This is a Q&A I recently conducted with my colleague Joe Plummer. The topic is what he calls “Good-Person Marketing,” which is becoming an increasingly hot topic in a time where sustainability is increasingly relevant.
Joe is a former EVP at Y&R and McCann Worldgroup. Today he is an adjunct professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School, president of Sunstar Americas Foundation, and senior advisor at Olson Zaltman Associates.
James Forr: Your interest in “good-person marketing” was sparked by your experience with (Product) Red when you were with McCann. How did that get your wheels turning?
Joe Plummer: Well, it began with my involvement with Bono and Bobby Shriver on a major AIDS effort in Africa. As you may recall, AIDS was at epidemic proportions in pockets of Africa, and Bono in particular was interested in doing something about that in a major way. He recruited Coca-Cola Africa to help him, and Coca-Cola recruited us at McCann.
The idea behind Red was that this would be a brand, and various marketers would create a Red version of whatever it was that they offered the consumer. If it was Gap, it was t-shirts or jeans or sweatshirts. If it was Sony, it was music and electronics. If it was Adidas, it was sports gear. For every Red purchase you made as a consumer, a percentage of that purchase went to fight AIDS in Africa.
At the very beginning, Ad Age and Adweek and the Wall Street Journal were saying that it was wild-eyed and over the top, and it wouldn’t work, that a rock star turned marketer was a fool’s game. But is surprised people and it worked. I think the number was something like $80–90 million raised in a two-year period. That is not billions, but it’s not chump change, either.
JF: So why did it work?
JP: There was a fairly large group of people who bought than more than one RED product over a time period. When we looked at them, it was obvious they were not doing it because of Bono or because it was easy, but because of their empathy toward people who were dying from AIDS. They had tremendous empathy.
Since that time I tried to look at a variety of efforts around what I call “good-person marketing” — that is, trying to do things in business, in marketing, to make the world a better place and to look at, well, what triggers people to join in.
JF: Method, which makes organic, non-toxic household products is a brand built on this idea. How did that brand become so successful?
JP: Word of mouth was really successful in helping that brand get off the ground. Their agency was smart. They did very little advertising but they did a lot online, having scientists talk about the non-toxic ingredients in method. And they did a lot of viral encouragement online. If you have an inkling you want to buy a sustainable product, you are often pushed into the behavior by either people you respect or people who appear to be like-minded. So you want to be affiliated with these people and do good things. It’s not just about feeling good about companies or brands trying to do good, but actually adopting that behavior yourself.
Clorox had started a green brand of cleaners, and most people that were attracted to method were quite upset that the maker of Clorox bleach was marketing a green line of products. Even people who were Clorox users were a bit skeptical about how green the green Clorox line might really be.
JF: What about Warby Parker? If you buy a pair of their glasses, your purchase goes to help people in developing countries get eye exams and affordable glasses.
JP: We studied them to death a couple of years ago in class at Columbia. They did all three things:
First, they made it easy. You can buy a cool pair of glasses online, quite easily.
Second, they tapped into empathy. If you’re in the market for glasses then you are more likely than most people to have empathy for people in underdeveloped countries who can’t get glasses and therefore can’t read or get a job or go to school. You are at this moment when the passive message is most likely to ring true to you, connect with you, and motivate you.
Third, Warby does a terrific job of creating all kinds of viral opportunities to spread the word with little local parties and events so you go and see other people like yourself with glasses with a distinctive design. They tap into affiliation. Like-minded people are doing this and that makes me feel like I did a smart, good thing. And then I am likely to brag about it to someone else. And not only are the glasses cool but you also will be helping people in underdeveloped countries get glasses.
It is interesting that these examples of what I call “good-person marketing” have this win-win quality about them. They are not complicated. They tap into the human capacity for empathy, and what often comes into play is affiliation or group identity — come join the community of other good souls doing this.
JF: Where did Starbucks’ “Race Together” go wrong? I get that it was imperfect and somewhat ham-fisted, but clearly their heart was in the right place. And yet they were absolutely excoriated for this effort.
JP: I think first and foremost the timing was not good. It’s very, very painful. There were four bad things, back-to-back — Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, and then the two police officers being assassinated — kind of within less than a month. That raised the temperature with all kinds of mixed and wild emotions. There wasn’t a moment of clarity or a single metaphor you could latch onto.
