Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Don't tout your social responsibility if it doesn't exist

Last week brought a cautionary tale for any brand or company looking to promote its social responsibility. Chevron had its "We agree" campaign -- intended to brandish its corporate responsibility image over that of other oil giants -- hijacked by a group called the Yes Men, working in tandem with a couple environmental groups.

The "hijackers" issued fake press releases and even built a phone website closely mimicking the actual "We agree" site, pointing out what they believe to be Chevron's environmental miscues and hypocrisy.

Recently I mentioned the proliferation of purpose-driven campaigns and the danger of so many brands jumping on the cause marketing bandwagon that consumers could become jaded. But the Chevron case highlights an even bigger danger: What if consumers just don't buy your message? What if they don't believe your brand is truly socially responsible?

I read a very good column on AdAge.com by a branding expert named Jonathan Salem Baskin. His advice to avoid a situation like Chevron's? Tell the truth. In other words, don't promote your cause or social responsibility if it doesn't exist.

Consider this from Baskin:

Let's face it: We marketers have long tolerated a "truth gap." We've celebrated it, because it meant we were successful in our efforts to invent a host of imagined benefits for which consumers would pay extra. It didn't matter that the claims we claimed could never be substantiated, or that the values with which we associated our brands were purchased, not organic. Sell the same car or TV for more because of some sleight of superficial badge? No worries; nobody had the capacity or desire to discover the truth.

Not so much anymore. That truth gap is coming back to bite us.

I admit I'm somewhat biased, but I honestly don't think most petfood companies are guilty of perpetuating such a truth gap, nor can I think of any situations of a petfood marketer touting a cause or some aspect of corporate responsibility that just doesn't ring true.

Perhaps that's because selling petfood is, in many ways, very different from selling cars, TV or oil and its by-products. On the other hand, given the strong emotions inextricably linked with the pet industry -- after all, most pet owners don't consider choosing and buying food for their beloved pets as simply a purchase transaction -- that means petfood companies must be even more careful to be sure their marketing rings true. Especially if they're touting their support of pets, the environment or another cause.

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