Branding innovation at Greenbuild 2010

I kept an eye out for branding innovation at Greenbuild 2010 as I maneuvered my way along (what felt like) miles of floor featuring over 1,000 exhibitors and 25,000 attendees.

Branding highlights:

  • Social responsibility alignment – besides the typical association with energy saving and planet-survival, some Greenbuild companies extended their brands beyond the oh-so-obvious. Accoya, for example, had a “Sign our wall” fundraising effort with every signature translating into $10 for Haiti rebuilding. Other companies displayed Susan G. Komen for the Cure pink ribbons. Shaw asked people to respond to Twitter queries so it could donate $1 to the Make It Right Foundation, helping rebuild the Hurricane Katrina-devastated Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. Good for them, good for the world.
  • Transparency – Interface Floor won my prize for branding transparency. A massive graphic displayed above their booth featured a black and white illustration of a brain beside a barrel of oil. Their messaging platform: “Be smarter than oil.” Gradually leaving its oil industry connections behind, the company’s mantra is zero environmental impact by 2020. Clear messaging permeated the booth on laminated cards: “16 years and counting to becoming a sustainable company…” Other companies shy away, evade or obfuscate; this brand appears to be living its stated mission.
  • Personal reinvention – David Gottfried wore shoes as he autographed free copies of his book “Greening my life.” The founder of USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) and LEED standard creator personalized his brand, sharing insight into his personal transformation from hard-charging empty life exec to green-inducing happiness. Kudos for having the guts to share lessons learned with others.
  • Promotions – not surprisingly, the top tease prize at Greenbuild 2010 was the iPad. Several companies featured iPad promotions including Dupont and NCI Group. My favorite giveaway? The cool hybrid Sanyo Eneloop bike.
  • Living its mission – While 80% of Greenbuild 2010 exhibitors are indistinguishable (packing too many products, imagery and pleas into every corner of space), Dyson stood out with its “less is more” approach. Only two products were featured: hand dryers and bladeless fans. The booth was white, spacious and all messaging was tightly displayed on five panels. Copy was simple and memorable, contrasting the way it used to be with the way it is now (thanks to Dyson).
  • Let’s have fun – Next time a company or client says “our stuff is in the weeds; we can’t do much creatively” remember Bluebeam. This company essentially has a better Adobe: a PDF based real time project collaboration file management tool. Yawn. But Bluebeam made the mundane come alive with its “Mighty Bluebeam” cartoon character, case studies galore, comic books, exhibit booth worker matching t-shirts and fun messaging like “It’s PDFin’ time!”
  • Interactive messaging – Most companies struggle with messaging. Not only trying to explain what they do, but also finding clever ways for people to “get it” and relate. Kudos to SYNLawn and SAGE for doing both. The former divided its narrow booth into three sections, allowing visitors to putt on a golf course, feel astro turf in a stadium and stand on a front lawn at home. Dynamic window maker SAGE (disclosure: client) made its “Power to change” tagline come alive several ways, including windows showing multiple exterior views and an interactive exhibit where visitors pressed a button and the glass transformed. Whenever messaging can be experienced like this, it’s a very powerful thing.
  • Green nation building – standing out from a sea of corporate sameness were… countries. Scandinavia, Canada and France all sent delegations to Greenbuild 2010, positioning themselves – via products, technologies and companies – as green-inspired economies.


Green Launching Pad innovates state-level clean energy branding

One of the more innovative collaborations between a higher education institution, statewide and federal government is unfolding in New Hampshire.

This past February, the Green Launching Pad was launched. It’s a strategic partnership between the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (ARRA).

The organization connects entrepreneurs and private industry with technical, scientific and business faculty, students and state-level resources to successfully launch and accelerate the growth of new green businesses.

Five New Hampshire companies received funding in Year One of the program. Seventy-one businesses and entrepreneurs submitted applications for this funding, bolstered by $750,000 in federal stimulus funding.

