Apples, Oranges, & Other Measures of Success
The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 2 of 4

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 1 of 4

Carbon Buttprint

It's difficult to work in marketing and live without illusions. Hypocrisy is something you can't escape when you sell a product or service. There is no perfect marketing message.

Unlike public relations, which can veer from great journalism to thinly disguised product placement, marketing doesn't claim to holiness. You're telling other people to focus their attention on a single element of a complicated product or service, all the while attempting to differentiate your client from their peers.

No wonder people equate lawyers with advertising professionals at the bottom of the professional food chain. Both of them deal in arbitrary versions of the truth, contested and argued before a court of your peers. At least salespeople get to have a conversation with their clients, while marketers often inject static messaging into the world at large, hoping that their audience aligns their loyalties with your line of thinking.

When you look at your marketing message in this way, I think it becomes evident why it's so hard for companies to market charitable initiatives, present themselves as socially responsible through mass media, or demonstrate true concern about environmental change. You're asking people to look you in the eye and perhaps smile, but they can't help but focus on the spot of blood on your cheek, trickling slowly towards the ground...

With this in mind, I'd like to propose the following three laws regarding the pitfalls of marketing your corporation's social responsibility. And at the end of this series, I'll provide guidelines that companies can follow to minimize the amount of perceived hypocrisy your social responsibility marketing can have on your brand -- and so you don't end up as a social offsetter like CITGO.

This post talks about the following rule:

1) You can't market social responsibility without an ounce of hypocrisy.

CREDO Mobile (formerly Working Assets Wireless) gives 1% of all wireless fees to liberal charities and organizations, straight off the top. Over they past 23 years, they've given $50 million to charity. Sounds great on paper. Looks good in the ads. Makes you feel like you're part of something bigger. Keeps you in your tribe of like-minded friends.

And if I do the math correctly, that is approx. $5 billion in aggregated revenue for Working Assets. So... why don't you just give that $50 million straight to the charities involved and use AT&T? Over the past 60 years, AT&T has donated $1.6 billion dollars (and counting) to social causes from their foundation. Sure, I don't have control over where AT&T donates their money. $1.6 billion is a micro-fraction of the many gazillions AT&T has made over the years. And I know they're getting a big tax break from their foundation revenue. With that in mind, I'm going to stick with their cell-phone service and go write a big check to the ACLU.

I love the idea behind CREDO Mobile and hope that they have continued success. But I can already hear the meetings cranking up in the AT&T corporate offices about how to cut off CREDO at the pass and crush them with their own big charitable digits. Every little bit counts, but if you've got lots of big bits, you have a better story.

This leads to a corollary to the first law of marketing social responsibility:

Context overrules substance. Your audience and competition will always have a counter-argument to your marketing position.

No matter how much you donate to a charity or how much you reinvent your business model to be more socially responsible, be aware of the context of change.

Change in the realm of social responsibility is incremental and somewhat arbitrary. You can never do enough to manifest real impact. It can only be aggregated over time and eventually quantified on a fiscal basis. Unlike marketing the benefits of a product such as a cell phone, which can be itemized and positioned against similar benefits of your competitor's phones, social responsibility has no parity other than how much you donate and who it goes to. Equality between charities is morally relative -- one person's National Rifle Association is another person's American Cancer Society.

Now, another corollary:

The risk of hypocrisy increases as social responsibility increases.

Take, as a recent example, the TerraPass.

Carbon offsetting is the rage in social responsibility. The TerraPass has gained a lion's share of press in the market, promoting offsetting as well as behavioral change as key ways to make a difference in the environment and help reduce global warming.

According to the ticker at the bottom of their website, they've helped 75,000 individuals and businesses offset 708,573,072 pounds of carbon emissions. That made me feel warm and fuzzy, because those numbers show that they've made a tangible difference. Their site does a bang-up job of describing the ways that you can participate without veering into preachy territory. It made me comfortable to give it a shot.

So, where's the hypocrisy in the TerraPass? It's hard to sniff out, but I'll take a stab:

They're selling the future. And the future is a hard product to offer, because it may never materialize in the bright, glossy, natural form that we imagine. (Yes, I have read The World Without Us. That isn't likely to happen... yet.)

I went and reviewed the Executive Summary of the EPA's summary report on Greenhouse Gases. It said that there were 6,089.5 teragrams of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in 2005. Needless to say, as I did the math my warm fuzzies rapidly evaporated under the hot sun of those statistics.

A much, much greater quantity of people -- an order of magnitude greater -- needs to participate in the TerraPass program and others like it before any real change occurs. We're so far in the hole on carbon emissions that it can seem a Sisyphean task to recover.

With regards to carbon offsetting: you can market the benefit, but the only tangible is how you feel after you've written your check and the knowledge that sometime in the future, the needle will swing one micron in the right direction. (And this seems like a silly little point, but here goes: they started with a team from a university, but are now a corporation. As a nonprofit, they may have been able to administrate their efforts more affordably and sink their excess revenue into more projects. On the other hand, as a for-profit corporation, things can get a heck more nimble and there's usually less politics about the whole enterprise.)

The TerraPass vision? 10 billion pounds of carbon offset and a million people participating in their program. What's wrong with that? Not much, unless those billions are amortized over, say, 25 years. Using the above math, and assuming the carbon output of the U.S. is stable, we won't have made that much of a dent. Why not just browbeat the oil companies through legislation into speeding up their development of alternative energy sources? Reduce plastics use and replace with alternative, biodegradable resources? There's always a faster way, with the right money and resources, to go further. Oi.

This is a third corollary of the first law:

A better charitable decision can always be rationalized by your audience. Be prepared for it. Roll with it. Consider using it.

I love the TerraPass and will be using it when I take plane flights. But I have no illusions that I'll perceive a demonstrable, positive climate change in my lifetime from their efforts. And there's no way TerraPass can be a success if they come out of the gate with that kind of truth. Sorry, Al Gore, but here's how I'm reducing my carbon footprint: I'm not having kids. What kind of special bonus credit do I get for that?


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