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Greening your bottom line

Apr 1, 1995 12:00 AM

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Environmental awareness and efforts can make effective marketing tools

Traditionally, printers haven't exactly been known for their marketing expertise; luckily, some traditions are changing. The number of graphic arts firms, big and small, that are devising, producing and implementing some type of marketing initiative is swelling.

And of course, as more and more printers realize the benefits of self promotion, making your firm stand out from the crowd becomes more important then ever.

Enter the environment. Today, environmental issues are on everyone's minds, from the largest corporate client to the start-up business down the street.

Obviously, these pervasive sentiments can be a hot button for customers selecting the printer they want to do business with. Thus, the graphics arts firm that operates in an environmentally conscious manner has a leg up on the competition; if that company effectively markets these efforts, that advantage becomes even more pronounced.

Indeed, some progressive businesses are putting these ideas into effective practice, scoring vital points for their green focus.

"If your company is concerned about the environment and takes the right steps to back up those feelings in day-to-day operations, you definitely should get the word out," says George Hess, educational director for the Graphic Arts Assn. (Philadelphia). "Making potential customers aware of the positive things you are doing in these areas can make the difference between getting the business or losing out to another printer. It can be the one thing that tips the balance in your favor when the purchase decision is close."

Pulling potential customers to your firm's side of the fence doesn't necessarily require an elaborate marketing program. Creativity and, yes, sincerity carry a great deal of weight.

"Green marketing definitely provides a point of differentiation from our competitors," stresses Hans Veeder of K/P Corp. (San Leandro, CA). "It demonstrates there is something special about us, and that we try a little harder.

"Today, a lot of companies put a very high premium on the environment, particularly the more cutting-edge high-tech companies. These firms tend to have younger, progressive people in decision-making positions; people who generally are more in tune with the environment," Veeder continues. "Since these types of companies are going to account for an increasing amount of printers' business, we'd better be able to demonstrate that we are just as in tune."

The K/P executive offers that his firm tackles environmental promotion on a customer-by-customer basis, noting that some clients may be much more open to the concept than others. Nonetheless, management does attempt to provide options to every customer, demonstrating appropriate alternatives such as recycled paper, soy inks, etc. for each potential job.

As an extra incentive for accepting these alternatives, customers are given the opportunity of having the firm's own "Earthprint" logo printed on their finished products. Not only do clients score points with their customers, K/P gets considerable marketing mileage out of the program.

"Clients get a kick out of it, and it makes them want to do business with us," Veeder asserts. "The logo demonstrates to their customers that they are doing everything possible to protect the environment and are exceeding minimum compliance levels. It's a terrific image enhancer for all parties."

As necessary and admirable as promoting environmental consciousness is for printers, however, veterans in this area agree that it is vitally important to ensure that your own company's house is in order before proceeding.

"Showing up on the front page of your local newspaper accused of some violation could be disastrous, especially if you've bragged about how responsible your firm is," asserts Gary Jones, manager of environmental information for the Pittsburgh-based Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF). "It's essential to make sure your firm practices what it preaches or it will lose precious credibility that it may never be able to recapture. It would be better to do no promotion in the first place than to create unfulfilled customer expectations."

John Roberts Co. (Minneapolis) is a good example of a printer that took a prudent, cautious approach to its environmental marketing. According to Jeff Adrian, the firm's environmental director, John Roberts slowly has increased its green marketing efforts as it has built expertise and confidence in environmental issues.

For example, the printer received an award for excellence in pollution prevention several years ago, but chose to keep a low profile about the honor. "We never denied that we won the award, but we deliberately chose not to publish it in our customer newsletter," relates Adrian. "We took a longer viewpoint to our green marketing. Many companies make a big noise about being green only for people to discover later that it was puffery. That can work very much against a firm."

Today, however, the company has built a solid reputation as a leader in environmental sensitivity through an informed and sustained relationship with customers, employees and the community.

For example, each member of the firm's sales staff is encouraged to take Adrian and his environmental expertise along on customer visits. Not only does the expert relate John Roberts' positive efforts, he also offers to help clients organize their own environmental programs.

Adrian also regularly works with local schools, bringing in students for plant tours and speaking to classes on the importance of environmental awareness. Finally, the company features an environmental section every month in its employee newsletter.

"Employees are our best ambassadors in the community," Adrian concludes. "Keeping them informed and making them understand what we are doing environmentally has been extremely beneficial. They talk to their friends and word spreads quickly that we are a responsible neighbor. That's the type of printer people want to do business with today, and we constantly foster that image."