An advisory board selected the five winners who are now being supported with an intensive business accelerator program aligned with UNH. The companies are connected to business, science and engineering faculty to develop product development, finance and marketing plans. The GLP also builds relationships on the financing side via angel investors and private sector business mentors (disclosure: Beaupre mentored one of the five winning companies, Air Power Analytics).

The new Green Launching Pad businesses are required to help the State reduce carbon emissions in sustainable ways. By building successful companies, New Hampshire believes it will also fuel job growth and broaden economic opportunities.

Governor John Lynch led a roundtable discussion with GLP companies last week, answering their questions and uncovering their needs and concerns. He said “I want to see you succeed in New Hampshire. I want this effort to create jobs. I want to help you win.”

So far, it’s a model bearing fruit in the Granite State.

This week “Venky” Venkatachalam, one of the original GLP founders, told Michael McCord of “You read about this when you have academia and industry working together. This has been a huge positive experience that could be a powerful force for economic development.”

Clean energy conscious state government, higher ed institutions, energy companies and the corporate sector may benefit by keeping a close watch on its progress.

Seven social media lessons from Nestle’s environmental reputation crisis

If a company still doesn’t “get” how social media has changed the rules of branding by empowering consumers, look no further than the ongoing Nestle firestorm.

Nestle has been in trouble for awhile, mostly related to its continuing use of palm oil in its products. Palm oil is linked to environmental nastiness, including deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and endangered species loss.

Caroline McCarthy of CNET News shared a balanced post about the Nestle brand crisis, triggered by ticked off consumers on Facebook. Nestle was clueless about the power shift enabled by social media and acted in an old-school authoritarian “we own the brand” way. It not only didn’t work, it backfired.

There are vital lessons from the Nestle debacle for professional communicators advising their execs or clients:

  1. Before diving into social media, make sure key decision makers who think they want to go social media truly “get” how the game is played. It’s not a press release.
  2. Make sure they understand how Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. aren’t one way vehicles (where the brand dominates the message), but an invitation to a never ending dance with constantly changing partners, some of whom are never your friend and may only want to dance if they can slap your ego and try to make you a better dancer.
  3. Don’t go social media unless the brand is willing to take the risk of jumping off the cliff, giving up control to customers and consumers who will express their viewpoints, both positive and negative.
  4. If your company or client wants to control the message, then social media isn’t for them. Look at how Nestle tried to tell people not to post their logos. It will incur a wrath not unlike “It’s not OK for people to use altered versions of your logos but it’s OK for you to alter the face of Indonesian rainforests? Wow!”
  5. Creating LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts is just the first step. The goal isn’t to tweet or post, it’s to build an active community and an authentic two-way relationship based on trust. It’s easy to get started in social media, but time-consuming and challenging to remain engaged and build a following.
  6. Remember that even if your company or client decides not to engage in social media, this won’t stop rants, rebellion and revolution. People will find a way to express themselves and let it be known they’re disturbed, upset, confused, disappointed or whatever the view. The train has left the station, so be prepared.
  7. As we’ve learned from Nestle (and so many others), people don’t want to be scammed, ignored or mistreated. It will come back to bite you. So if your exec or client wants social media to become a positive tool, the brand must be a concerned good listener prepared to take action to correct situations that aren’t right.

Arches National Park meets the dark side of man

I had no idea Moab, Utah was atomic. Dummy me, I just thought it was a famous place to enjoy the outdoors.

This little town of 4,800 people in the Colorado plateau just south of the Colorado River is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. They flock there by the thousands to ride mountain bikes on the famous Slickrock trail, ride off-road in the annual Jeep Safari and visit two nearby National parks.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed here, as were scenes from Thelma & Louse, City Slickers, Mission Impossible and a bunch of other movies.

There’s a real naturist vibe within this little town nestled among striking red rock canyon walls. People get up early, play hard and relax even harder at places like the Moab Brewery.

Being there today, it’s hard to believe Moab was – not very long ago – the uranium capital of the world. In the 1950’s, it boomed to nearly twice its population, boasting restaurants like the Atomic Grill and Uranium Cafe.

