Is it a profit-seeking business or a social cause for good?
If you walked in cold on the Association of National Advertisers' Masters of Marketing conference last week, it was a logical question. The record 2,056 attendees heard presentations from the likes of Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever on what J&J's Worldwide VP-Global Marketing Kim Kadlec called "the intersection of marketing and social responsibility." Speakers danced between the concepts in presentations that played up their benevolence as much as their brand strategies.
A common theme was storytelling and defining a brand's story. As Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed said, "we have to stop looking at consumers as armpits that need deodorizing."
J&J is a health-care brand that connects people who are suffering. McDonald's wants to position itself as a nutrition-education advocate. Unilever champions sustainability. And more and more of that story is being told via social and digital media. "I didn't bring a sizzle reel," said Ms. Kadlec. "So much of what we do is outside that box."
Ms. Kadlec's presentation included a long look at the marketer's "Campaign for Nursing's Future," which she said helped produce the first increase in young nurses in two decades. She tugged on heartstrings, showing more than a few emotional spots. "I did not expect to cry at this conference," one attendee was overheard saying as Procter & Gamble Global Brand-Building Officer Marc Pritchard showed off the marketer's Olympic-themed "Proud Sponsor of Moms" campaign.
Of course, promoting a higher mission and building profitable brands are often one and the same, a point driven home the last time the ANA met in Florida two years ago, when "purpose-driven marketing" was the buzzword.
Twenty-four months later, it seems marketers face even more pressure to prove their societal worth—one need look no further than Alex Bogusky's scathing satire of Coca-Cola's polar bears for that (see page 6).
And it's a tough sell for some marketers. Neil Golden, senior VP-chief marketing officer for McDonald's USA, spent a lot of time rebutting criticism that the fast feeder has contributed to the nation's obesity epidemic. He highlighted changes to the Happy Meal, which now includes apple slices.
But with much talk about causes, there were few hard results. One of the better-received presentations was from Ford Group VP-Global Marketing and Sales Jim Farley, who gave a straightforward talk with case studies and frank discussion of what has worked for Ford in digital marketing. The company, taking a cue from video-gaming, now "prelaunches" new models months in advance, spending 20% of the launch budget before a car hits showrooms.
Oddly, the company that was the most unabashed in discussing good works as a means of making money was Luta, a sportswear marketer launching in the U.S. that earmarks 50% of profit for battling youth violence. "Is it a charity, a business? I want people to be confused," said Luke Dowdney, CEO-founder. "That's how we'll deal with some of the social problems we have."
Contributing: Jack Neff, Judann Pollack, Natalie Zmuda