My wife and I just returned from a short eco-cation in West Asheville, North Carolina. Our bike-only weekend was spent perusing the charming communities littered with box gardens, free-range chickens and Subarus. The first two were to be expected, but the latter got me thinking. Where are all the hybrids and plug-ins? Why are all these earth-loving, neo-hippies driving gas-powered cars built by a company that as of now still does not offer a hybrid? (One is on the way in 2014, we are told.)
Back at home, I began to investigate this puzzle. While other manufacturers have been blaring their green trumpets, Subaru has remained relatively quiet about their eco resume. How have they managed to establish a foothold among earth-conscious buyers? It did not take a lot of Googling to see that this question was not unique to me. There are other articles out there trying to explain the phenomenon.
One explanation is that Subaru has smart messaging. This is certainly true. They’ve spent less time saying “we’re green,” more time saying “we get you.” Subaru understands that people value the planet not simply because it exists, but because they have an ability to engage it. Subaru positions itself as the car that can help people do that. This idea that the best way to connect with green consumers is not to appeal to their greenness, but rather to dig deeper and appeal to the core values that make them green, is not a new one. Shelton Group has been promoting the concept for some time, and there are certainly lessons to learn from how adeptly Subaru has applied it. But I think we underestimate these consumers if we leave it at that.
What Subaru has done goes deeper. While other companies have been focusing on their vehicles, Subaru has been focusing on how theirs are produced. Subaru has approached sustainability with a ground up philosophy versus an end product focus. Only part of a car’s environmental impact comes after manufacture. A significant percentage comes before. Subaru understands this. They were the first automaker to have a plant receive “zero waste to landfill” status, and the company has multiple innovations that have made it an industry model for sustainable operations.
So, in short, as sustainability marketers we do need to keep in mind that there is more to green marketing than simply clever green messaging. You have to dig deeper than the sustainable behaviors and connect with the values that make people sustainably minded in the first place. Fundamentally, however, even this has its limits. Subaru’s success is not simply based on a slick ad campaign. It’s based on a company-wide sustainability initiative. If you want to replicate the success of their marketing efforts, you most likely will need to replicate their corporate commitment as well.