This alignment began changing once the cold war ended, but as recently as 2002 the town petitioned President Bush to change the name of its “Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (M.O.A.B.). This 21,000 pound non-nuclear “mother of all bombs,” (still called MOAB as recently as 2007) didn’t help the town’s outdoor adventurist branding.

While this atomic history has faded away, it came to life eerily as I drove the four miles from Moab to Arches National Park a few weeks ago. Almost literally across the street from the entrance to one of America’s most famous parks, you see trucks hauling dirt on a giant pile along the banks of the Colorado River. To the un-expecting tourist who hasn’t done his research (me), it looks like some kind of massive strip-mining operation.

My immediate reaction was “what the heck is going on here and why on earth is this happening right across from a National Park?”

Turns out this eye-opener is one of the biggest winners of federal environmental cleanup contracts under President Barack Obama’s stimulus program. The “pile” – nearly 130 acres – is made up of mill tailings and contaminated tailings materials left over from the uranium-ore processing between 1956-1984 by the Atlas Minerals Corporation.

The tailings were sending a radioactive plume of groundwater seepage also polluted with ammonia toward the river.

Now owned by the DOE, the clean-up site has created 121 jobs for people shipping the radioactive waste away to a specially designed location 30 miles north. About 6,000 tons are being hauled away each day by train.

I suppose this remediation project is going okay, but every once in a while something happens to make me wonder. The FAQ on says “a tiny fraction of the dust originating from the site does inevitably contain low-level radioactive particles; however, the level of radioactivity in the dust is indistinguishable from background concentrations in the dust and is, therefore, also below the DOE limits for release of radio-particulates from the site.”

Uh, sounds like spin to me, but I hope it’s not.

I didn’t feel better reading that site operations are shut down at sustained wind speeds of 25 miles per hour or greater. The day I visited Arches it was very windy but the trucks were still doing their thing. Maybe they were only 21 mph winds.

I also wasn’t thrilled to hear that a truck carrying uranium mill tailings tipped over and spilled some of its radioactive dirt in October.

What a case study for the beauty of nature vs. the dark side of man. I hope the former wins out.

Maibach says climate change is about you & me, not plants & polar bears

Ed Maibach had an epiphany while mountain hiking in 2006. Walking with Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber – Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – he realized that while climate change is the ultimate threat to the public’s health and well-being, the vast majority of us don’t realize it.

This inspired him to refocus his work on prevention and adaptation, joining George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication in 2007.

Ed Maibach – Center for Climate Change Communication“Climate change is associated with all kinds of things, from alarmists to demonstrators to extremists to it being a ‘Democratic issue.’ Fundamentally, it’s been framed as an environmental issue, but it should be a human, public health issue,” Maibach told me in a recent get together.

But how do we get people to understand climate change is fundamental to the survival of human civilization – to you and me? Maibach’s working on a few very interesting communications initiatives involving people who are innately trusted by the general public. Two examples he cited (there are many other possibilities) are local TV weather forecasters and pediatricians.

“People like this are right here in our local community. We see them or hear from them often. We rely on their judgment and have a relationship with them. They could become a trusted conduit to educate people about the human impact of climate change.”

So let’s say you bring your child to the pediatrician and the subject of an extreme weather event comes up in a passing conversation. This moment can become an opportunity for the pediatrician to very casually connect this with global warming and the impact on your child. No dissertation, slide show and long discussion; just a simple, quick comment connecting effect with cause. It’s subtle, real-time and authentic.

Maibach said he’s securing funding from the National Science Foundation and will be testing this local trust concept with a CBS TV affiliate weathercaster in Columbia, South Carolina. If it goes well, the idea may scale nationally.

“People can’t grasp climate change. We need them to understand that global warming is (A) real and (B) bad for people.”

By subtly educating people through trusted connections, Maibach says, “We’re finding a way to fly this topic under the perceptual radar screen. If we can get your local pediatrician to explain what’s going on, then we’re letting what they say into our heads and hearts.”

