    Hi Jackie. Thanks for your input. You’re right about evangelism. I think it’s important to be able to gauge the interest of someone you’re trying to market your ideas to as well. If they’re naturally interested in what you have to say, then going a little over the top could be really encouraging to them, but if they’re just kicking the tires and trying to figure out if it’s something worth doing, then an over-the-top approach is likely going to turn them off.

    Matching the attitude/energy of your message with your intended recipient is the key, I think.

  3. Charles at Ethical Marketing

    Saving the environment means that your children and your children’s children, won’t need to pay to fix it. Fixing the world’s environment at the point where it is obvious to everyone that immediate repair is critical will prove to be VERY expensive. The only kind of marketing that can save the planet is ethical marketing.


  4. ConsciouslyFrugal

    Sadly, I have to admit that this is one of the reasons why I chose to sign up for the No Impact Project’s week-long experiment. Beaven said that his year-long adventure led to more happiness. Well, hell, that sounds good to me!

    But I’m also disturbed by how hyper-individualized our culture is and that everything must somehow be about YOU (AKA me). Have you noticed this in most all marketing and advertising these days? I want there to be a little more “us” in our discussions (like Charles up there) and reasoning for doing the right thing. Sometimes, there really are no personal benefits to doing the right thing. For me and the 100+ people living in my building, recycling doesn’t cut our disposal costs. I don’t receive any money for my recycling and it’s a pain in the ass to haul in. Yet, I do it anyway, because it ain’t just about me.

    Anyway, I don’t think all marketing mavens are evil, but I do think we need to stop and question conventional wisdom, even within the environmental movement. We often just adopt the tools of the dominant paradigm and those tools are frequently toxic. Yes, they’re based on psychology and prevalent behaviors, and that’s what scares me the most. Are we really so selfish that we must be provided benefits before we’ll change our behavior?

    (Dude, at some point I’m going to comment without bitching. I swear.)

  5. Michael Thomas

    Charles, thanks for commenting. Just like any other thing in life, preventative maintenance is always cheaper than emergency fixes.

    Aldra (#4), I think you just proved my point! Obviously, this post wasn’t optimized to market to your needs. It sounds like you do these things because it’s beneficial to others.

    Based on that, can I assume that you enjoy and feel good about doing things that help other people?

    Based on that assumption, a more effective marketing strategy for you might be to highlight how making these changes can help others.

    Sure, you’re doing it for “us” but you get something out of it, too.

    I think it’s human nature to be selfish. That’s not necessarily bad or good, it just is. It’s all in what causes we channel that selfishness into. It can be used to accomplish great things for mankind and ourselves.

    P.S. I’m happy to have you as my resident bitcher. It keeps my brain nimble. :)

  6. ConsciouslyFrugal

    Tyler, you know I can’t stand people. ha!

    I think you’re right in that the way we are (generally speaking) isn’t necessarily bad or good, it just is. After all, if we didn’t carry around some bit of selfishness, we likely wouldn’t still be here as a species. The ol’ give and take.

    That didn’t sound like complaining. Mark your calendars! It’s a first.

  7. Beth

    What an excellent post, Tyler. I, too, am a Naomi fan — her advice is spot on, in my experience — but I must admit, I hadn’t considered explaining (defending?) a green life as marketing. It really is, though. In a way, I do this on my blog. Most of my posts about taking steps towards a greener life are all about how people will save time and money if they do so, but I hadn’t really thought about it as benefits marketing. Great concept to apply to the “business” of living more sustainably.

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