The Eco Fee Disaster: A Case Study on how not to do Marketing and Communications

As a marketing communications professional who both works and blogs in the area of public sector and non-profit marketing and communications, I tend to see a lot of stuff some good and some bad but I cannot remember in my close to  30 years in the business seeing anything worse than the Ontario’s eco fee disaster . If I was to ever write a case study of how not to public sector marketing and communications this would be it, although the most recent activities by the Harper government with the Long Form Census would come a very close second see my previous blog Research Has Become a Dirty Word: Part Two .

First let me say that I always felt over the years that the folks at Queens Park had their act together and were professional in their communications and marketing but the Ontario’s eco fee disaster makes me wonder who is running the show in Toronto.  Clearly the Premiers office and his communications folks in the bureaucracy let him down. After the e-Health disaster, I thought these guys would get their act together but this obviously is not the case.

As Ellen Roseman points out “it’s a relief to see the Ontario government suspend its controversial eco fee program for three months. I’ve rarely seen the citizens of this province react so angrily to a new initiative. In fact, I expected to see more hostility against the launch of the harmonized sales tax, as in British Columbia. Instead, people seemed to channel their rage into the eco fees, which had a lesser impact on their cost of living than the HST.”

“Maybe it was a case of unfortunate timing, since both came in on the same day (July 1). And maybe it was a case of having a well-executed communication plan for the HST and almost no advance notice for the expanded eco fee program – leading to distress when consumers started seeing mysterious charges on their sales receipts.”

Peter Gorrie Environment Columnist with the Globe and Mail explains “that the fee is part of a larger plan to keep discards out of landfills and, if possible, to recycle or reuse their components. The goal is for the companies that make and sell stuff, and those of us who buy it, to take responsibility for what happens when we’re finished with it. This concept began in this direction in the late-1980s, when the Blue Box was invented to reduce the mountain of garbage created by the switch from refillable pop bottles to single-use containers. Since then, the list of recyclable materials has expanded, and several payment schemes have been tried. The same is happening elsewhere in Canada and around the world. We are, in fact, already well along that road: We pay a tire tax and a charge for disposing used motor oil. Fees were introduced on some electronics products, and we began paying eco fees for some hazardous materials, and that list was expanded 17 days ago.”

Mike Arnett, president of Canadian Tire Retail suggests that the fees, which have been mired in confusion since retailers started charging them on thousands of new items July 1, were the victim of a “botched” roll out and “poorly handled” by everyone involved, “We just think that the whole program that was rolled out was not well-managed by anyone, really, and that it’s caused a great deal of confusion for our customers,” “We’re being asked questions that we don’t have good answers to, and we really think the program needs to be reworked. They set up a very complicated structure for charging eco fees and left retailers to sort it out. “Even more confusing, the ‘interpretation’ of these fees is left up to each retailer — meaning that five different retailers may charge five different eco fees for the exact same product — all depending on how they interpret the very complicated fee structure,”

Stewardship Ontario, an industry-led organization that oversees the program, collects certain fees from retailers and manufacturers. They, in turn, determine the fees that they pass on to consumers. Clearly they didn’t do a good job in preparing Ontario consumers for the new fees. Arnett points out that “Stewardship Ontario did not provide answers to the many questions customers and the media had in the face of fees that nobody understood” “We don’t have good answers — because the program itself isn’t built to be intuitive for either customers or retailers.”

Consumers, critics and some industry groups have been scratching their heads about why certain items are subject to the levy, such as laundry detergent, grass seed and environmentally friendly products that use natural ingredients.

The government initially did not take responsibility for the program shifting all the blame for this fiasco on Stewardship Ontario which obviously was a foolish communications strategy. The government should have never allowed the industry to effectively regulate itself with respect to the eco fees. As NDP leader Andrea Horvath stated “The government dropped the ball, it’s now up to the government to pick up the pieces and ensure the companies that profit off this waste should be responsible for getting rid of it — not their customers,”

Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen stated that he takes “full responsibility” for not doing a better job of communicating the introduction of the new charges. “The bottom line is Stewardship Ontario could have done a better job for rolling out the changes, and we, the Ministry of the Environment, the government, and I as minister, could have done a better job of helping them communicate their changes, and I take full responsibility for that,” said Gerretsen.

Yes Minister but where were you a few weeks ago when this fiasco first hit?

Roseman: Lessons for leaders in Ontario’s eco fee disaster

“Make it simple. You have to craft a quick summary of who you are and what you hope to do. It’s called an elevator pitch, since you want to sell yourself in the time it takes to ride from the ground floor to the top of a high-rise office tower. Stewardship Ontario didn’t prepare an elevator pitch. It provided no coherent explanation of eco fees at its website, nor an easily accessible list of fees to use on a shopping trip. Instead, its messaging was defensive and negative from the start – the media got it wrong, this is not a tax grab, we’re not a government body, we have no involvement in the setting or collection of eco fees and no authority over how stewards manage the fees.

Take accountability. When you get bad press, which often happens when you tamper with the status quo, you have to make yourself visible. It’s a time when a chief executive has to respond to every media call that comes in and squeeze as many interviews into a schedule as possible. It’s not a time to hide from the public, as Stewardship Ontario’s CEO Gemma Zecchini did for a week before issuing a contrite news release. And need I mention that the Premier hasn’t made any statements, delegating everything to his environment minister John Gerretsen?  Keep control. When you’re a leader, you can’t escape responsibility for failure by blaming others. You’re in charge and you must maintain oversight of any arm’s length bodies that carry out your wishes.”

One last thing and this is a message to all public sector and non-profit programs, first have a strategy to consult with stakeholders and make sure they are totally in the loop. When instituting major changes to policy, it is important to conduct some public opinion research to ensure that you won’t receive a backlash from consumers. It is pretty standard to have a communications plan but do you also have a plan to SELL your program or policy? Have you considered doing some marketing… we use marketing to sell products and service so why not programs and policies? Too often we hear program mangers tell us at the Centre that they don’t have time or money to run a proper marketing (public education) program but this is a reminder of the consequences of not running and effective marketing program . I hope that the folks at Stewardship Ontario and the Ministry of Environment have learned their lesson.


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