Sustainability: Talking the Walk, Friday, 15 July 2005 12:00AM

Can companies employ cause-related marketing to promote their good intentions without provoking a cynical backlash? Mark Tungate reports.

In a recent issue of The Economist, readers might have noticed a picture of a kettle. This wasn't just any old boiler, but a metaphor for an environmentally friendly scheme initiated by ... wait for it ... Esso.

Yes, the oil company wanted to convince us that it was taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The copy explained that Esso's refineries "capture steam that would otherwise be wasted and use it in the refining process", claiming such energy-saving had a "dramatic effect on emissions". All very laudable, we're sure - but isn't this just the kind of ad that gets companies accused of "greenwashing"; paying lip service to environmental concerns while drawing a veil over the damage their core business is doing to the earth?

Esso says not. Its spokesman David Eglington says: "These ads don't try to cover anything up - they're telling it like it is, informing people about the challenge ahead. The fact is, we're seeing a worldwide rise in the demand for energy, and somebody has to provide it. While we are investigating alternatives, our focus is on a world that is still reliant on fossil fuels. So how can we use them more efficiently?"

Organisations such as Friends of the Earth remain unconvinced. FoE's Craig Bennett, the head of the environmental accountability campaign, says: "Companies such as BP, Exxon Mobil and Shell overstate their social and environmental performance while failing to address the real problem, which is that they need to get out of the oil and gas business."

To hear Bennett talk, one might conclude that any company rash enough to run a cause-related marketing campaign is setting itself up to be pilloried.

"The Esso example is absolutely extraordinary," he says. "If only they invested the money they set aside for marketing on changing their working practices and on lobbying the government to introduce legislation."

Lightening up a little, Bennett admits many energy companies are trying to make progress. But too often, he says, corporate social responsibility is a term bandied around at the top of organisations while failing to filter into their daily reality. "It's particularly evident in London, where an elite group of CSR professionals all know each other and give one another awards for their work, while communities living alongside their facilities have an entirely different experience." He points to FoE's expose Behind the Shine, which targets Shell.

Energy companies are by no means the only culprits, Bennett observes.

"It's almost amusing that British American Tobacco has won several awards for its CSR programme (which includes combating under-age smoking and sponsoring university courses). What more proof do you need that CSR is out of touch with reality?"

Such vitriol indicates that companies must tread warily with CSR. HSBC is now the world's first carbon-neutral bank, but has been careful not to brag about it. Brendan May, the head of CSR at the PR advisor Weber Shandwick, says: "Companies have become more cautious about trumpeting their achievements. By putting themselves on a pedestal, they are more violently attacked than companies that neglect their responsibilities altogether."

Once again, May believes honesty is the best policy: "I was quite impressed by the fact that General Electric admitted that it was investing in greener technology not for altruistic reasons, but because there's a market for it."

Turning his attention away from the energy sector, he cites Nike as a company that had "got it horribly wrong, and is now doing everything right".

A few years ago, as May explains, Nike was struggling to play down reports of exploitative labour practices at its Asian factories. "The company claimed its factories were clean while offering only the flimsiest of evidence. Recently, however, it released a report detailing the labour conditions at the 700 Nike factories in Asia, including their addresses so you could, in theory, go and see for yourself. Not only that, but it admits that in some of the factories, conditions are still unacceptable and more work needs to be done."

Large consumer brands such as Nike are tempting targets for rebels with a cause. McDonald's often finds itself in the firing line. Last year, it was fingered as a cause of rising obesity in the West - partly sparked by the film Super Size Me. While denying that its hand had been forced, McDonald's introduced more salads to its menu, and launched an ad campaign to promote healthier eating.

At a debate organised by the International Advertising Association in Paris last year, Pierre Woreczek, who heads McDonald's European food studio (responsible for much of the company's menu in Europe), denied this was purely a reaction against negative PR. "We follow customer demand, not the media. We had been planning to introduce more salads at least two years before Super Size Me."

You can't win, it seems. Plus, FoE suggests CSR initiatives may do more harm than good in the long run.

"Governments are delighted when companies publicise a change in environmental or social policy, because it alleviates the pressure on them to legislate," Bennett says. "The greatest success of CSR has been to encourage government apathy."

But the most apathetic participant of all in this debate turns out to be, naturally, the ad industry. May says: "If the ad industry is so creative, why isn't it doing something to galvanise public opinion about the way some corporations are treating our planet? Remember the iconic poster of the mushroom cloud that decorated the bedroom wall of many a nuclear protestor? Where's the environmentally aware equivalent? Surely the ad industry isn't just happy to sit back and take the money." Over to you, readers.


Vanessa Doherty is the director of Business in the Community's cause-related team. She frames three questions (lightly edited here) a company should ask itself before it runs a cause-related campaign. "Be honest about the answers," she adds.

- Is the initiative genuinely beneficial?

Is the cause-related activity one that genuinely benefits the public and will you have the facts to prove it? Before undertaking any cause-related activity, you should communicate with a representative of your target group (a charity, for example) and develop an evaluation system. If you get it right, those who back your chosen cause will help you communicate your success.

- Does the cause you are adopting make sense?

BITC's research shows that customers value cause-related activity highly: but only when it is non-opportunistic and delivers tangible benefits. Customers will be sceptical about partnerships that don't intuitively "fit".

- Do you have the right communications strategy?

BITC's research shows that customers want to know about cause-related campaigns, as it helps them to make positive brand choices. Yet, paradoxically, consumers don't want companies to boast about it. It is a case of "shouting quietly" - a difficult balance.

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