Find Ways to Promote Your Inconvenient, Truthful Actions
Aside from the humdrum of what a tough time this is for so many multichannel marketers, the issue of environmentalism and sustainability has easily become the topic of the year. So we made an on-the-fly change in our editorial schedule and intend to devote the cover section of our June print issue to a special report on sustainability. (You heard it here first!) Having begun editing some of the articles for that edition, I’ve been trying to put this whole movement into some sort of perspective.
In the catalog business, the emergence of recycled paper dates back all the way to the beginning of the 1990s. Nearly 20 years later, and this is still a “trend” in the makings. Remarkable, isn’t it? Certainly there are plenty of catalogers who use recycled paper, recycled packaging materials and have had significant internal recycling programs for years. But all these years later, these practices are hardly widespread, though they’re getting there.
Environmentalism and the sustainability movement in this country and around the world have only recently sunk in among the masses. Major world events, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and stiffer fines posed by trash and recycled materials collectors have all helped get the message in the face of the general public.
Catalogers/multichannel marketers have an erratic history of adapting to emerging trends. Your adaptation to the sustainability movement has probably been the slowest. Why? There’s no business benefit. Recycled paper has always cost more, and at the same time, catalogers have worried about the grainy paper’s negative effect on response.
Wait and See
But aside from the obvious — doing the right thing — a lot of catalogers are having trouble doing their part in this movement. It’s a tough year, money’s tight, many are struggling and it’s hardly the time to incur extra costs — even in the interest of saving the planet.
Outside forces typically are the tipping point when it comes to influencing this industry to take action. Eighteen years in the making, the sustainability and environmentalism movement is picking up steam. Compound that with catalogers facing some pretty bad press from environmental groups like Catalog Choice, GreenDimes and ForestEthics. Beyond the widely communicated issues here, there are some telling signs.
For instance, a recent consumer survey conducted by DoubleClick Performics revealed that 83 percent of respondents will choose environmentally friendly items over similar nonenvironmental products, and almost half of those respondents say they’re willing to pay at least 5 percent more for environmental products.
How much longer will it take before multichannel marketers grasp this movement en masse? Typically, there must be an immediate payoff or significant cost saving in sight, which is what makes the environmental movement so difficult for so many mailers. Consider how three past trends and movements in this business have taken off.
* Toll-free numbers (mid-1980s): Although toll-free numbers predate the ’80s, their costs became manageable for catalogers during the Reagan era. Mailers enjoyed fairly instant gratification by employing 800 numbers, because although they now had to pay a new phone bill, increased response more than made up for this cost. Consumers far preferred dialing 800 numbers than placing orders in the mailbox. And the labor involved in opening order-form envelopes and processing snail-mailed orders declined noticeably.
* The slim jim (mid-1990s): In 1995, after getting slammed by another in a long line of killer postage increases, catalogers found a nifty little loophole in postal regulations: those odd-shaped books called “slim jims,” measuring no more than 6-1/8 in. by 11-1/2 in. and 1/4 in. thick, and sealed by those little round stickers called wafer seals.
This trend was hardly widespread. Although they offered considerable postage savings, slim jims hindered response. They still can negatively affect response today even though many consumers have become pretty familiar with the size. Although a change in postal regulations may soon make slim jims impractical, if not obsolete, over the years they’ve provided a more affordable outlet for certain types of multichannel merchants, particularly those who sell lower-end goods.
* E-commerce (mid- to late 1990s): Catalogers were early adaptors in navigating the online world. They already had the corporate infrastructure, were better versed in direct marketing than all those overcapitalized dot-com-cum-dot-gone disasters and successfully stared down most of them (play that Elton John song, “I’m Still Standing” here).
The beauty of the evolution of the Web is how it didn’t just go boom and hit catalogers with a desperate need to suddenly make huge investments. It took the Internet, the Web, e-commerce, whatever you want to call it, a good seven or eight years to truly hit the mainstream. That gave catalogers enough time to invest gradually and affordably and maximize its value.
So how will the sustainability movement play out in this business? If you’re among those who are just waking up to the do-not-mail legislation threat, that’s OK, but start doing your homework on this ASAP. You don’t have to fly to Washington and bang on the doors of congressmen and senators, but you certainly should write your congressman to alert him about the value of catalog shopping and its positive impact on the environment — particularly how catalog/online shopping keeps cars off the roads.
Also, ensure your future by investing more heavily (though it’s OK to invest deliberately) in Web prospecting alternatives, such as search and affiliate marketing. Be prepared in case do-not-call really happens. If you’re caught off guard, you’ll go out of business practically overnight.
Finally, keep closer tabs on your customers’ worldliness. There’s still a ways to go, but more middle Americans care about the environment these days — at least more of them are becoming aware of the harm mankind is doing to the environment (pardon the dramatics).
If you can demonstrate you’re doing more to save the environment, more of them will want to do business with you. That’s how you can actually appreciate a bottom-line benefit from this nearly two-decade-long movement in the makings.
I leave you with a quick example of how the Cuddledown of Maine catalog promotes its environmentalism to its customers and prospects. On the top-left corner of the back cover of its catalog is the following message:
Cuddledown makes quality products for people who choose to shop by mail. We think that shopping at home is an environmentally sound alternative to driving between energy consuming stores and malls. If you prefer not to receive this catalog, please recycle it or pass it along to a friend, and let us know so we can take you off our mailing list. The paper this catalog is printed on is made in the United States from trees that are responsibly farmed for pulp and is recyclable.