With the launch of SunChips' new quieter bag, it may appear that they have learned some valuable lessons about how to do green marketing right.

by Jacquelyn Ottman

Remember the brouhaha last fall over SunChips' noisy "compostable" bag? It prompted Frito-Lay to withdraw the special bags on all but their "Original" flavor (which they retained as a show of support for their green strategy).  They've just come out with a quieter option. It's on-pack messaging tones down the composting message, and in doing so demonstrates, however counter intuitively it may appear, that they have actually learned some valuable lessons about how to do green marketing right.

As I commented this past October, a key issue with the compostable bag -- and a reason why snack eaters were not to be faulted for committing environmental hypocrisy -- is that, while admirable and eco-innovative, the compostability of the bags was not relevant to the average consumer.

(Only about thirty percent of American adults claim to compost.) So, when faced with the decision to buy a noisy bag that interfered with their eating enjoyment (the reason to buy the chips in the first place), the snackers dropped the brand like a hot potato, causing sales to fall amidst a raft of mocking YouTube videos.

A Shift in Strategy
The new bags now turn up the dial about the natural ingredients of the chips themselves. The large shout out for "The world's first compostable snack chip bag" that once dominated the front of the large (10.5-ounce) bags has now been replaced with a more subdued message, about one tenth the size, transported to the upper right hand corner, stating "100% Compostable: Made with Renewable Materials."

The key message that is now front and center are the words and accompanying visual "Made with All Natural Ingredients," "No MSG - No Preservatives", "No Artificial Flavors" and "Great Multi-Grain Taste".

On the back, the dramatic sequence of images that showed the bag degrading over the course of fourteen weeks-the subject of a popular you tube video last fall, has been replaced with a more guarded message about the potential degradability of the bags in appropriately hot (industrial-type) composting facilities-thus tamping down the suggestion that the bags might easily degrade in one's own backyard. 

This more subdued communication correctly takes away any hint of potential greenwash from the widely publicized video that the bags might degrade in open air. The shift in emphasis from "compostable" to "natural" represents good green marketing at its best: start with a legitimately greener product and package, and lead with the primary benefits (in this case, great taste and high quality ingredients)-not with promises of "saving the planet."

I do need to raise a question, though.
Frito-Lay deserves kudos for sticking by their commitment to compostability, and recognizing that the secondary message about the renewable ingredients of the bag can add an important dimension to their overall story.

Why stop at linking the compostable material simply to the abstract-sounding "renewable materials"?  Is SunChips possibly missing an opportunity to be more explicit about the corn-based ingredients of the bag?  "Corn" afterall, better conjures up delightful images of sunny cornfields, while helping out Midwest farmers and reinforcing the now highlighted multi-grain taste message.

According to a representative of NatureWorks LLC, the company that makes the Ingeo™-based bag material, although made of corn-based PLA (polylactic acid) today, plans are in place to make Ingeo out of such other plant-based sugars in the future as sugar cane or cassava.  I suppose Frito-Lay's, in addition to keeping their options open for the future, wouldn't want consumers thinking they could actually eat the bags-confusion that might propel the YouTubers into another SunChips feeding frenzy.

Originally published on Sustainable Life Media, May 19, 2011. Jacquelyn Ottman is an expert adviser to Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government on green marketing and eco-innovation. She is the author of the recently released  The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools, and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding.