Real Issues Drive Real Engagement

Yesterday I wrote about the recent rush by companies to vehemently and vocally trumpet their sustainability and corporate social responsibility efforts in an attempt to either plug into the current Zeitgeist of consumers or, in cases like BP and many large banks, attempt to counteract the negative publicity resulting from some fairly egregious lapses. I also implied (ever so subtly, of course…) that many of these efforts were falling flat and failing to resonate with the intended audience. The reasons for this are numerous, but prominent among them is the failure by brands to overcome justified consumer skepticism due to a perceived dissonance between a brand’s actions and their messaging.

In a nutshell, many of these attempts to engage consumers around issues important to them fail because they are perceived as dishonest, hypocritical, or disingenuous attempts to pull the wool over their eyes. And if your message isn’t perceived as genuine and sincere, then no amount of repetition (aka frequency in ad terms) will help. In fact, it will do further harm. Hence, BP’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars to carpet-bomb network television viewers  insisting they are doing all they can to clean up the oil spill – instead of investing the money in actually cleaning things up or ensuring catastrophes like this never happen again – will backfire with many people, including this writer. Sure, some less-engaged, less-discerning viewers will be placated by the slick commercials but, unfortunate for BP, this passive audience group does not blog, influence or drive opinion.

Now, clearly, the situation with BP and the Gulf oil spill is an extreme example and they were forced into crisis mode by the events, leaving them flailing in an attempt at damage control. But, attempts at trying to squelch – or better yet take control and reverse – a negative message are not all that different from trying to seed, nurture and promote a positive story. In both cases it helps to be forthright, humble, and honest, traits many perceive as missing in BP’s efforts.

For a recent example where efforts to promote positive actions backfired badly, readers can turn to this story on the Hershey Company, who just issued their first ever Corporate Social Responsibility Report, timed to coincide with the occasion of founder Milton Hershey’s 153rd birthday. The verdict by John Robbins, writing in the Huffington Post is damning: “Long on platitudes and promises, it was classic example of the practice of greenwashing – a PR effort to mislead the public into thinking a company’s policies and products are socially responsible, when in fact they are not.”  Yikes!

Enough of the bad examples though. What can brands do to project a positive image and get consumers to not only like them but love them? Well, one approach is to find a real problem in the world – if you’re considering this approach, your timing couldn’t be better as we currently seem to have plenty – and then work to solve or at least lessen its impact. Ideally, find something that relates to your core business and allows you to bring your resources and core competencies to bear in a way that others could not.

A good example of this is the World Bicycle Program, an initiative to distribute bicycles in Africa and Asia sponsored by SRAM and Trek. Here is an idea that is simple, effective and perfectly aligned with the mission and business of the sponsoring brands. Efforts like this not only make a real impact in our world but also bear fruit, as made evident by the great coverage in the NY Times recently. And, since these efforts resonate and connect with consumers, they lead to real engagement and can generate a groundswell of goodwill and viral promotion, borne out by the 92 comments posted on the NYTimes site and countless re-posts to FaceBook, Twitter and blogs, including the one you’re reading now. What makes this story resonate is that people get it: we can all relate to Abel having to walk barefoot for three hours to get to school and we grasp how something as simple as a bike would reduce this significantly, freeing up more time to study, work or take care of his siblings. We also get the connection to SRAM and Trek and how these companies have the means to easily do something as simple as provide cheap, sturdy bikes that will dramatically change the lives of thousands of African children. In short, the story makes sense and it feels real.

Another good example is New Belgium’s support of the Save the Colorado project, an initiative to protect the Colorado River. Cynics may claim that it’s a bit self-serving for a brewery based in Fort Collins to advocate for water conservation, given that they rely on a supply of clean water to produce their beer. And, in fact, they would be correct to do so. New Belgium is even quick to point out that they are not entirely altruistic in their support of the initiative, and they openly admit water makes up over 90% of their product. Moreover, it’s clear to most that the brewery likely gets back just as much as they give through promotional exposure for their Skinny Dip beer, which they concede has also become their mascot for water advocacy. But who cares? By being forthright and honest, New Belgium is able to serve the greater good while also protecting their self-interest and making a few bucks. What could be more American than that?

My next post will look at other opportunities for advocacy-based exposure and will include some challenges for brands to step up and help solve problems here and abroad. For doing well while doing good makes for a great story. And having a great story, ultimately, is what great marketing is about.

About Daniel Backhaus

Dan has close to 15 years of experience in the field of information technology, brand development, and interactive marketing, working with brands that include Bayer AG, BMW, Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Bank, H&R Block and Wachovia. His diverse background includes service in our nation’s military, and stints at Xerox, TSYS, several technology start-ups and leading interactive agencies in Europe and the United States. Originally from Germany, he has lived and worked in Germany, the Czech Republic, Greece and England before settling in Atlanta in 2005. A PMI-certified Project Management Professional and a Six Sigma greenbelt, his experience includes digital strategy, solution sales, new business development, enterprise systems implementation, project and program management, SEO/SEM and Web Analytics. Dan holds a BS in Business Management from Arizona State University and an MBA with concentration in international business from the European University in Montreux, Switzerland. The parent of three young children, Dan’s interest in environmental sustainability issues stems from concerns over their future well-being and his international background have given him an enlightened perspective on the challenges we face and the approaches other countries and societies have taken in addressing them. Dan blogs about technology, his love of writing, interactive marketing, brand development and strategy and whatever or whoever might have pissed him off the week before.
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