Summer School Spotlight: Case Studies in Green Marketing

Release Date: 5/31/2012

Summer school classes are a great way to pick up some extra credit hours, and they often focus on topics that might not be offered at any other time. The classes cover in 3 to 6 weeks what would take 16 weeks during the regular semester. In this series, we'll take a look at some of the courses offered during the 2012 summer terms. This installment of Summer School Spotlight focuses on MKT 4783 - Case Studies in Green Marketing.

Green Marketing course explores business and the environment

Over the past decade, issues relating to sustainability and the environment have become an increasingly important part of the public agenda. For businesses, this means the marketing paradigm has shifted - many business leaders have come to believe that they can no longer afford to ignore the impact they have on the environment, or the public perception of that impact.

While this "green economy" brings new opportunities for these companies, a key factor in their success may well be how they adapt their marketing strategies. NaLisa Brown's class, Case Studies in Green Marketing, was created to give students a competitive edge in the business world by helping them understand the issues dealing with green marketing, and to make them aware of the environmental aspects of doing business.

"Most students this age are already aware of the environment and all the other issues but they don't see it from a business standpoint," Brown said. "I know it's called green marketing, but we really focus on green business, because it's all intertwined." In the course, Brown and her students examine the 4 P's of Marketing (Product, Price, Place, and Promotion) from an environmental viewpoint and discuss the key environmental issues that impact business. "We talk about things like 'what are the environmental impacts that companies have?' Water, land, pollution…those kinds of things, and what's the consequence of those impacts" she said. "For example, Coca-Cola - one of their main raw ingredients is water. Water is a huge issue right now. You have problems with the quality of water, but you also have the problem with scarcity - there is no water in some locations. So how does a company deal with those kinds of issues? They're not immune to the environmental impacts. They're affected by it, and they affect it themselves."

As Kermit the Frog once said, "It's not easy being green." So how can a company make the sometimes difficult transition from their current business model to a green one? Brown said that a crucial step is understanding how to approach things from the consumer's point of view, and in order to do that, one has to first understand who the consumers are. She and her students look at how consumers can be segmented into categories based on their lifestyles and buying behaviors, and then discuss the business implications of these behaviors. Brown said that what they find is that while there is a segment of the population who actively look for green things (the LOHAS), many consumers are driven by more immediate concerns. "They want to save either money, they want to live healthier, or they want to be healthier - so it's the in me, on me, around me things that they're more interested in," Brown explained. "What a company has to do is first provide those needs the consumer wants, and then say 'oh and by the way, we can save the environment and so can you.' That's what consumers are looking for."

To help her students better understand this consumer behavior, Brown selects specific marketing cases for them and then has the students research topics related to those cases. They bring what they've found to class for a group discussion. "It's very much a class where the students have to do a lot of the work!" she laughed. One assignment had students research how specific "green" companies are making that critical connection with the consumer. "I had video I was going to show them in class, but [first] they had to go out and find articles about these companies. Parkman's company was Timberland. He was explaining how Timberland has what they call the 'nutrition labels.' When you buy a Timberland shoe, on the box, it has like what they call the 'nutrition label' like you would find on a food, and it explains the environmental impact of that shoe." Brown said the Timberland 'nutrition labels' are the kinds of things consumers want. "They want something easy to understand, that they feel like they can trust," she said.

One big change Brown said she sees in her students as they research these topics is a growing awareness that companies have an opportunity to be the leaders in the environmental movement. "Just think about the brands that we talk about - Timberland, Adidas, Toyota, Honda," she said. "These are huge companies and they have an impact." Some of these influential companies were "born green." "These born green companies always had an influential CEO or founder - they're the ones that drive the force of the company," Brown said. But she said other companies have only recently started making a shift to a greener business model. "[Some of them] have some pretty audacious goals, and we study what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong."

Case Studies in Green Marketing

Students in NaLisa Brown's green marketing class took a field trip to the recently remodeled Pleasant Hill Ranger Station, just north of Clarksville, where they learned about the features which earned LEED certification for the building.

