The wonderful chemistry of Dow’s corporate ads

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Dow Chemical Co. has a modest goal for its corporate ad campaign: to be acknowledged as the largest, most profitable and most respected chemical company in the world.

The "Human Element" push, now a year old, has boosted Dow's brand-equity rating, as measured by CoreBrand, 25%, but here's how Dow CEO Andrew Liveris reckons the campaign will be successful: when a Dow employee in a bar anywhere in the world can tell the guy next to him where he works and get the response, "Oh, Dow. That's good."

Respect seems to be the operative word. And chemical companies, with memories of Agent Orange still lurking in the background, to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, don't get no respect.

Dow has lots of constituencies beyond its direct customers: local communities that might or might not welcome Dow in their backyards, legislators, journalists, environmentalists, charitable organizations and foundations, employees, shareholders, investment analysts and consumer influencers—the 10% of the population that "thinks a little more, that's more connected," according to Dow VP-Public Affairs Patti Temple Rocks. One unexpected benefit, Temple Rocks told me, is that the ads have served as a highly effective recruiting tool. As for Dow's own employees, "I've never seen a campaign that's been internalized to this degree," she said. The ads, she said, reflect the "core essence of what people want to do in a chemical company."

The idea is to show what the "human element" can do to solve some of the world's problems, such as countering climate change and providing clean water, decent housing, health, safety, and an affordable and adequate food supply.

The TV spots and print ads are written by DraftFCB's John Claxton (who also does the voice-over). They are powerful, even lyrical in tone—for my money, the best corporate campaign today. Listen to this: "For each of us, there is a moment of discovery. We turn a page. We raise a hand. And just then, in the flash of a synapse, we learn that life is elemental." (How many ads would dare use the word "synapse"?) It goes on: "And in the dazzling brilliance of this knowledge, we may overlook the element not listed on the chart—its importance so obvious its presence is simply understood. The missing element is the human element. And when we add it to the equation, the chemistry changes. ... The human element. Nothing is more fundamental, nothing more elemental."

Dow is addressing the litany of problems one at a time. To emphasize the need for clean water, the company is sponsoring a worldwide relay race with the Blue Planet Run Foundation. Ads running in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper's are headlined, "This summer, 20 runners will cross four continents to bring someone a drink of water."

Temple Rocks told me Dow has allocated upward of $25 million for the corporate ads, on top of the $5 million it normally spends on general advertising. She said she thinks it's important for the message and demeanor of all Dow ads to be the same, so I surmise DraftFCB might be in for an additional assignment.

It's hard to correlate a company's stock price with the impact of corporate advertising. But for the record, Dow's stock appreciated almost 29% in the last year (as of the close of trading on Aug. 1). Competitor DuPont's stock was up about 20%.

Temple Rocks said the key to a successful corporate campaign is to have the head man sold on it. "This is a campaign where people need to be passionate about it. Our CEO is passionate" about the Dow message, she said. "It's not a hard fight if you've got the commitment of the top guy."

Rance Crain is president of Crain Communications Inc., publisher of BtoB. This column first appeared in BtoB sibling Advertising Age on Aug. 6.

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