Building Trust: When Feel-Good Marketing Goes Bad (or did it?)

by Steven Brykman

Feel-good marketing is all the rage these days. You can hardly buy anything without the packaging including some remark about sustainability and fair-trade, or about how a percent of your purchase is going to save the rainforest, help the poor or feed the homeless. Starbucks includes “Responsibility” in their main nav. Rolling-over the item reveals a giant menu listing over 30 ways Starbucks is behaving responsibly — while getting everyone in the world hooked on caffeine. Not that caffeine is bad, mind you. I just want to be sure we’re all on the same page here in terms of understanding their predominant business model. Since selling coffee isn’t the best way to conserve water, I’m guessing “Water Conservation” isn’t at the top of their list (even though it is). Starbucks even goes so far as to provide a “2014 Global Responsibility Report” just in case you had any doubts as to the sincerity of their cause.

Outside of the fact the corporation created McCafé in an effort to steal some of Starbucks’ market-share, at first glance it would seem McDonald’s and Starbucks have little in common. However, from a marketing perspective the two companies share a lot. The McDonald’s website also contains a few feel-good nav items — in addition to the Ronald McDonald house — which has been around for 35 years and done some genuinely great things — in addition to reducing McDonald’s’ tax burden. “Our Communities” claims they’re doing more than making us fat and diabetic: “giving back is an essential part of the way we operate every day,” and “Values in Action” which also describes how they are “committed to doing the right thing,” details their “sustainability priorities,” and asserts that “what’s good for us, is good for us all” — except their food, which I will admit, is nevertheless delicious. In their “Our food. Your questions.” section, things begin to fall flat and we soon realize this sort of marketing is primarily a diversionary tactic. “Trending” questions that really matter, like: do you use antibiotics in your food? for instance, are answered on a text-heavy news site that employs confusing statements like, “March 04, 2015 — McDonald’s USA today announced new menu sourcing initiatives including only sourcing chicken raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? A few paragraphs later, an explanation (of sorts):

“While McDonald’s will only source chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine, the farmers who supply chicken for its menu will continue to responsibly use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans that helps keep chickens healthy.”

Pretty sneaky and perhaps even more unhealthy than the alternative, as Mike Mychajlonka, PhD claims, “the reason ionophores are not used on humans is because they are quite toxic for humans, with the main activity against the cardiovascular system. Ionophores are toxic for cattle as well.”

We want to feel good about the products we’re buying, no matter how bad those products are for us. According to a Moosylvania study, 40% of millennials want to see signs of social responsibility in the products they buy. However, it turns out there’s a thin line between social responsibility and social stupidity. Get it wrong and the whole world tweets for your head.

McDonald’s “Pay with lovin’” campaign is just such an example. In a retail exchange that more-closely resembled a game of Cranium, on occasion, customers would be randomly selected to perform an act of kindness as a form of payment. These include asking someone to dance, writing a poem, and telling someone you love them. McDonald’s official rules state, “Lovin’ Acts will be designated by the Lovin’ Lead and may include things like fist bumping the Lovin’ Lead, calling a loved one, telling the Lovin’ Lead what the Participant loves about their significant other, blowing a kiss, or other general sentiment or Lovin’ Act in the theme of the Game, subject to Lovin’ Lead’s reasonable discretion.”

The problem, of course, is this: nobody goes into a McDonald’s feeling good about themselves and having them hug a stranger isn’t going to help the situation. It’s only going to prolong the agony and up the awkwardness ante a thousand-fold. Corporate-mandated displays of affection aren’t exactly commonplace in these parts. What the campaign did do, of course, is reinforce their tagline, “I’m lovin’ it.” Which is valuable.

Weird though it may be, the McDonald’s campaign at least seems harmless and well-intentioned. But Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign — during which baristas were supposed to engage customers in a discussion about race in America — suffered from one inescapable problem: total f-word arrogance. First off, both companies were guilty of ignoring this simple fact: the vast majority of consumers go into these places specifically because the transaction is speedy — in and out. Get your goods and go. But while McDonald’s is at least applaudable for feeding so many so cheaply, Starbucks seems to delight in charging way too much for what is essentially a single product: caffeinated water. The twitter backlash was relentless. People started offering hilarious alternative names for Starbucks coffees like, “ Worse yet, Discussions of the paleness (and maleness) of Starbucks own managment team flooded the internet.

Hey, Starbucks, you’re going to charge me $5 for coffee and ask me about the race problem in America? You could practically define a entire American class system based around a single statistic: those who can afford Starbucks coffee, and those who cannot. As Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz said about the “Race Together” initiative,

“This is not some marketing or PR exercise. This is to do one thing: use our national footprint and scale for good.”

Question is, do consumers believe him?

But the even bigger question of course is: was all this nonsense intentional? Both feel-good campaigns were so laughable, it’s hard to believe they weren’t created on purpose. And as we’ve all been told, any publicity is good publicity (with the exception of maybe this from the Donald). So did Starbucks and McDonald’s know their ideas were bound to flop — generating enormous viral-social buzz in the process (negative though it may be). In this light, can either of these campaigns even be considered a flop? Because remember, the resulting negative backlash was still safe-negative, distracting-negative. Stupid ideas are just that, stupid ideas. If anything, they distracted us from the real issues (antibiotics, GMO’s, etc.) and got the company’s name out there without affecting the way we felt about what’s really important (to the corporations, at least) — the company’s products.

Marketing guru Seth Godin in a recent Contently article stated,

“In a world of zero marginal cost, being trusted is the single most urgent way to build a business.” He goes on to add that content that builds trust is “human, it’s personal, it’s relevant, it isn’t greedy, and it doesn’t trick people. If the recipient knew what the sender knows, would she still be happy? If the answer to that question is yes, then it’s likely it’s going to build trust.”

Used as a smokescreen or a manipulation to trick consumers into buying their products, feel-good marketing is prone to backfiring. Particularly in this enlightened internet age when everything is just a Google search away. Such as, for instance, recent allegations against Starbucks and McDonalds that suggest the companies aren’t as caring as they’d like us to think they are. Three years ago Starbucks bought La Boulange bakery for $100 million, likely knowing all along it was going to shut it down and put 800 people out of work, at least according to Hayley Peterson at Business Insider who asserts they did it for the recipes:

Similarly, McDonalds meanwhile failed to commit a lovin’ act when it stole its latest ingenious bike bag concept from RISD student, Seulbi Kim. Thankfully, we all know how loaded grad students are — particularly in the arts — while McDonalds undoubtedly needs the money. What’s a multi-national corporation to do?:

It’s a clear-cut case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’

Speaking of “I do,” finally, a quick shout out to Ben & Jerry’s (who can do no wrong) and their latest ice cream flavor, “I Dough I Dough,” celebrating the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. Now that’s something we can all feel good about!