In addition to the student discussions, Brown said she relies heavily on video content because she hasn't really found a good "green marketing" textbook. "I've got four or five books on green marketing, but there is no good green marketing book," she said, pointing to the rows of books on her bookshelf. "There are a couple of really good websites - greenbiz.com and sustainablebrands.com - which have lots of webinars." Brown said that by using these online resources, students see content that is always fresh and current. "It's so much better for them to see somebody like William McDonough, who was the man who created Cradle To Cradle than to hear it from me!" she exclaimed.

And while the students spend part of their class time watching video and discussing cases, Brown said she thinks it is critical that they get to see first-hand how companies are engaging in green marketing or green business. She said the best way she has found to do this is by taking one or more field trips during the class. During a previous green marketing class, Brown took the students on a field trip to a retail store for a "scavenger hunt." "We looked at labels, and saw the certifications that we'd talked about," Brown said. "They'd see the wording like 'All Natural'…what does 'All Natural' mean? I don't know. Arsenic is natural. That doesn't mean it's good for you! You've got to be careful." She said field trips like the scavenger hunt are a great way to show her students not only some of the common problems companies face with green marketing initiatives, but some of the creative, and sometimes not so honest ways some sell their products. "We talk about green-washing, which is a term in marketing about companies which are either purposely misleading, or don't know enough and are not intentionally misleading, but they are. That's what I like with the field trips," she said. "It brings a new dimension - it's real life, and they're applying it."

Other field trips, like one the current class made to Whole Foods Market in Little Rock, give students a chance to see first-hand the day-to-day operations of a "green" business. "Whole Foods is perceived as a green company," Brown said. "How green they are, I don't really know. A lot of people think of health food as being environmentally friendly, but it's not always. I would like [for my students] to go and learn more about what they're doing from them, instead of just reading articles."

"Anytime I teach a class, I always want it to be personally relevant," Brown explained. "It's like my marketing concepts class - I want them to take something out of class that they can apply to their personal lives. I kind of teach them how to be a better consumer by teaching them how marketing works. Green marketing is kind of the same way. If I can make it relevant to their personal lives, not just their academic lives…that's what I would want for them."

Brown said there's one part of the class in particular where she sees that personal connection - in the student journals. "I make them write journals," she said. "They have to write a journal every day, and they have to list five things that were either new to them, or that was personally relevant to them that they didn't know before. I love reading those. Typically, they'll make it very personal. They'll go 'I didn't know this! I'm going to start buying this from now on!' You see application in their own lives - personal lives, not just academically - personal lives."

The journal entries from the day of the field trip to Whole Foods Market reflected some of the "personal relevance" Brown wants her students to find in her green marketing class. One student said, "I personally liked the fact that there are samples all throughout the store, because since the products are very green and organic they tend to think that they do not taste the same or that they taste worse. This is something that Whole Foods manages well by allowing the customers to rate their foods personally." Another said, "Cereals, whole grains, and [the] like are sold by bulk rather than in packaging. I realized this is a great way to reduce consumers' cardboard and plastic wastes. I was not very fond of buying by bulk but now I realize that it can [be] extremely beneficial." And a third student shared what she had learned about the benefits of spinach: "I learned that spinach is a good ingredient for smoothies because it has a high nutrient density (ANDI)."

As the green economy continues to grow and change, Brown said her green marketing course will adapt as well. "When I first started teaching this, the issues were totally different than they are today," she said. "Back then it was just becoming main stream - it was just at the edge. People were saying 'this isn't going to become main stream, this is just a fad.' Now they're saying this is not a fad anymore. Now they're looking at the practicality. They're going into the details - life-cycle assessments, life-cycle thinking - so there's more detail, more focus on the practicality, on the 'how do you do these things.' Instead of just talking about 'oh this is nice, we need to be doing it,' now they're actually doing it - how do you do it? I can't find many webinars anymore on 'What is green marketing?' You find them on 'Data-driven Sustainability Plans' - very detailed, very specific. That's really how it's changed."