The Green Marketing Act

Paco Underhill

You got rid of the landline six years ago because two-thirds of your calls were from telemarketers.  Then you ditched your cable service wondering why you were paying so much for so little.  Your digital aerial pulls in more than few channels for nothing.  Now you watch stuff on your Tablet and laptop more and more.  And when the price of a New York Times went up to $2.50, you decided to read news on-line from a wider variety of sources, and like it decidedly better.

Today, you live a new kind of life than you did ten years ago. You have several e-mail addresses so that you can filter the spam. The snail mail is more than ninety percent junk so you’ve even stopped opening it; the envelope gets a glance and mostly gets chucked.  When you drive, it’s commercial-free Satellite Radio since traditional ads, with their crazy voices and incoherent offerings, make you crazy.  You loved Marc Gobé’s film This Space Available downgrading billboards, and outdoor media in general, to visual pollutant status.  Houston, of all cities, is leading the way to limit commercial signage pollution; or is it the ghost of Lady Bird Johnson?   You take pleasure in buying the store’s house brand, not because you have to, but because the ‘superiority’ of branded products is something you seriously question.   You suspect like many people that the branded and unbranded products are made in the same factory and may be just getting different labels and price points.  You and your family watch commercials at the Super Bowl and Oscars for the entertainment value and once in a while on YouTube; the rest of the time you tune them out.

Madison Avenue and our 21st Century marketing engines have recognized that many of their 20th century tools are outdated and in need of re-invention.  We are finding ways to tune advertising out.  The traditional ad-supported content model is broken.  Media advertising as we know it is fading just as advertising and promotions at the point of sale either in physical stores or in cyberspace has increased.  In-store or online, it’s harder to tune stuff out and thus we can’t go shopping without being bombarded with messaging.

Yet some of it is just clumsy.  I bought an engagement ring over the web, and for six months afterwards every time I went on-line I was being offered another one.  Somebody’s algorithm did not have the right filter, recognizing one-in-a-lifetime, rather than repeat, purchases; or perhaps it thought I lived in Utah and was part of a polygamist church.  And today I searched for a hotel in a Baltimore suburb on one site, only to have the lead hotel turn up on my Facebook feed ten minutes later.  Amazing.

Sometime, when we’re shopping, we don’t mind; we’re looking to be sold to and we are game for new products and services.  So it’s no surprise that the in-store and below-the-line advertising worlds are thriving.  It went from the premise that ‘if three signs work, then twenty seven signs will work better!’ overkill, to today’s more focused and intelligent treatment on the information architecture of both bricks-and-mortar as well as on-line.  The right information, at the right moment, with the appropriate message, can mean the difference between a sale and a walkout (or a click-out).

Still, the world of below the line is still struggling with its heritage. The long-term business model of below the line meant that you gave away the creative to get the order.  Since the Point of Purchase (PoP) industry was historically rooted in the sin industries (read: alcohol and tobacco), many of the deals were subject to negotiation on the golf course.  As PoP has grown, the faint smell of corruption has been hard to get rid of.   The industry is very different today than it was even five years ago.  It wants and deserves a place at the broader marketing table.  That place however is earned not just through sales, but a recognition that coming to that table with consumer insights brings with it influence and legitimization.  Historically PoP saw research as a sales tool rather than an intelligence builder.

How do we prove in-store or on-line marketing works?  It is the billion-dollar question for the commercial research industry.   The premise that someone looks at a sign or passes a display, and then buys because of that display, is impossible to prove.  Two decades ago, the sad truth was that a third of displays shipped to a store never made it out to the floor.  Modern corporate guidelines and compliance systems, not to mention the ongoing presence of mystery shoppers, now help to enforce that process, but the realities of the in-store experience keep retail and brand executives up at night.

One simple question we need to ask is, what is the difference between Shoppers and Consumers?  Or more pointedly, who buys stuff and who consumes stuff? The answer can be surprising. Years ago we ran a test for Super Bowl promotions in-store and found that two-thirds of those shopping for Super Bowl Parties were female, and didn’t know the celebrity athlete typically featured on various salty snack packages.  Companies were spending millions for recognizable faces that the real shoppers didn’t recognize. In-store, the most personal and unavoidable of merchandising opportunities seems to ride on the coattails of print and broadcast media, which makes no sense at all.

As money gets taken out of print and broadcast and put into in-store, event and on-line, the CPG companies are looking for proof that it “works”.  We already know that traditional tools used in sales and media research don’t work; you can’t interview people about what they see or don’t see since much of that information is subliminally recorded and thus cannot be reported.  In-store and on-line advertising can build the familiarity with brands, and predilection to purchase, which might mean next week, next month or next year.

We are at the tail end of our fascination with technology at the point of purchase.  The first romance was with flat screens, which was built on the failed assumption that shoppers view TVs in-store the same way we do at home.  Our findings were that, while a moving flat-screen image would attract twice the number of eyeballs as a static sign, it held that “look” for an identical amount of time.  The worst and most common mistake was loading an in-store flat screen with the 30-second television commercial.  It became visual and often auditory pollution.  We have an amusing interview on tape of a shopper market cashier telling us she paid a bag boy to sabotage a flat screen display near her register with a proximity sensor that turned on it’s audio track.  Hearing the same ad all day long was driving her crazy.

Where a flat screen works is in a special, specific place: where people wait for prescribed amounts of time.  Getting a prescription filled at a drug store, waiting for sandwich at a deli, or waiting in line at a bank.  The key understanding is that much of that viewing time happens after the order is made, not before, so that the focus of the message should be on future consumption, not immediate. We are able to track and understand the efficacy of this, down to the precision of how long the loop should be and exactly what content shoppers want to view.

The second tech fascination has been with the kiosk.  I saw one the other day in the liquor section of a hypermarket, which matched cocktails and wine to occasions and meals.  It’s a good idea, but with a major flaw hard to overcome: the amount of information the user had to input before they got useful output.  The abandonment rate for American in-store kiosks is very high already, and this simple but painful reality rendered the kiosk a colorful commercial sculpture.  Further, in America we are most likely to have the bored, mischievous nine-year-old in tow that likes nothing better than reordering shelves and turning kiosks into jungle gyms, so a kiosk that doesn’t work becomes a liability.

A lot of people are asking: What is the future of in-store technology? And the surprising truth is, it’s not in-store at all, but in your pocket. Surfing the web and downloading material to our smart phones is voluntary, done recreationally. We find ourselves looking at our phones more often than we care to admit; we shop and buy on our phones for both fun and purpose. It’s the future of shopping.

In 2016, cardboard displays and packaging whose design is based on the premise that it has to stand out at the point of sale are seen as incredibly wasteful. What holds us back from formally articulating the need to reduce waste in our landfills, and preserve natural resources, via technology?   Our Green Future lobbyists suggest Germany or Canada leads that effort.  It might take five years, but more realistically ten; let’s call it the Ottawa Green Marketing Act of 2026.  This act will call for digital marketing, rather than wasting precious resources on an all too regular basis.

Messaging historically placed on a package must then be in bytes and not in cardboard. Goodbye, plastic and cardboard; hello, efficiency and large-scale cost-cutting.   Even better, messages don’t have to be standstill.  They can include words, pictures, messages and videos, and can change by day part.  Menus, product content, instructions, and even expiration dates get passed on to your personal product manager, which can send text messages and can be sent to the screens of your choice.  Our supermarkets get quieter, both in audio and visual realms, and our POP and POS engines leave their analog roots behind and step off into yet another Brave New World.   The future costs less, works better for brands and stores, and is a lot more personal.   Maybe too personal for some people, but let’s get there and find out.