Tipping Point 2.0: ‘Good’ Business = Big Business

Cause-related PR is on the verge of exploding.   

For years, corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts have been handled by small, sometimes one-person staffs.  As consumers reacted positively to companies that did good deeds, CSR gained increasing credibility as it expanded from corporate philanthropy to a new marketing tool.  Rob Densen wrote a thoughtful guest post recently on CSR (he calls it “Cause Commerce”), and today Deron Triff, CEO of Changents, provides the following curtain raiser for what we might expect in the next generation of CSR.  Deron’s post bodes well for future jobs to support innovative CSR and sustainability programs.   

      Deron Triff

The Super Bowl… the world’s most famous advertising bullhorn.  Shelling out $2.6 million for a :30 second pop this year, corporations haven’t blinked at the opportunity since Super Bowl I in 1967.  However, with the economy in the doldrums and 95 million Americans ages 18-35 facing a collision of social and environmental issues standing between them and the future they desire, Pepsi has turned its back on half-time sophomoric humor to sell a can of soda.  Instead, the company is investing $20 million to build a global community to support projects that make our world healthier, greener, smarter and better.

Say what?

Yup.  If the Pepsi Refresh Project is successful, perhaps more advertisers will not only think twice about traditional media mega-platforms like the Super Bowl, but also about how “good” business can be big business.  With an estimated $1.5 billion invested last year in cause campaigns by companies seeking to convince consumers of their pro-social bona fides, Pepsi’s “no thanks” to Super Bowl XLIV may just be the tipping point that cause-wired new media pundits have been predicting.

Let’s be clear, though.  Corporations embracing cause is not the headline here.  Ho-hum cause marketing campaigns have been around for decades as corporations partnered with high profile non-profits to win customer kudos and to raise money for pet charities along the way.  

What’s hot is the way companies like Pepsi are targeting the intersection of bottom-up change initiatives and social media to mobilize consumers and unleash out-of-the-box solutions on the world’s most alarming issues.  Other fresh examples include Timberland’s Earthkeepers, The American Express Members Project and Levi’s Go IV Fortune.  And be on the lookout for bold moves by socially responsible titans like P&G, The Gap, IBM, Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project and Nestle.

As more good companies and good people rally together in ways that deliver visible impact, I for one am betting on some breakthroughs in 2010 in the following arenas:

1.       Highly Collaborative, Corporate-Branded Social Initiatives.   Look for ways corporations build branded social initiatives by bringing together (i) the world’s most exciting social entrepreneurs, (ii) a new breed of double bottom line venture capitalists (like Village Capital, Criterion Ventures, Virgance), (iii) new media technology partners, and (iv) rising influencers in the change space (like Premal Shah, Ben Goldhirsh, Seth Godin, Majora Carter).

2.      Digital Story-Telling from the Frontlines of Change.  Larger-than-life personalities, breathtaking stories, exciting locations, real impact. We’re not talking about the usual suspects – Bono, Angelina Jolie, Al Gore.  Watch how companies use social media content and distribution to personify their socially responsible commitments through digital storytelling by a new generation of Change Agents like Scott Harrison and Rachel Zedeck, and up-start teams like A Biotiful World and Green Guerillas, who have rejected the slow churn and red tape of bureaucry in favor of leading highly personal, high impact movements.

3.      Rise of a New Kind of Agency.   As traditional public relations and advertising agencies re-invent themselves in the digital space, we’ll also see an emergence of Web 2.0 values-marketing boutique agencies like BeDo, Rally the Cause, All Day Buffet and others that understand how to use social media technology creatively to enable real-time organizing, to build flash cause movements (seemingly overnight) and to help companies connect the dots between their core social purpose with their business strategy.

4.      Mobile Technology.  Not a Sideshow Anymore.  As iPhone and Twitter increasingly power real-time activism, companies will develop branded mobile applications and campaigns that leverage geo-location technologies with text messaging to drive their social/environmental agendas.  Innovative new forms of mobile collaboration, skill-pooling and micro-activism through technologies being developed by Extraordinaries among others will enable companies to tap into the boundless goodwill and energy of Gen Y.   Check out Mai Strategies’ Blog for a great example of the “the power of a tweet” in light of the recent crisis in Haiti.  In reading about Yelp’s new augmented reality iPhone application called Monocle, I could not help but wonder about the potential for this technology in mobilizing community action at a hyper-local level, particularly for a large, socially responsible retailer like The Gap with an expansive footprint in cities and towns across America.

5.      Transparency & Accountability is Everything.  The interconnectedness of social media and instantaneous communications not only accelerate the pace of change and compress time, but also open up companies to an unprecedented expectation among consumers for accountability and transparency.  As companies custom design and invest in conscious capitalism initiatives on the Web, consumers will have a lens into their practices like never before.  The recent Chase Community Giving initiative on Facebook demonstrates that consumers will call you out and derail massive corporate social responsibility programs if these initiatives are not run openly and authentically.

Unlike any other moment in history, companies are using business as a legitimate force to solve seemingly intractable societal and environmental challenges.  This is the new frontier for innovation.  The shift away from traditional cause-marketing campaigns to long-term strategic programs that leverage social media is redefining how corporations crowd-source ideas, build networks, identify new talents and partner with influencers to do good in the world and connect with consumers who share their values.

As they say, the only constant is change.  The more that younger generations create their own structures and networks to advance social values and vote with their wallets, the more we’ll see companies step up with exciting new ways to be a vehicle for solving seemingly intractable problems around the world.   And for that reason, let’s hope Pepsi Refresh takes us over the tipping point.

(Deron Triff heads Changents, the leading Internet platform that connects people who are changing the world with those who want to help them. Hundreds of Change Agents working across six continents are using the Changents service to tell their ongoing stories, connect with supporters around the world and rally assistance).

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