It’s nearly impossible to walk down the aisle of a supermarket these days without seeing a product boasting “green” in its name or a brand promising to be “environmentally friendly” or “earth-conscious.” From “eco-friendly” cleaners and “green” paper towels to “responsible” soda bottles and “green” shampoo for your (green?) hair, more and more companies are offering versions of products designed to appeal to consumers intent on reducing their footprint on our planet.

What “green” actually means varies from item to item, mind you, given that the standards behind the term are often a bit wobbly. That’s how the term “greenwash” came to be part of our lexicon. After all, when everyone is claiming to be “green,” how can it possibly pack the same kind of ethical or marketing punch?

This confusion/excess has motivated some brands to move on to a new push altogether:

They’re going “blue.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To differentiate itself from the green movement’s “save the environment” focus, the blue movement is centered on having a positive impact on society in general —whether through a company’s overall mission or through special social good initiatives. These campaigns are also billed as “cause marketing,” a term that better describes how companies engender goodwill through charitable acts and efforts.

Now, as you undoubtedly would expect, goodwill isn’t all that’s generated. Companies are finding that cause marketing does good (and maybe even great) things for their bottom lines, too.

Here are three broad categories of how cause marketing can work:

  • Company-created blue programs. Volkswagen’s “Think Blue” campaign is designed to educate consumers about ecological sustainability and fuel-efficient technologies, while promoting the company’s holistic approach to environmental sustainability. The Think Blue eco-tour kicked off in San Francisco earlier this year and ultimately spanned more than 12 cities in ten states from coast to coast. Consumers had the chance to get involved by entering contests and participating in games and other interactive activities (a Think Blue info-kiosk, a pedal-powered smoothie blender, etc.) that reward sustainable behavior.
  • Brand and charity partnerships. Education-funding nonprofit partners with dozens of large and small brands to impact thousands of classrooms across the nation . . . and snag those brands some great PR along the way. As explains on its website, “Together we can create a partnership that will engage your customers while delivering much needed resources to public school classrooms.”
  • Event-based cause marketing. Why not piggy-back on a popular event to get your blue message out to a larger audience? Many major brands took advantage of the London 2012 Olympics to do just that, promoting their key social good partnerships to millions of viewers tuning in to watch events.

The key to effective cause marketing lies in matching the right company with the right program or charity, and most importantly, tapping in to what customers (or potential customers) care about.

In Volkswagen’s case, a fuel-efficiency competition would appeal to buyers blanching at the high cost of gas. And most folks tuning in to watch the Olympics are ready to hear a feel-good story –even when it’s coming from a big brand that’s involved as a sponsor or supporter.

The best thing about the blue movement is that it focuses more on good deeds and great causes than a product’s sales proposition. That’s a clear departure from the green movement, where brands hope to drive revenue with the promise of environmental responsibility.

To me, it seems that focus is something more people can get behind, and so I expect more brands will, too.