Can Marketing Change the World? (SBM 101)

Small Business Marketing 101I get razzed a lot by a couple of my friends that understand my take on marketing and its potential role in the world. That laugh whenever I mention that marketing can change the world. I have to admit that the laughter is a little frustrating. Maybe I have missed my opportunity to explain my thinking. Maybe I am being to idealistic. But the fact of the matter is that I truly feel that marketing can be used to change the world for the better.

bird covered in oil, gulf coast oil disasterFor a look at what mean, think about what has happened in the Gulf Coast. We are experiencing the effects of one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. In the course of a month, millions of gallons of oil were dumped into the ocean. No one knows what actual long-term effects this will have. But this was just one spill.

The actual story is much bigger. For decades, the marketing that has been done on behalf of the oil industry has done everything possible to ensure the American public about how safe we are, how wonderful the oil giants are, and how they are responsible corporate citizens who would never let us down. All the while, they rake in billions in profit, the execs take home millions in salary and bonuses, and we are left with the consequences.

It is a complicated situation indeed and we have been complicit in allowing ourselves to become so dependent upon fossil fuels. But this is about marketing. BP is a slick organization. They rebranded themselves as a greener, safer, more responsible company that is seeking long-term energy solutions. It was a nice move; however, at the end of the day, they are still an oil company. Their PR people work diligently to squash dissenting views and competitors that might offer an alternative. We can’t hate them for this. This is their job. The work for the oil company. Their mission is to sell oil in its many forms to us, the consuming public. They are tasked with positioning their products and services in such a way that we want them rather than the alternatives. And they have done a great job of it. They have even lobbied the politicians, got their support and even turned them into cheerleaders at times (remember Palin’s rally call, “Drill baby drill.”).

Effective marketing has played a major role in getting us to where we are today. I’d also say that effective marketing teamed with innovation can get us out of this mess.

What I am advocating for is beautiful and powerful marketing that is used to move us forward, that advocates for safer alternatives and is intent on helping all of us realize an amazing goal – a better tomorrow for our children.

Cause marketing has been around for a long time. It is used by companies worldwide. Whole Foods uses their organics and fair trade commitments to position themselves as an alternative to greedy companies that take advantage of poor, third-world farmers. Apple has diligently worked to become a green computer manufacturer (only after their own customers pushed them to do so). Many CPG companies jump on board with the Susan G. Koman foundation every year to raise awareness about breast cancer (even the NBA and NHL have got involved in this movement).

Some cause marketing is more effective than others. I will admit, I’ve never been swayed by NBA players wearing pink jerseys. I have also never bought off on NBC’s yearly green campaign where they shut off some or all of the lights in their studio to show their commitment to preventing global warming. Effective cause marketing comes down to two basic principles, relevance and sincerity.

Josh from "The Fuel Film"Let’s flip to the other side of the oil story for a minute. Yesterday I watched a rather interesting movie about oil alternatives, called “The Fuel Film.” It is about this guy named Josh that has been advocating for the the use of biofuels since the early 90s. It tells the story of how he and a few friends built the veggie van and drove it around the United States to raise awareness about biofuels and clean energy alternatives. You might have heard about him. He’s been featured on a number of television shows and newscasts. He is a quirky, yet very likeable kind of guy.

The movie makes a compelling argument and it provides clear, rational reasons for why we should be moving toward a cleaner, responsible, fossil fuel free energy policy. Here’s a clip from the film:

The Fuel Film is a great example of cause marketing (paired with another great marketing tool – education).

Cause Marketing and Your Business

Great cause marketing takes work. It is easy to say that we will champion this or that cause. Maybe you have a school nearby that seems  like a convenient cause to get involved in. Great, but if you do, do it right.

Start by asking yourself if the cause you are getting involved in is relevant. Whole Food embracing the fair trade movement is relevant; Whole Foods embracing the tobacco industry would not be. Look deeply at the vision and mission of your company. Talk to your team and customers about the issues that resonate with them. Look deeply within yourself about your passions. If you do these things, you end up taking care of the second characteristic of great cause marketing, sincerity.

After you have selected a cause, put your heart and soul into it. Nothing is worse that a good cause marketing effort that is backed by an organization that does not really care about the issue. Take the tobacco industry as an example. They have never been intent on preventing anyone from using their products. They might have to give money for education and prevention purposes; however, we can all see through to their true motives and intentions.

My only other suggestion would be to maintain focus and clarity with your efforts. As you choose and work toward your cause marketing goals, you will have a tremendous story to tell. Tell it, but don’t oversell it. Also, don’t get caught up in doing too much. I have worked with a number of smart businessmen and women that have great intentions and big hearts. Instead of having a focus, they tend to provide donations to almost anyone from their surrounding community that comes to them asking for help. To avoid this, have a plan in place:

  1. Select a cause and make it known that you are committed to it.
  2. Advertise your cause and talk about the things you are doing to make a difference.
  3. Educate your customers about the cause/problem and what they can do to participate or make a difference on their own.
  4. Get personally involved. Money donations are great; however, your and your teams personal involvement make for a much better story.
  5. Work behind the scenes to make a difference. Being seen is one thing, but your efforts away from the cameras will be just as much appreciated and adored. You might also be surprised by the amount of word of mouth that will be generated.
  6. Have a process in place for other people or charities that will approach you. You might consider having a simple statement prepared highlighting your cause and financial commitment to it. But always listen carefully to what these people have to say. It if is worth your time, effort and money then get involved. One other approach is to have a paper or web-based form set up that you require people to fill out when seeking donations. If you use such a form, ask pointed questions about what they want from you, how it will benefit your company, what types of exposure you will get, and what alternatives they have to financial participation. If all they want in money, weigh this carefully. You have limited resources and you should not be afraid to say no. Your involvement in a great cause and having a plan will help you say “no” when you need to.

Cause marketing is important, especially with today and tomorrow’s consumers. They want to do business with companies that are as committed to the communities they profit from as much as they are interested in the profits they take in. Making money is okay. No one will fault you for that. However, giving a crap about others also counts.

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