NEW YORK — Three women are browsing a farmer's market in search of an eco-friendly gift for what they call a "greener than thou" friend. It's a tall order. As one of the shoppers puts it, "Her family re-uses dental floss."
The scene appears in a satirical Web series called "The Green Housewives." While the show is playing for laughs, the aim is serious: to goose sales of Clorox Co.'s Green Works line of cleaners, which haven't sold as briskly as the company would like. The series, available on Clorox's website, riffs on company research showing that even environmentally conscious consumers don't want to be seen as sanctimonious. The show's tagline: You don't have to be ridiculous to be green.
While green product sales are growing fast, they account for a mere 3 percent of the household and laundry cleaning category. Companies like Clorox — best known for liquid bleach — are keen to establish their green cred. The challenge is overcoming the snob factor spoofed on "Green Housewives" and persuading shoppers that eco cleaners work as well as those containing such harmful chemicals as chlorine.
Clorox needs to "get away from the idea that these are premium-priced products used by the elite or people living on communes," said Michael Stone, who runs Beanstalk, a brand licensing agency that is part of Omnicom Group Inc.
The green cleaner aisle is getting crowded. Seventh Generation and Method have established themselves as niche brands targeting the Whole Foods crowd. Supermarket chains are rolling out private-label products, including Safeway's Bright Green line. Even Martha Stewart sells them.
Market researcher Packaged Facts projects 5 percent annual growth through 2016, which "may accelerate if economic conditions change." According to Nielsen, about one third of U.S. consumers are willing to pay more for green products. Clorox, whose 13 percent advance this year lags behind a 16 percent gain for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, is keen to goose growth in its consumer division even as it diversifies into medical supplies.
When Clorox introduced its plant-based Green Works line in 2008 the Oakland, Calif.-based company positioned it as a premium brand to compete directly with Seventh Generation and Method. A bottle of Green Works cleanser sold for as much as 25 percent more than Clorox's conventional products.
The introduction collided with the recession, and sales plunged once consumers began trading down. In 2009, Clorox had the biggest U.S. share of green cleaning products. By 2012, it had dropped to No. 3, behind Seventh Generation and Method, according to Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Maryland-based market research firm.
This year Clorox "democratized" the brand by cutting prices to within 5 percentage points of conventional cleaners. Green cleaning products generally cost 15 percent to 20 percent more than conventional ones, said Ali Dibadj, a Stanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst in New York.
Then, as part of the rebranding, Clorox hired Denver-based Futuristic Films to make "Green Housewives," which features "anxious eco-snob" Michon, Jamie, an "eco-socialite," and Elyse, the "queen of green."
In one episode, Michon coos over a "perfume- and dye- free" shirt made from 98 percent hemp.
"Yeah, right," says Elyse. "You want to be 2 percent responsible for destroying the planet?"
Clorox still needs to overcome skepticism that green products work as well as conventional ones. Last year, Consumer Reports recommended only one green laundry detergent, by Seventh Generation, and noted that it cost about twice as much as mainstream brands. In a test of 19 all-purpose cleaners, the magazine found some effective sprays by Green Works and Seventh Generation, yet said they "lose out to a veteran," Pine Sol.
Clorox's own research showed consumers thought green products weren't effective, streaked badly, were hard to find and cost 50 percent more, Chief Executive Officer Don Knauss said in an interview earlier this year.
"Consumers aren't very good at telling you what they want or what they need," he said. "They're very good at complaining about what doesn't work."
In a Packaged Facts survey of 2,000 consumers, almost half said they'd use green cleaners if they were more effective. To help change perceptions, Clorox has made its logo easily visible on Green Works products. While the move may seem "counterintuitive," research shows that trust in the Clorox name may overcome concerns about efficacy, said Heidi Dorosin, the cleaning division's marketing chief.
Clorox also has larded the Green Works website with customer testimonials. "Great quality. Safe. Affordable," one says. "And most of all it works."
Clorox's research shows "a lot of crossover" between its cleaners, with consumers often choosing conventional products for big projects and green sprays to wipe down counters their kids might be touching, Dorosin said.
She acknowledged that changing shopping habits is hard.
"This takes time," she said.