06/02/2010 10:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clear Is The New Clever: Lessons For Promoting Green Packaged Goods

"Advertising is the price companies pay for being un-original."
Yves Behar, speaking at TED

For years I worked as a creative director in advertising. It was my job to put a product's best face forward, and cast a spotlight on exciting new features.

The hitch was, many of these new features were minor or irrelevant...change for change's sake. Still, we regarded this as part of the challenge. If we could make a new spout on fabric softener look like a revolution, it was cause for backslapping all around.

Thankfully, green innovation has charged into the temple of unoriginality, upended a few tables and caused quite a ruckus. Although still few and far between, good green packaged goods are turning heads, commanding premiums, and making their conventional brethren look positively anemic.

By all accounts, the ad folk should be cheering. After all, products with real, revolutionary and (dare we say it) valid environmental credentials should make excellent subjects for clever, compelling ads.

The only problem with this is, the packaged goods consumer has changed. And a snappy ad isn't going to cut it anymore.

If it's truly better, tell the truth.

Consumers don't trust ads anymore.

OK, they never really trusted ads. But when the half truth involved shiny hair and whiter teeth, consumers were willing to suspend disbelief. Lie to them about something that could poison future generations, and their sense of forgiveness tends to go south.

As the April 2010 Mintel Research Report on Green Marketing confirms, consumers want proof and verification on green claims. What's more, they want them visible, up front, and in simple language.

That means traditional ads with visual and written information confirming that all claims are backed by credible third parties. The sort of verification Clorox was looking for when it got Sierra Club's seal of approval for its Green Works products.

Websites for green brands should promote mobile apps such as GoodGuide's iPhone app, giving consumers an easy means of checking a brand's green credentials when shopping.

That may sound as fun as inviting Dad to the keg party, but nothing could be further from the truth. If a product is really revolutionary and better for the planet - authentically better - it can still support campaigns that are very, very creative. If you don't believe me, believe Innocent Smoothies.

Carbon labeling - the real shelf talkers.

Since 2008, Tesco has been labeling some of its products with their carbon footprints.

As Environmental Leader reported when this shelf innovation was announced, it wouldn't be an easy task. Let's illustrate why with Unilever. A lead supplier to Tesco, Unilever operates 260 factories in 70 countries and works with more than 10,000 subcontractors. Trying to measure carbon footprint in this situation is complex, to put it mildly.

Complex isn't a word Wal-Mart shies away from. In fact, the retail giant has announced plans to follow Tesco's lead and create its own carbon footprint shelf labeling.

At the moment, there are a baffling array of criteria to contend with - one product may have reduced GHG's but pollute water, another might be fair trade but not organic. However, as Mintel reports, consumers have high expectations for corporations with regard to all aspects of their impact on people, communities, animals and the environment. And not only are they prepared to pay a 15% premium for green, but they're more likely to punish a 'bad' brand (38%) than to reward a good one (21%).

In short, clarity at shelf is going to build some incredibly successful brands, and knock others into discount purgatory.

Clearly better, from cradle to grave.

More and more companies are trying to measure the environmental impacts of their products throughout their lifecycles. In simple English, they're considering the ecological impact along every step of the material procurement, manufacturing, distribution and use continuum.

A leading inspiration behind this expansion of responsibility horizons has been Wal-Mart. In fact, it asked its own suppliers to complete a Sustainability Index questionnaire reporting on their environmental performance. And it helped steer these suppliers toward 'Sustainable Value Networks' who could develop solutions for better environmental performance.

The ripple effect of this is easy to imagine. As Wal-Mart asks its suppliers to come clean, so those suppliers will ask their suppliers to do the same. In the foreseeable future, answering the tough environmental questions about your product or service could be as commonplace as answering questions on delivery dates.

A clear takeaway.

Consumers love to consume. And packaged goods are among the most-consumed items in the world.

As consumer perceptions continue their swing toward environmental responsibility, packaged goods companies will have to adapt to thrive.

As Nidumolu, Pahalad and Rangaswami write in HBR's 'Why Sustainability Is Now The Key Driver of Innovation', any innovation that does not incorporate green thinking will simply not survive in the 21st century.

That's a clear mandate for change.