Green electricity, Organic Shampoo, Jaguar convertibles, Red Bull, Bio Beef, Alligator gardening tools, Camel cigarettes and Puma sneakers. Once you develop an eye for it, it is quite astonishing to see how many products and brands – through their name or logo – refer to ‘Nature’. We call this phenomenon Bio-mimic-marketing: using images of nature to market a product.
By KOERT VAN MENSVOORT
Nature is a terrific marketing tool and corporations know this. Somehow the natural reference provides us with a familiar feeling of recognition and trust. Biomimicmarketing is applied in the most peculiar, unexpected ways. For instance, when having to choose between eighteen different types of condoms at the drugstore, I am intuitively drawn towards the one with the word ‘natural’ on the packaging, thereby omitting the contradictory fact that condom-use in itself can hardly be called natural. But who cares? Biomimicmarketing is not about nature as much as it is about marketing. Its goal is to enforce positive qualities of products in the minds of consumers. Nature – with its aura of authenticity, harmony, beauty and dept – is among the best vehicles to achieve this. When analyzing the phenomenon of biomimicmarketing in detail, roughly five, partly overlapping, strategies can be isolated.
STRATEGY #1: USE NATURE AS AESTHETICS
The products in the first category have none or only a very weak link with the natural imagery being used: Lacoste is not about crocodiles, Linux is not about penguins, Bacardi is not about bats and Apple is certainly not a fruit company. The natural reference is mainly employed for aesthetic reasons. The placement of a cell phone antenna mast in a natural resort can be sold to the public much easier once the mast is dressed as a pine tree. Artificially created islands in Dubai are more attractive and have a higher market value when created in the shape of a palm tree.
The reasoning of the marketers is as simple as it is effective: People are familiar with natural phenomena and typically think positively about them. How convenient for products to hitch hike along on with the existing perception.
STRATEGY #2. USE NATURE AS A METAPHOR
The border between the first and the second category is fluid. With the products in the second category, the link is more content oriented. For instance, by calling a sneaker ‘puma’, its makers not only apply the natural reference aesthetically, in addition, they hope to transfer some of the positive qualities of this elegant, sporty animal onto their product. The relation is not to be taken literally – puma sneakers are made from plastics, not from puma’s – but rather as a metaphor. Other examples are the jaguar convertible, the eagle symbol of the USA, the tweeting bird of Twitter, the almost extinct panda as the logo of the World Wild Life fund, and the bunnies of Playboy magazine, which is not about rabbit, as much as it about projecting alleged behavior of rabbits onto women. Just imagine for a moment that the US government would use a turtle as its mascot, or that Puma would use an elephant, Twitter a dog, the WWF a dodo, Jaguar a cow and Playboy a spider as its logo. This would completely mutilate their brand identities.
STRATEGY #3: PROMOTE A NATURAL FEELING
A third category of biomimicmarketing is the group of products that sell themselves by emphasizing they provide the consumer with a ‘natural feeling’. Bra’s so light and soft that if feels as if you are naked. Hair dye products that transform brunettes into natural blondes. The natural condoms mentioned earlier also fall into this category.
What this natural feeling exactly entails is usually not defined with much detail, however, surely it will always be something positive – after all, we are trying to sell you a product here! Interestingly enough this positive application of the natural reference, not only markets the product. As a side effect it also enforces our notion of nature as something wonderful, harmonic, calm, and soothing. Further on I will discuss this in more detail.
STRATEGY #4: BRAND IT ‘ECO FRIENDLY’
The products in the fourth category don’t necessarily provide the consumer with a natural feeling. Their biomimicmarketing revolves around the claim to be ‘friendly towards nature’. Typically, the claim is made in comparison with other, ‘less friendly’ products of competing brands. Think for instance of the Toyota ECO sports utility vehicle (SUV), which is less polluting than an average SUV, the Hybrid Hummer, or the Honda Diesel i-CTDI, which is shown in a commercial with singing flowers, birds and rabbits that dance around the engine and welcome it in there environment because it is a little less polluting than the stinky bad diesel engines from the competition.
Green electricity is another obvious example. Although electricity itself is not associated with nature, the label green is added because a certain percentage of the electricity is created from renewable resources. (Interestingly enough energy companies aren’t really able to separate the green electricity from the gray electricity within their power grid. So when you switch to green electricity, you will still have the same electrons running through your house. The idea of greenness is purely based on the promise made by the energy company to balance the percentage of electricity created from renewable sources with the percentage of clients buying the green electricity product.)
STRATEGY #5: BRAND IT ‘NATURALLY MADE’
The fifth category encapsulates the products that are ‘naturally made’. Arguably, here the natural claim is the most convincing. Think eco-tomatoes, bottled mineral water from a natural wellspring, organic shampoo and biological meat. Contrary to regular products, which are typically produced at large scale industrial sites and packed with chemical conserving and coloring substances, bio-, eco- and organic products are marketed with the claim of being produced in a more natural way. In practice this typically means returning to more traditional smaller scale, less polluting and more sustainable production techniques.
Besides their unique selling point of being naturally produced, the products in this category often use some, if not all, of the biomimicmarketing techniques described earlier. Organic products generally come in green brownish colored packages made of natural materials – like recycled paper bags –, often draped with images of the all-natural substances used in the product (category 1 & 2). Obviously the honest, authentic production process provides its buyers with a more healthy, honest e.g. a more natural feeling (category 3) and last but not least, the natural production process almost immediately implies being more friendly to nature (category 4). Hence, it is no surprise that over the past twenty years naturally made products have gained a significant market share. What started with small farmers markets, operating on idealistic motives, has now become an industry including rules and regulations on when a product may call itself as bio, eco or organic.
THE BIGGEST MARKETING SCHEME OF ALL: NATURE ITSELF
Besides the countless products that reference to nature in order to be liked and bought by consumers, there is another hidden, largely unconscious, yet even bigger marketing mechanism going on. Perhaps even the shrewdest marketeers are not really aware that biomimicmarketed products not only promote themselves, but simultaneously also promote a very one-dimensional romanticized notion of nature. Along with the promotion of products, nature is being promoted as the sensible, harmonic, soothing, authentic, healthy, honest and beautiful force in life. The darker, more negative, side of nature is consistently omitted by the biomimicmarketeers, as you can’t sell products with diseases, death, hurricanes, floods, or other extremely crude, unpredictable and amoral qualities nature has to offer. Nature itself is the most successfully marketed product of our time.