The New York Times claimed in an article by Stephanie Clifford and Andrew Martin that “As Consumers Cut Spending, “Green” Products Lose their Allure.” The evidence is the fall-off of sales of green cleaning products of mainstream firms. The headline subtext is that green products get lip service from consumers but when it comes to buying, especially when there are a few cents more involved, the motivation fades.

Let me put another spin on that data. First, the existence of brands like Green Works from Clorox, Nature’s Source from S. C. Johnson, and Arm & Hammer Essentials from Church & Dwight may be strategically useful in the future if and when the green movement does become more mainstream and the core expands as it is doing.

Although initially the brands received significant advertising support, they are now getting little investment which means the burden on the firms is low. A brand such as Fiber One from General Mills was unexciting but when the low fiber craze started, having that brand was very worthwhile. Think of the brand as an option on a possible future change in market conditions. Further, the green brand may affect the reputation of the parent brand.

To be viewed as a sustainable brand, albeit a minor one, may affect the energy and relevance of the firm in other business categories. Second, the independent brands like Method and Seventh Generation that pioneered the category have, in contrast done well. Why? Probably because of the classic first mover advantage.

They have the aura of authenticity about them because of the early buzz and the original innovation that involved no compromise. Further, they attracted the core buyer, the ones that will be conversant with the issues, will pay more if necessary, and will receive significant self-expressive benefits from the brand. That means that the major firms had to go to the mainstream market without the sales base and credibility of the core buyers.

Finally, it is likely that these pioneering brands tied up prime distribution such as Whole Foods Markets. There is probably an interaction between the green cleaner bands and green retailers not only with customers but in associations. A green product will simply be more comfortable in a green store. It is a challenge for mainstream brands to become relevant in a new subcategory in which another brand has earned authenticity by its product, its distribution home, even its position as the exemplar of the new subcategory, especially if the mainstream brand lacks a leapfrog innovation.

One way to address the relevance barrier would be to develop an innovative branded program and use it to redefine the category. Green Works attempted to do just that with the “Green It Yourself” website with Carter Oosterhouse, a green living expert who can make recommendations as to how to green each room. Apparently, this did not get sufficient traction to build the brand with a large enough audience in the short run, but “Green It Yourself” may still over time be the basis for a brand platform.

So before the green market within a category is disparaged as a viable option for mainstream firms, we need to take a strategic view of a green brand and consider the steps to become relevant in a subcategory that others have pioneered.