I just happened to go and see the film Selma, a couple of weeks ago. The contrasts were just so amazing. The explosion in the Birmingham church that killed six little girls, that was just such a signature moment, that unless you were in the Klan or the world’s worst racist, your heart just had to go out to those families.
These other ones that were happening were confusing. There were conflicting stories all over the place. I understand why Howard Schultz wanted to have and encourage a national dialogue on race. I just think, number one, this was not the moment to start that dialogue because it was more a time of confusion and shouting and tremendous mixed emotions, and not any great clarity.
The second piece is that it’s not clear who the empathy is with. Is the empathy is supposed to be with the barista who is encouraging the dialogue, or is the empathy to be with politicians that seem to be muddled and confused and sort of unable to move forward, or is the empathy with the kids who were shot?
Then the third piece, I think, that was not well-thought out was the shorthand itself. “Race Together” is an extremely odd shorthand. I think what they were trying to say was, let’s take a classic metaphoric coffee break — let’s take a break here and have some dialogue about this. But “Race Together” didn’t capture any of those thoughts. “Together” doesn’t suggest dialogue.
JF: So what could Starbucks have done better?
JP: What Warby Parker did was partner with VisionSpring, an NGO that distributes glasses around the world in the poorest countries. So you go, “Oh, okay. Wow. Boy, that gives it credibility. They really mean it. They’re good guys, and they know what they’re doing.” So this thing works.
If Starbucks had really, really wanted a dialogue on race, I think they should have gotten some help from, I don’t know, the Aspen Institute, or the Kennedy School of Government, or Howard University. Just as a way to, a) elevate it, and b) take the onus off the baristas who are back there trying to get out drinks and muffins as fast as they can. So I just think that they rushed into it thinking we’ve got to take advantage of this moment of national pain, but it was just so chaotic, so unclear what that moment really was.
JF: It seems to me that this kind of thing is easier to do for a startup, like method, than an established firm like Clorox or Starbucks. They’re the little guy, the underdog, and people like them. While I think consumers tend to skeptical of big corporations. Do you agree, and if so what advice do you have for a large corporation trying to create good-person marketing like this?
JP: I definitely agree with you. I must say, on the other hand, I applaud Clorox, because I think they learned a bit from the Green Works experience. That was the brand I think they chose for their cleaner. They went further afield and actually rather than doing it themselves, they acquired a company called Burt’s Bees, which was known for all-natural products, Then, intelligently so far, they’ve done like Colgate has done with Tom’s of Maine, which is essentially leave them alone. I think that’s one strategy that can be pursued, is to make an acquisition or partner up with someone who has legitimate credentials in what it is they’re doing that’s good for you, good for the world, good for the planet, good for other people, and causes no harm.
The other strategy, and it’s tougher to pull off, but is to make a huge investment, under-market that investment, but kind of let consumers find out about it. I think you’d be surprised that Google ends up on the top ten list of greenest companies. And that’s because people have slowly found out their unbelievable investment in solar energy in the California desert. They have the largest solar energy installment in the world. So people go, “Wow, that’s pretty green.” And it’s major. It supplies Google’s servers. If they just had a little field to supply maybe three percent of their energy, it could come off as sort of a marketing ploy, and not very sincere. I think a lot of very large companies have made a mistake of doing a little something and then making a big deal about it. They stretch the consumer’s meaning of the company.
You’ve got to reframe it in some way. You can just say, “Well, I’m General Motors, and one of the 142 vehicle I’m launching is electric.” Well, yeah, but that’s not reframing anything. I’m not criticizing GM for launching the Volt. I’m simply saying they shouldn’t be shocked that they’re hardly selling any, because they haven’t reframed GM, nor have they given any indication that across the board — in trucks and cars, and all their brands — that they’re committed to reducing the carbon footprint. You can’t just try to fake it. Whereas Elon Musk, I don’t know about his motivations but he’s all in. He’s not just selling cars. He’s up there in Sacramento pounding on Jerry Brown’s desk, saying, “We’ve got to build recharging stations all over California, and I’m willing to put up X amount of money.” He is all in on it, and so people go, “Oh my gosh. This is for real.”
James Forr is a director at Olson Zaltman Associates