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Sustainable Product Innovation: Does Your Product Tell a Story?

Forum for the Future's "Paint the Town Green" ReportAs a marketer frequently interacting with environmentally oriented companies, I've enjoyed  participating in my share of design charettes and brain trust meetings.  I've been fortunate to be part of Gold LEED for Homes projects as well part of a green product development team creating a very low-cost residential solar product.  It's a long arduous process: 1% inspiration amd 99% perspiration.

Since the start of the sustainability movement in the 80s, we've seen that products resulting from that 99% perspiration  "have a story" to tell. Legendary are brand stories like the waste reduction program at carpet-maker Interface, Aveda's stories of skin care products sourced from indigenous people and Jeffrey Hollander's book, What Matters Most, describing Seventh Generation's trek toward creating toxin-free household cleaning products.

So I was pretty excited to find The Forum for the Future's recently published report, Paint the Town Green. For here was a new product announcement  accompanied with its full story.

The culmination of a 3 year U.K.-based research project between ICI Paints AkzoNobel, a paint manufacturer and supplier, Carillion, a paint specifier, and Forum for the Future, an organization of sustainability experts, this is one of the most understandable, colorful and enjoyable reports on sustainable product innovation I've encountered. 

For decision-makers in R&D, sustainability innovators and their marketers alike,  the report details  the vision, processes, cradle-to-grave product lifecycle analysis and business benefits of the team's trek  --  all in a compact 27 pages.

Yes, it's about paint

the pigment-emulsified  liquid, some billion gallons of which  U.S. commercial and residential owners brush, roll, pour and spray over all forms of surfaces annually. (so now you see why it's  a "colorful"report ;-))

Like most man-made materials, the environmental issues associated with conventional paint are many, ranging from VOC emissions affecting human health and climate, ingredients requiring high fossil fuel use, energy-intensive manufacturing processes, voluminous water use for cleanup to package and product disposal issues for landfills.  (If you are a manufacturer in another industry, do not let this dissuade you - for this is a story of not only how sustainable products can be designed but also marketed.)

Partners of this project set out to create a more sustainable paint - ideally one which was emission-free.  By setting the bar high, the  project partners achieved numerous product and process innovations along the way. To name but a few of these:

  • A new almost "VOC-free" paint line with carbon and water-use footprints reduced each by 50 percent.
  • For construction customers, development of an environmental wash system for cleaning paint equipment on site, avoiding contamination into drain systems.
  • For all end-use customers,  launch of a Take-Back Service allows for paint cans avoiding land-fill use (and in the U.K., associated land-fill charges)
  • A new recycling process which allows cans from the Take-Back service to be redeployed  by the manufacturer for use in new paint cans.
  • A new closed-loop water process in manufacturing allowing water reclamation of equipment cleaning water for use in new paint

While the paint manufacturer benefited in bottom-line cost savings and competitive position, my reading recommendation relates to the marketing value of this report.

What Marketing Lessons Can Sustainable Product Innovators Learn from it?

The Forum for the Future's report holds five key lessons for sustainability innovators:

  1. Market your  Multidisciplinary Team. The involvment of partners and suppliers from all phases of the product lifecycle clearly enriched the wide set of innovative solutions  delivered.  In doing this, both commercial and residential  customers are more readily assured that the manufacturer has a keen knowledge of the product's A-to-Z environnmental context.
  2. Provide Graphical Authenticity of the Team's Involvement and Milestones.  Replete with graphical illustrations, from project artifacts, hand-hewn concept drawings, colorful marketing flowcharts to finished marketing materials, the report brings to life the early thinking and explorations of the design team. (Too often I read sustainability reports where the R&D process seems distant and abstracted from the final product. Not here.)
  3. Discuss Forward-Looking Projects. Much as vendors disclose to key clients their product futures to increase confidence, the report discusses midstream and future projects - again increasing confidence that this is no "one-off" venture, but that  the vendor and partners have incorporated sustainable practices into their planning and operations.
  4. Redeploy R&D documents as part of the Product's Marketing Story. The report provides a detailed "behind the scenes" look at the product's innovation.
  5. Time the Release of  the "Story" upon Product Announcement.

Sure, sustainable product launches need  eco-conscious product names and easy-to-read tables allowing today's educated customers to see and compare specifications. But smart companies and their marketers are also learning that disclosing the efforts behind a brand's environmental design, revealing the R&D process itself - the story, is one of the best uses of marketing.

Reading the report - I couldn't help but think: What if all product packaging had a simple written statement?

Read the full sustainability story behind this product at www.XXXX.com. 

As potential customers scanned that into their iPhones and BlackBerries, would your product have a sustainability story to tell?  How would that story compare to your competitor's?




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