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Marketers Aiding Consumer Responsibility

You can’t read a social-media consultant’s blog or attend a conference these days without hearing that we marketers must shift our messages according to the challenging economic times we’re living in today. One of the things most of us agree on is that businesses of all kinds must tone down messages that encourage extravagant living, and become more responsible in stoking the culture of wild consumerism.

Many still see advertisers as part of the problem, and that will continue to a certain extent, but most marketers understand that their job is to listen to society’s shifting sentiments and alter messages accordingly. For example, value messages are sweeping across television and print, and fancy stores on Fifth Avenue are providing plain brown shopping bags. Now, companies are even investing their marketing dollars to form more responsible product-usage habits.

The origin for this post came up a few days ago when Ian “Trey” Dahlman from our search team told me about an offer he got from Home Depot via direct mail. It was an offer to help him pay off a balance on his Home Depot credit card with a pretty unique offer: For every dollar that you pay over the minimum amount, Home Depot will take off another 20 percent from your card. For example, if your minimum payment is $50 and you pay $100, then 20 percent of that extra $50, or a total of $10, is further credited to your account. The total offer was up to $550 in credit over a four-month period. That’s a pretty incredible deal.

Home Depot is obviously acting in its self-interest as well as that of its customers; it hopes that people will pay off its balances first when all of the bills come at the same time. But I’ve heard of few other companies actually sweetening the offer and giving something big back to their customers.

About a day later I read of another example of a company that is similarly investing in helping its buyers be more responsible. Absolut vodka just launched a campaign called Recognize the Moment, which aims to help people be smarter about their alcohol consumption. A YouTube channel features people at bars talking about drinking responsibly, and its website has information about the effects of alcohol and signs that you’ve had too much. There are some good tips about how to drink water between cocktails, and I really like Absolut’s “Text the Moment” feature in which you can set a message to come to your phone to act as a sober slap in the face at 2 a.m.

Of course, no good deed goes without a cynical comment or complaint. In Absolut’s case the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a nanny-state proponent that promotes junk science claims and wants to eliminate everything “bad for you” that tastes great) calls the brand’s efforts “fluff” and suggests that any type of alcohol marketing online is evil because “the Internet is largely a youth-oriented phenomenon.”

Teaching responsible product use is not a completely brand-new trend. A few months ago I wrote about how Liberty Mutual started a campaign to teach people to take responsibility for their behavior. State Farm is investing in teen driver education programs. I would also toss in the examples of Bank of America helping its customers avoid bank fees, and Tylenol advertising that skipping breakfast can cause headaches. And then there’s the Hyundai Assurance Guarantee program, which promises to take your car back if you lose your job. It was the most boring but arguably most meaningful ad of the 2009 Super Bowl, but guess what? Sales are up 4.9 percent while overall car sales are down 40 percent—and ZERO buyers have returned their cars!

Some of these programs can actually hurt brands’ sales. People who know when to say when to a third cocktail or cut up their credit cards mean dampened profits in the short term. But the brands realize that short-term gains are not what great businesses are built on; rather, they rely on long-term loyalty beyond reason. The man who got a text-alert reminder to call a cab from Absolut and the woman who finally paid off her card thanks to Home Depot’s help will eventually spend again.

And finally, let’s not forget that there are real people living and working on the brand teams at these companies. Despite the demonization by critics at “watch groups” such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who believe we businesses people are filling conference-room whiteboards with evil schemes, most businesspeople actually do give a damn about their consumers.

Sure, there are examples of horrible practices by workers at companies from Enron to AIG, but by and large the workers of the world want to do the right thing. We don’t want our neighbors to rack up high credit-card bills or blood-alcohol levels. And as we become a closer, more caring society as a result of our economic calamity, I expect the people behind brands to lead the charge for a kind of marketing that makes a better mark on the world.

2 Responses to “Marketers Aiding Consumer Responsibility”

  1. I just don’t think an example here and there is going to convince many consumers out there that “most business people actually do give a damn about their consumers.”

    And you haven’t convinced me that people behind brands are going to lead the charge. I think brand as a term and as a concept has provided way too much cover for unsustainable business strategies and practices.

    Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP in a letter contained in the WPP Social Responsibility Report notes that we have had a “marginal effect” at changing consumer behavior about worryingly high levels of greenhouse gas. He acknowledges that the marketing industry “has been unwittingly complicit in causing the problem.”

    So how do we as leaders in marketing convey to our clients and to our organizations that it is no longer business as usual and that we are not going to be “unwittingly complicit” in marketing unsustainable products and services?

    How do we do this when our industry is laying off people and drowning in red ink, when marketing leadership on the client side is struggling with 28-month average tenure rates (most C-level folks tenure rates are measured in years, not months), when profits drive the use of emotional rather than rational messages (see Ad Age 3/2) and when there has been a collapse of our economic system, a major element of sustainability?

    Sir Martin offers some advice that is relevant to both greenhouse gas and economic collapse.

    “We are now confronted with an historic opportunity: to shape and encourage consumer demand for sustainable products and lifestyles; to restore the true value of durability; to reject the super?uous in products and packaging; to make much of what has passed for fashion deeply unfashionable.”

    And I would add, to repair our reputation as marketers.

    Maybe we should pull those watchdogs into the conversation.

  2. Bob says:

    Great points, Ruth. I’d like to address your final point, “maybe we should pull those watchdogs into the conversation”.

    The problem with most special interest groups, whether it’s the CSPI, Greenpeace or M.A.D.D. is that they are often filled with people of extreme opinions. Leaders at these groups and the people that follow them actually DO believe that we marketers are evil. Like good conspiracy theorists, they stoke fear and never admit that a company could do good.

    So it’s unfair to suggest that marketers should just pull them into the conversation. But I would add that smart marketers are partnering with interest groups that are more mainstream and more willing to partner. Take the Sierra Club, for example, which is partnering with Clorox on its Green Works line. Here’s a link to a blog post where I talk more about that:

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