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Long Live the Green
by Brian Dougherty

Bon Ami and Lunera are different companies in almost every way. Bon Ami is family-owned, based in Kansas City, and makes inexpensive cleaning products that people typically buy at the grocery store. It’s simple, and has been around in more-or-less the same form since the 1880s. Lunera is a new venture-funded clean tech start-up based in California’s Silicon Valley, and sells ultra efficient high-end lighting equipment, mainly to sophisticated specialist customers. The two companies have almost nothing in common—except that they both have “green” stories to tell. In each case, environmental stewardship helps distinguish them from the bigger corporations that dominate their respective industries. Their experience, and the strategy they’ve each recently chosen to build their brands, provides a unique view into the state of green marketing in America.

It is interesting to note, then, that both of these companies have decided to build their brands without spending much time or money on conventional “green marketing.” At a time when Walmart, GE, Clorox and many other large mainstream corporations seem to have an insatiable appetite for green-speak, the entrepreneurs behind Lunera and Bon Ami are going a different direction.

Brands such as Clorox Green Works and GE’s Ecomagination campaign have built upon the brand strategies pioneered by companies like Whole Foods and Seventh Generation. They focus their communications on the fact that people really do care about the safety and impact of what goes into their bodies and their homes. Environmental benefit is the primary differentiator for these brands, and “being friendlier to the planet” is the keystone of their brand promise. Over the past three or four decades, the pioneers of this type of green branding succeeded in building viable businesses and validating environmental issues in the consumer marketplace. The mega-corporate version of this strategy, which emerged a few years ago, takes it to a scale never before seen, and backs it up with huge marketing budgets.

Despite BP’s recent brand implosion, which made the company’s “Beyond Petroleum” green brand platform an utter farce, the strategy has generally worked. Many mainstream corporations have found new customers and burnished their brands by “going green.” For the most part, this has not been at the expense of the green pioneers. A year after its introduction, Clorox Green Works was outselling all other brands in the green category. However, at the time, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that existing green brands, “Method and Seventh Generation didn’t see their sales drop. In fact, their share of the overall cleaning market continued to grow—a sign that Green Works was attracting people who hadn't previously bought green cleaners.”

Folks at Bon Ami headquarters in Kansas City saw this market dynamic and realized they were sitting on a goldmine. Bon Ami had been “green” since before that phrase existed. It had held on as a solid niche product all these years, but now the mainstream seemed to be moving toward the brand.

Bon Ami was developed in the 1880s as a gentler alternative to the scouring powders of the day, which mostly contained a silica sand abrasive. Bon Ami was made with feldspar, a softer mineral, and tallow soap, which helped to lubricate the surface being cleaned. The product became popular with homemakers on the East and West coasts and the brand's little chick mascot and slogan “Hasn’t scratched yet!” became one of America’s earliest trademarks.

The surprising thing, 125 years later, is that Bon Ami hasn’t changed much. When big national brands like Ajax and Comet emerged, adding bleach and chemical whiteners, Bon Ami pretty much stuck to its formula. They introduced a version that didn’t derive from pig fat (as tallow does) for the detergent and tweaked ingredients as suppliers came and went, but mostly they just kept the price low and changed the packaging every couple of decades. So Bon Ami is green in the way that your great grandmother might have been green. Perhaps she used “all-natural” products and ate local vegetables grown without chemical pesticides, but she certainly didn't shop at Whole Foods or drive a Prius.

In January 2009, the Beaham family asked Celery Design to help reassert the green-ness of the brand and extend it to a line of new cleaning products. Celery teamed with two writers, Amy Leventhal, who previously worked with IDEO on the Pangea Organics brand, and Kevin Sweeney, who led Patagonia’s marketing team for several years. This team dug into the long history of Bon Ami and the realities of the marketplace, and tried to plot a path that would allow the brand to thrive. Dougherty
Brian Dougherty is a founding partner at Celery Design Collaborative, where he focuses on building brands that have a positive impact in the world. He advises some of the world's most successful executives and entrepreneurs on values-based branding and communicating leadership through corporate responsibility. His studio, Celery, develops brand communications, eco-innovative packaging, CSR communications, Web communities and interactive exhibits from offices in Berkeley, California, and Paris, France. Clients include HP, Autodesk, Citigroup, eBay, Mattel and Motorola. Dougherty is the author of Green Graphic Design ( from Allworth Press and a frequent lecturer on ecological innovation in communications design. He wrote the Environment column.