Opinion: Promoting good in the age of an austerity of caring

It's very easy to be cynical about brands that run campaigns saying they want to be good. However, watching a series of talks in advance of the D&AD presenting its inaugural White Pencil award for a campaign to promote World Peace Day, it becomes apparent that careful evaluation and criticism is what's needed if we're to establish what's most effective. And surprisingly for work based around altruism, it's those campaigns that appeal most to our base natures are those that are considered most successful. While there was much talk about brands being 'honest' and 'authentic', what actually came through was that we need to appeal to a more complex form of selfishness to get through to general public.

Three of the four talks – from Havas CEO David Jones, OgilvyEarth Worldwide president Kim Slicklein and Unilever SVP of marketing Marc Mathieu – were largely based around the central theme that brands need to actually do good – rather than just appear to do good. Both David and Kim mentioned outdoor clothing brand Patagonia's campaign suggesting people should buy its products second-hand rather than from stores, which it's easy to write off as a coded message about the quality and longevity of its products – a message M&S has used to its advantage too.

"The next Apple will be sustainable," said David, who also the author of the book, Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business Is Better Business – nipping past that the current Apple's sales are booming despite a summer of news stories painting the iPhone maker as modern equivalent of No Logo-era Nike.

As examples of what happens when a company is seen to behave badly, he showed YouTube videos of Walmart employees playing catch with iPads and FedEx couriers hurling computers as explanations of how brands can be damaged if examples of poor behaviour by their employees appear on social media (or appear in the mainstream press or on TV at the introduction of social media, but that's a discussion for a different piece). These aren't social ills perpetrated by a company – but as they give the impression of terrible service that could directly affect a customer, they impact heavily on the perception of the brand. And an unspoken thread to most of the talks was that you have to think about all good work by companies in this way.

Even the very real tragedy of BP's Deepwater oil spill could be seen to be part of this 'I care if it directly affects me' philosophy – as, unlike abusive behaviour in factories on the other side of the world, this was happening on the shores of many the company's consumers and impacting on the lives of people it's easy for them to relate to.

Playing to the home market

This is not to say that all companies who want to do good have to focus on those most in need around the world. That last year's most celebrated ad – Chipotle's spot (top) about its focus on sustainable farming and animal welfare animated with the warmth and humanity of a Wallace and Gromit film – was again about company behaviour at home, rather than in developing nations or manufacturing TAZs around the world, doesn't demean what that company achieved. But it does show that if you want to tell people about good work, you need a compelling narrative that viewers can directly relate to.

Kim suggested that if companies want to sell sustainable products – whether green, Fairtrade or otherwise 'good' – they should stop wrapping them in burlap if they want to sell them beyond the "granola-crunching" demographic. They should appeal to a wider set of emotions and behaviours than pure feelings of altruism – and not be priced highly as if goodness is a luxury. In other words, companies should market them like any other product, with their goodness as just part of their appeal.

So perhaps its not just that society need to persuade companies to do good rather than to pretend, but that the creative industry is returning to the idea that we need to get consumers to pretend rather than to actually do good – to buy into good as a secondary factor rather than a primary one, as you'll engage more of them this way. It's not a new concept - celebrity endorsement has been around at least as long as since William Cowper wrote poetry against slavery in the 18th Century – but it's one we've shied away from, believing softly-strummed charm and the ego-inflation benefit of 'you can do good' was enough. Flattering the ego is still important, but if the D&AD's speakers are representative of the industry, then the argument is that you have to relate to receive that boost.

It's possible to see this as a reflection of our economic era. It's easier to get consumers to be profligate with their spending on good or green products in times of boom – but in times of bust, good can be perceived to have less value than price, usefulness or escapist brand associations.

There's a wider point to this. In times of economic hardship, people may seem more caring and engaged – look at the rise in numbers of people protesting around Britain about issues such as reduction of benefits or closures of hospitals, libraries or SureStart centres – but it's also possible to see this as more selfish. In an age of austerity, it's a lot easier to imagine yourself out of work, on the streets and in need of benefits and services that wouldn't cross your mind in more optimistic years. It's not about helping the wider world, it's about helping those we might become.

It's still possible to use marketing techniques – from traditional advertising to social campaigns – to promote and spread good for projects that aren't psychologically local or within the average person in the First World's frame of reference. It's just harder. Developing world campaigns need better minds and better creativity than campaigns for good in the First World – relying on making the situation relatable to the common man, rather than talking about the scale of the problem.

It's ironic that these talks preceded an award presented rewarding work for a truly altruistic project, Peace One Day. But then much of that organisation's success has been due having a truly inspiring figure at its helm. Not every good idea has a Jeremy Gilley fronting it – which is why it's not always as easy as just convincing people to do good.

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