CSI, Marketing and the Biofuels Lesson
In the new South Africa, many brands have already moved decisively towards a strong mix of Corporate Social Investment (CSI) and marketing.
Outsurance – which features its community programmes in its mainstream advertising – is currently the most notable player in this respect, but there are many other examples. The Standard Bank pay-off line (Inspired, Motivated, Involved), for example, has at its core a socially involved positioning for the bank.
Similar trends are widespread internationally. Walmart, for instance, dedicated the month of April to highlighting environmentally friendly products to customers, while in key sectors, such as coffee, the social and environmental impact of the production process is a key selling point for many brands. So, during April one of the products Walmart highlighted was Sam’s Coffee – a brand whose narrative focuses on the benefits it delivers to producing farmers under the Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance Certified banner.
Al Gore has also had a serious impact on global corporate consciousness with his film An Inconvenient Truth, and recently played a pivotal role in setting up an investment fund – to the value of $683m – designed to invest in green start up businesses. These sorts of mechanisms – which are emerging on a weekly basis across the global economy – open a series of new doors for major brands to start to put serious weight behind environmental projects of all shapes and sizes. It seems inevitable, then, that in coming years brands of all shapes and sizes will start pushing CSI money and focus more and more towards environmental issues and causes. Where a few years back simply locating your office in a so-called eco park was considered an innovative move, in the future significant support for environmental and energy projects will see the lines between CSI and marketing become increasingly blurred.
As always, there is a flip side. One of the key considerations of the emerging environmental economy is the fact that the majority of emerging eco-capitalist business models is fundamentally experimental – this context will pose many challenges for brands seeking to cross pollinate their marketing and CSI activities.
In this context, the ongoing biofuels saga offers important examples. In a world where the supply of oil is inversely matched by our expanding reliance on vehicular transport, producing fuel for cars and other vehicles out of plant materials has long been considered an important idea. As such, the use of biofuels became law in the UK on the 15th of April 2008. From now on, all UK petrol must contain 2.5% biofuel, and similar legislation is being put in place in other parts of the world.
Biofuels have had a significant impact in terms of national brand identities as well. Brazil, most notably, has been at the forefront of the biofuel boom – the country is one of the world’s leading producers of biofuels and has itself passed legislation mandating a 23% ethanol mix in all petrol in the country. Brazil as a national brand is now tightly aligned with biofuels.
Recently, however, a chorus of voices has emerged claiming that biofuels are actually compounding environmental degradation and global warming. From the New York Time’s to Britain’s Independent and Guardian newspapers, biofuels are now blamed for driving the global cost of food upward and for actually increasing toxic emissions into the atmosphere. Logically, critics say, utilising foodstuff’s for commercial energy requirements place pressure on food supplies that are not sustainable. In addition, critics claim that morphing soy fields (soy is a key biofuel source plant) are now obliterating prime forests at a never-before-seen rate, spurred on by global demand for biofuel, while the burning of cane fields is having an equally thunderous negative impact on the environment. Critics back up their claims by pointing out that Brazil has shot into fourth place in the world’s list of major polluters since becoming a leading biofuel player.
While biofuels will almost certainly over time become an important component in a basket of globally relevant environmental tools, in 2008 an extraordinary amount of conceptual biofuel ‘un-picking’ needs to be done, while in the public realm sensationalised media articles on the biofuel crisis only serves to reinforce rapidly growing negative perceptions of an erstwhile silver bullet solution. The result? People and organisations across the world are running for cover in an attempt to limit the reputational damage.
In the 20th century brand strategists developed a strong hype model. Whether the product was chewing gum, soft drinks or insurance policies, for decades the aim of advertisers and communications consultants has been to ensure their client is viewed as the solution to all problems – even those it has nothing to do with. There has been, as the old adage says, no such thing as bad publicity. In the world of eco-capitalism, however, some serious re-thinking will be required as to how to position brands over the long term – and it’s here that the biofuels offers their most important lesson. Biofuels clearly show us that in the 21st century the status of brand hero also has the potential to become a serious liability, overnight – particularly where fledgling eco-capitalist business models are concerned.
So, where in the past ‘over promise and under deliver’ was perceived by many as an essentially soft aspect of branding and business, in the eco-capitalist context it will surely become the bedrock of business and brand strategies. Pragmatic brands will throw their CSI weight behind strong environmental projects, but will also be very careful about assuming too much of a ‘hero’ posture in publicising these projects. When the consequences of failure and / or scandal are so high, few will want to get caught in the full glare of public opinion.
Article by Janice Sparks