Everyone has likely heard a few jokes starting with “A duck walks into a bar…”, and immediately become interested because of the unexpected imagery. Today, however, I walked into the office bathroom and was confronted with real imagery that also piqued interest. On top of the commode was a role of toilet paper fully packaged in white tissue with the word “green” depicted and underlined in green all over the package, and “office depot” in red, also underlined, but smaller and more subdued. Had it been Christmas time I might not have noticed. Everything is green and red then. But just after the 4th of July such packaging was unexpected. And inspired more contemplation than your average roll of toilet paper, which is rarely high on anyone’s “Wow! Look at that!” list. If ever.
I don’t know what makes “Green” toilet paper, though I suspect that if I perused the 6500 references to the phrase “Green toilet paper” on Google I’d have a pretty good handle on what’s required. I also suspect that most of us don’t know the magical ingredient or process or application that makes many of the products currently promoted as Green really Green. But we all do know that Green has become a descriptor for environmentally friendly products and services. Despite the fact that less than a generation ago green was still only a color. Now it is an attribute to some. A benefit to others. And a validating reinforcement of values to many more. Note: for an excellent historical perspective on that transformation, as well as its implications for marketers, check out Green Marketing, Opportunity for Innovation, by Jackie Ottman.
However, it is the distinction between attributes, benefits and values that is most critical in fully understanding the sea change that has occurred in this relatively short amount of time. Attributes are important in assessing a product primarily because they lead to objective or even subjective benefits. Attributes without benefits are meaningless. In most cases both attributes and benefits are observable through performance and outcome. Values, on the other hand, are a different breed of cat. They are at the end of the attribute/benefit/value continuum because it is a person’s values that determine how important or desirable the attributes and benefits are. One simple explanation of that relationship is that the connection of attributes to benefits defines “what a product is”, but the connection between benefits and values defines the far more important (in terms of selection leverage) “what a product means”.
That said, it has been posited that there are many categories where values are relatively inconsequential because those categories…and the products and services that comprise them…are, at least in relative terms, just not that important. But a contrarian could suggest that virtually any product can be made consequential…and important…by successfully attaching itself to a value. If not there wouldn’t be 49 cent “Green” toilet paper, or thousands of other products that would be commodities if not for the discriminating anointment of Green. And the contrarian would be right.
As is Jackie Ottman when she states unequivocally that “environmentalism is (now) a core societal value”. That train has left the station. If you’re a B2B marketer, best be on it.