I’ve been at the annual Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego this week, and for the first time in years I didn’t actually speak … I just got to sit back and absorb. Though I’m walking away today with many thoughts and ideas related to leveraging sustainability to gain a market advantage, there’s one area I want to focus on: tackling issues head-on and turning them into a positive for your brand.
The first step to doing this successfully is “getting” what the issue actually is. Heineken talked about their goal to have 50% of their ingredients from sustainable sources by 2020 … but quickly pointed out (not this bluntly) that nobody cares. What people care about – their “issue” – is irresponsible drinking. So they’ve tackled this head-on, first with a campaign claiming that “sunrise belongs to moderate drinkers” and then another urging us all to “dance more, drink slow.” They’re launching the next evolution of the campaign – look for it in a couple of weeks – that clearly communicates the REAL benefit to guys who drink: women don’t want to go home with drunk guys. (It’s more tongue in cheek/clever than it sounds here … it features many women in various settings singing lines from Bonnie Tyler’s classic 80’s tune, “I Need a Hero,” essentially bemoaning the fact that most guys in bars get too hammered for the women to find them interesting or attractive.)
Now, what Heineken didn’t reveal, and I’ll actually see if we can dig this up on our own: the impact on sales. When a beer company tells you to drink less, do you love them so much for it that you prefer them over another brand, causing their overall sales to go up? Or do you just buy less beer overall and their sales go down? We’ll see if we can answer this one, but nevertheless, the campaign is an excellent example of a company addressing an issue that could leave them on the defense, but they’re playing offense instead and turning the issue into a positive for the brand.
The McDonald’s “Our food. Your questions” campaign was also mentioned at the conference. I think we wrote a post about this a couple of years ago, but it’s a great example on this topic. When they got hammered for “pink slime” in their burgers, McDonald’s Canada went on the offense and launched a campaign that quite boldly points out that, yes, what you see in our ads vs. what we give you in one of our restaurants looks quite different, and we know you have questions about it. You can go to the website, type in a provocative question about what the heck’s in their food and get an answer. At some point – I don’t know if this is still the case – they had food scientists responding on Twitter, so you could ask a question and get an answer from a human being who actually knows about food.
This is another great example of taking an issue, boldly saying, “We know this is an issue!” and turning it into a positive for the brand vs. taking a defensive stance or trying to explain why it’s not really an issue.
We know from years of polling that Americans have some universal “truths” in their minds related to sustainability/energy/the environment:
- Plastic is bad.
- Cutting down trees is the worst.
- All chemicals are harsh.
- Utilities just make up a number and send me a bill every month.
- The sun is really hot, so we should make all our energy from it … and it should be free.
Chemical companies, oil companies, energy companies and paper companies can take the examples I’ve highlighted here of how to really “own” your perception issue and apply them. Too often these industries take a defensive stance or publicly brush off their fundamental perception issues instead of saying to all of us who have those perceptions, “You’re right. Now here’s what we’re doing about it.” When you take that approach, you begin to become a brand people will trust and want to buy from.
So to all of you in the cross-hairs, be bold. Be real. And build your brand – and sales – as a result.