At Ecoprint (Silver Spring, MD) that image is clearly apparent in the firm's name. In fact, the bulk of the printer's client base consists of non-profit organizations and other companies with a real interest in environmental issues.

According to president Roger Telschow, adopting the role of client information resource has provided the most public relations value for the company. For instance, Ecoprint publishes a simple bi-monthly newsletter titled "Newsletter for the Responsible Print Buyer," featuring articles on topics such as a guide to designing economical, environmentally friendly printed pieces; a checklist for choosing printers committed to the environment; and an update on how the new Congress is expected to affect the green movement.

"Our customer surveys indicate that we have a higher-than-average loyalty level because of our environmental orientation," Telschow relates. "Clients rate our sincerity very highly, so apparently we are believable to people because we give them good information they can use. We are not out there trying to sell people things they don't want. They come to us as much as an information source as a source for printing."

However, as GATF's Jones warns, "Printers must be cautious in how they process and present this information to their audiences. Customers are looking to us for answers, and we must be certain what information we provide is accurate and concise."

Telschow wholeheartedly agrees with this assessment, noting that environmental marketing can backfire if not handled thoughtfully. "This is a unique opportunity to embrace a good guy image on the outside, but the ethic must permeate the entire organization," he offers. "Customers can smell a rat very quickly, and if sincerity and accuracy are not part of your message, you will get into trouble sooner or later.

"If your front line people (i.e., CSRs and salespeople) who talk to customers every day don't know anything about alternative papers, inks, chemistries, etc., your entire environmental message is going to ring hollow. It could be counterproductive," he says.

General Litho Services (Minneapolis) ensures that every staff member coming in contact with customers is fully up-to-date on all the firm's environmental programs.

"Whenever our company is subject to new regulations or needs to change materials and procedures to achieve compliance, we make sure all our front liners know exactly what we are doing and the reason behind it," stresses Beth Swedberg, operations manager. "These people must be kept in the loop so they can intelligently relate our message to customers."

Armed with knowledge acquired from intense yearly training about the printer's environmental management programs, and through regular visits to environmental and safety task force meetings at Printing Industries of Minnesota, the firm's sales staff is well-versed. Thus, salespeople are strongly encouraged to stress the environment to customers, even conduct plant tours to demonstrate exactly how the printer complies with regulations.

Other shops, although not shy about touting the specific pollution prevention initiatives in their production processes, prefer to take a less direct marketing approach. To these firms, demonstrating an overall concern for environmental issues, not simply limited to their own manufacturing sphere, yields a positive public image that can reap benefits.

Dittler Brothers (Oakwood, GA) uses this approach to create a highly visible green image in the Atlanta metropolitan area. According to marketing director Chris Fowks, many potential customers seek out the printer largely due to its responsible community image.

For example, in celebration of its 90th anniversary last year, Dittler employees assisted in planting trees in local communities throughout Atlanta. The printer, working with a local boys and girls club, planted more than 90 trees, as well as cleaned the grounds of the club and a community center.

Additionally, employees clean a stretch of highway quarterly as part of an "adopt-a-highway" program. And, of course, a highly visible sign touts the printers' involvement to passing motorists.

Finally, the company produced a ticket for the Ohio lottery using a recycled stock, and advertised that a percentage of sales would be donated to Earth Day organizers.

"Clients may not come to us solely because of these initiatives," Fowks notes. "However, for many of our customers, especially those doing non-profit direct response-type work, it's very important that we are environmentally aware. There simply aren't that many printers doing these things."

New Life Printing (Palo Alto, CA) was way ahead of the game, pushing the environment in its direct mail pieces as early as the late 1970s. Although it still utilizes this method, the company also utilizes a slightly more innovative approach to make its mark.

Today, the company sponsors two endangered black rhinos at a local zoo, providing anyone (potential customers or not) with information regarding the species and steps being taken to preserve it. To drive the image home still further, the firm has mounted a replica black rhino head above the shop entrance.

"We've backed off the traditional environmental marketing approach since so many people are starting to get into it," asserts Bob Marsden, president of New Life. "The rhino initiative has garnered a lot of attention, not only for our company, but for the importance of animal conservation. It's important for a firm to maintain an image of caring, and that translates over to every aspect of our business."

Customer concern for the environment is stronger than ever, and it is not going away. Obviously, firms no longer are content to do business with vendors simply on the basis of price, quality and speed.

However, it is not sufficient for printers to get their environmental houses in order; they must make a concerted attempt to get the word out about their efforts.

Having a sincere green program in place offers tangible benefits to our air, water, wild-life and the entire world we share: why shouldn't your bottom line share some of those benefits as well?