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In several speeches and panels, agency executives and a company promoting carbon-neutral solutions said the potential benefits are many, as consumers and businesses are willing to support marketers and ad agencies perceived as being part of a better-world solution. It can also raise the profiles of companies and lead to better image with investors, they said.
At the same time, however, they cautioned that consumers are suspicious, noting that companies have to show that any cause-related marketing really ties to their brand and be careful not to overstate claims.
Environmentalism goes mainstream
"Consumers expect companies to give back as much as they take," said David Jones, global CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide. "Today it's a mainstream issue." He cautioned that companies need to have not only a strong position, but one that is clear. "Be differentiated," he said. "This is one of more cluttered areas of the world."
Mr. Jones said that up to 86% of consumers believe that companies should stand for something beyond profitability and 80% believe that they should censure companies that don't behave.
Mr. Jones said marketers can reap rewards not just from environmental claims, but also other activities viewed as benefiting the world. He cited successful examples of Unilever's campaign for Dove celebrating women of all shapes and sizes and Volkswagen's European campaign for car safety that includes warnings on cellphone use and drinking.
Get your story straight
Yet he also warned there are perils. Mr. Jones cited General Motors Corp., which promoted electric cars in development, and then said the cars will arrive later than projected, as well as Greenpeace's campaign that takes Apple's friendly image to task because some of its iPod products aren't recyclable. He also raised questions about how Unilever can on one hand suggest in Dove ads that women should be celebrated for however they look, while at the same time promote men's deodorant brand Axeusing more traditional female sex-symbol imagery.
Mr. Jones also said companies that don't act to differentiate their brands will have it defined by others.
Mark Armitage, U.S. president of the Carbon Neutral Co., which promotes carbon-neutral solutions, said some companies have turned carbon-neutral footprints into an asset that they can use as an advantage in touting themselves to potential suppliers.
Joe Rivas, exec VP of Y&R, said brands that have made the move to social responsibility have done well, citing Toyota and Ben & Jerry's as examples.
Eric Biel, managing director-corporate responsibility for Burson-Marsteller, agreed but cautioned that the public's cynicism made it incumbent on marketers trying to use the claims to be careful. "It is absolutely critical to show a trace of humility," he said.