I was sitting in my hotel room the other night, savoring some Chivas whiskey. Not the actual whiskey, I'm more of an Earl Grey kinda gal. Instead, it was a commercial for Chivas that was giving me a bit of a buzz. It begins with somber piano music, and then a voice-over comes on: "Millions of people, everyone out for themselves... can this really be the only way?" No, the commercial goes on, "here's to honor... and to gallantry." We then see images of various people doing the right thing, helping someone push-start a broken down car, tired firefighters after fighting a blaze. "Here's to doing the right thing," the voice says, and to the "true meaning of wealth."
It's a striking ad. And it's part of the most important trend in marketing: the recognition by businesses that there's much to be said for appealing to consumers' better instincts, and engaging them with something other than materialism, sex, money, and self-interest. And it's not a coincidence that this trend is escalating at the same time social media have risen to the forefront in the worlds of both marketing and activism. It's all part of the changing zeitgeist and it's only natural that forward-thinking companies would want to tap into it.
Right now, we're in the transition phase -- the marketing world still looks like a split-screen, with most companies going about things in the traditional way, but with many pioneering ones breaking new ground by building their brands while trying to help make the world a better place.
Marketing is often a leading indicator of where a culture is at and, even more, of where it's heading. Marketing has always been most effective when it takes ideas that are in the air and crystallizes them, so that they resonate with us in ways often beyond our conscious understanding. This is what is so powerful about the combination of social media, marketing, and doing good.
The Cause Marketing Forum defines social marketing as a "commercial activity that aligns a company or brand with a cause to generate business and societal benefits." Of course, the idea of cause marketing is hardly new. As the Forum notes, a key moment in modern cause marketing came in 1976, when Marriott teamed up with the March of Dimes to boost contributions by 40 percent while producing a record-breaking opening day for Marriott's Great America theme park. The next large-scale use of social marketing was in 1983 when American Express took up the cause of helping restore the Statue of Liberty.
But it took the breakthrough of social media to really make cause marketing catch fire. The first ingredient, and no doubt the element that is now attracting any head of marketing worth his or her salt (or whiskey), is that social media allow like-minded people to coalesce. And, as Ashley Brown writes in Mashable, "messages are most successfully communicated to audiences that have already coalesced around common bonds." It's a lot easier to market your product to people who have already signaled that they like what your product is about than it is to cast a giant net to reel in potential customers.
That's why, according to Susan Gunelius of entrepreneur.com, one of the ten big marketing trends of 2011 is social media attracting more advertising and marketing dollars at the expense of traditional outlets like radio and print.
But here's the twist: while companies want to use social media because it does a lot of their outreach for them, it also requires something more of the companies that enter the social space. The hallmark of social media is authenticity. As a result, social media can give companies a real sense of who their would-be customers are, what they like, and what they value. But it's a two-way street -- they also shine a light on the authenticity and values of any company that wades in.
There's a much higher bar for engagement with social media and, once in, a company can no longer easily hide behind a glossy, expensively photographed ad campaign. Adam Bain, Twitter's brilliant president of global revenue, said on a panel we were both on at a Sony conference this week that the three best ways to monetize a product are: humor, huge deals and humanity. If focusing on humanity is now seen as not just good for humanity but also for the bottom line, that is a huge deal! And humor has always been a shortcut to our humanity.
Social media have increased the ability of a company to tap into their customers' humanity. But to do so they must show some in return. Derrick Daye, writing recently about marketing trends for 2011, calls this "ethosnomics." He writes:
Brands increasingly must stand for something beyond just rational items. Brands can't, however, just 'stand for' the cause du jour. Doing what others do, just because they're doing it, won't work very long or very effectively. Corporate social responsibility efforts will need to be believable, sustained, and engaging. Some of the strongest will come from those brands that connect the public and the personal in today's financially-strained world.
And the trend is spreading. Western Union sponsored a documentary called To Catch a Dollar, which tells the story of Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus. His Grameen Bank, founded in Bangladesh, lifts people out of poverty with micro-loans. The film tells the story of how he is bringing his idea to the U.S. to help struggling American families. As part of its sponsorship, Western Union invited people to vote for which city should house the next Grameen branch. You can vote here.
Starbucks, to celebrate its 40th anniversary, is joining with non-profits to make April a month of service, focusing on programs serving the environment and young people. Their goal is 200,000 hours of service, which, according to the HandsOn Network, is worth over $4 million and is equal to 100 people working 40 hours a week for a year.
The software company Atlassian came up with a concept they call "Causium," a combination of "freemium" and cause marketing. "Freemium" is when companies offer a reduced version of their product for free or at a steep discount, hoping a customer will try it, like it, and buy the full version. Atlassian decided to offer ten starter versions of its product for $10, and pledged to donate the proceeds to Room to Read, an international group dedicated to increasing literacy and gender equality. Last month the company announced that it had already raised $1 million.
"We definitely felt like we kind of stumbled on a way to combine the same concepts of lowering the barriers to entry to your product and how to do that nobly," said Jon Silvers, director of Atlassian's Audience and Community. The company also grants five days of "foundation leave" to employees for local community service. This is also something we do on all our Patch sites, where employees each get five paid days off to volunteer at charities and non-profits in their communities.
And combining humor and humanity, BFFFSMs (Best Friends Forever For Six Months) Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert raised over $50,000 in a few days for Donors Choose, an online charity connecting donors to needs in classrooms in underprivileged school districts around the country.
Cause marketing is even affecting the mechanics of how marketing gets done. The Chief Marketing Officer Council has come up with a program called "Pause to Support a Cause," in which participants in marketing surveys can donate part or all of the payment they receive to non-profits. Over 200 charities have already signed up, including the American Red Cross and the March of Dimes.
And this is only the beginning. Right now, it's just the pioneers, but as it becomes clear that doing good is good for business, more companies are sure to join. And then there will come a tipping point -- and I believe it will be sooner rather than later -- when companies can no longer afford not to have some element of cause marketing as a major part of their advertising and marketing budgets.
Social media are about doing, not watching. It's active, not passive. This goes for companies just as surely as it goes for consumers. What's especially exciting is that the tools that allow people to connect with each other, their communities, and the companies they want to patronize, are still in their infancy -- imagine the impact they'll have when they are all grown up.
Follow Arianna Huffington on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ariannahuff