Cannes, Social Marketing and the CMO’s Responsibility

June 24, 2013

tree concertThe big winners at Cannes this year confirm that the era of social marketing – shaping a brand campaign around a social cause – is fully upon us. Most of the Gold Lion winners helped a social cause, from personal safety (Dumb Ways to Die for Metro Trains in Australia), to marriage equality (First Social Same-Sex Marriage Ever for Google+) to  the environment (Toxic Tours for Greenpeace Mexico) to saving trees in Berlin (Tree Concert for the Federal Environment and Nature Conservation).

This is great for society and for business. Capitalism has found a way to make big money while also improving life for communities large and small.

The most cynical thing I have ever heard said about marketing was the manipulation of a quote from Karl Marx: “Advertising people are parasites that feed off the bloated corpse of capitalism.” Warms the heart, doesn’t it?

Fortunately for all involved, times have changed, and marketers have discovered that the fastest way to relevance is to actually do something that helps a community. If you want to enlist millions of people to spread your message, don’t make it your message, make it their message, their cause. Don’t mobilize a movement for your brand; help a community fuel their movement. Help them achieve their goals and, along the way, credit will accrue to your brand.

However, we need to beware of “cause washing:” a thin veneer of caring wrapped around a self-serving brand campaign. Today, the CMO — and his or her agencies — owns the responsibility to make sure every social cause campaign is real. Here are three questions to ask:

1. Are you dedicated to this cause for many years – not just for the short duration of one campaign cycle?

2. Does the platform you have created benefit a community in a very real, sustainable way, or is it really a minimal contribution?

3. Is your behavior as a company – the way you make money and produce your products – consistent with this altruistic platform you have created (or can you be busted for not walking the talk)?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then you need to rethink your readiness for this powerful and beneficial form of marketing.

Rob Flaherty is Chairman of Ketchum, the global communications consultancy with 130 offices and affiliates worldwide. He is on the board of the Arthur W. Page Society, the Institute for Public Relations and the advisory board of Room to Read, which focuses on literacy and girls education in developing nations. Follow Rob on Twitter at @flahertyrob.