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Green products can win the retail battle

How green products can win the battle

on the retail shelf

Soon, we will live in a world where Walmart lists a product's environmental "score" next to its price on the shelf ... where consumers will scan bar codes with their smart phones and learn exactly how green a product - and the company that makes it - really is.Until then, it's up to manufacturers to tell their environmental story, and the best place to do that is right on the product label.

Our ongoing consumer research (the Shelton Group conducts four national surveys plus numerous focus groups every year) shows the No. 1 way people decide if a product is green is by looking at the packaging and reading the label. Recently, we tested real-world packages as well as some mocked-up versions to understand what works best. Here are some key takeaways:

1. Put the most important information on the front of the package. Sounds obvious, right? Yet as our focus groups began examining the products we supplied, it seemed clear that many manufacturers aren't choosing the most important claims for their precious front label space. Often, the detail participants wanted (specific features such as "no ammonia") was buried on the back, while front call-outs were discounted as less important.

2. Be as specific as possible. "100 percent natural" tested better than "all natural," while "100 percent recycled content" was superior to "65 percent recycled content." But if the messaging doesn't address basic functional needs for the product category ("cleans even the toughest soap scum!"), it may still not be effective.

3.  You'll win brownie points with recycling claims, but not in every product category. Participants generally embraced the idea of recycling, but many weren't completely convinced they'd like things made out of recycled content. They embraced packaging made out of recycled plastic, but many were skeptical that clothing made from recycled fibers would be comfortable, and a few expressed doubt regarding the quality of paper towels made from 100 percent recycled paper.

4. Abandon all the jargon - it's confusing. Don't assume consumers understand industry terms such as"No GMOs" or "Low VOCs." These terms were meaningless to most participants and a waste of valuable space on a label. A description commonly used by manufacturers, "produced with renewable energy" (which few participants could define correctly) tested very poorly, whereas "produced with solar energy" (a readily-understandable phrase) was particularly attractive.

5.  Certifications don't buy you as much as you might think. Few respondents cited a product's certification as a top reason for choosing one product over another. Only one focus-group participant commented on the Sierra Club endorsement for Clorox Green Works® cleaner and only two noted the Good Housekeeping seal on Scrubbing Bubbles® cleaner.

6.  Colors matter. The color and consistency of products impacts perceptions of "greenness." In both the detergent category and the all-purpose cleaner category, the majority of participants associated a clear, or colorless, product with being "more natural."

Of course, none of this matters if you don't have a good environmental story to tell. Consumers will eventually figure out the truth, and one day they won't have to go any farther than the store shelf to know for sure.

Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising agency located in Knoxville, TN, focused exclusively on motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices.

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