Toyota’s new 3rd gen Prius ads are mesmerizing

I’m blown away by the new Prius ads.

David Kiley said this ad from Toyota may have been inspired by Honda’s earlier diesel engine “Hate Something” spot (compare the two yourself), but from my eyes, it’s the freshest creative in a decade.

But it’s not just creative for creative’s sake. Lots of agencies are living the creed “make it entertaining, engaging and disruptive” so consumers take notice and buy.

The new Prius spot is much more.

They’ve taken a car that was already the # 1 best selling hybrid in the world – the undisputed mainstream brand – and made it a vehicle of the people, for the people, by the people. Literally.

Using 200 extras, they created a layered – but somehow unified – sea of 1 million people parts. Everything (except the Prius, road and sky) was constructed from human beings who become “landscape texture.”  Grass. Water. Trees. Clouds. Stones. Leaves. Sun. Flowers. Butterflies. The Bellamy Brothers’ # 1 hit from 1976 – “Let Your Love Flow” – is the audio glue.

The piece de resistance (besides the people, colors and music) is the movement. As the Prius drives by, clouds shift, grass sways, butterflies fly, flowers open, water flows, the sun glows.

It’s a visual trip, blending nature, technology and the human race.

They’ve raised the branding bar yet again with the newest Prius ad, spotlighting solar.

Hopefully for Toyota, the new campaign will move more than grass. The Prius has been struggling in the U.S. of late (mirroring the rest of the auto industry). U.S. sales of the Prius were down from 15,011 in May 2008 to 10,091 for the same month this year. Year to date, U.S. Prius sales are 42,753 compared to 79,675 in 2008 – 45 per cent less than last year.

I feel better every time I see these ads. I actually want to see them.

I can’t remember the last time this happened.

Social cause & sustainability lessons from Stonyfield Farms’ Hirshberg

Affable and inspiring Gary Hirshberg, chairman, president and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms was the featured speaker at Saturday’s University of New Hampshire graduation. The company makes the number-one selling brand of organic yogurt and is the number-three overall yogurt brand in the US according to Fortune magazine. Through its Profits for the Planet program, Stonyfield gives 10% of profits to environmental causes.

Here are memorable takeaways from his talk:

  • “We allowed ourselves to believe in a sort of modern day mythology about the infinite resilience of our finance system, and to allow greedy, short-term thinking to get the upper hand. In a nutshell, we borrowed money we didn’t have, to buy stuff we didn’t need.”
  • “We are seeing signs of failure in every single aspect of our relationship to the planet … if we stopped all fossil fuel burning this afternoon, the Earth’s fever would continue to mount for 40 more years before it began to break.”
  • “How far an item travels, is actually a very minute percentage of the footprint of an apple, yogurt or bottle of beer. The far larger footprint is in how the product is grown, that is the type of agriculture accounts for more like 50-60% of the carbon footprint. In other words, buying organic from a long distance may be far more carbon-friendly than buying non-organic locally. The point is, we need to be sure our brains are as engaged as our hearts when making big decisions.”
  • “I have learned that, whatever you choose to do, there is no point in producing the same quality as anyone else. In fact, that is likely a strategy for failure, for you are almost certain to be out-competed by someone who is better capitalized.”
  • “At a societal scale, those of you who question conventional thinking will be in the best positions to seize the next wave of jobs and economic opportunities. Consider for instance, that with the amount of sunlight that strikes the US each day, we would need only 10 million acres of land – or only 0.4% of the area of the United States – to supply all of our nation’s electricity using solar photovoltaics.
  • “When you consider that the US Government pays to idle approximately 30 million acres of farmland per year, you can see how confused our priorities have become.”
  • “Success will be when you finish eating the yogurt, you will eat the cup.”
  • “Solar isn’t just for Arizona anymore, either; right now in New Hampshire there are homes powered completely off the grid – built at competitive costs. For less than half the normal garage roof space, you can power your house with no fuel, no pollution, and no ice storm outages. Soon it’ll be down to one-quarter of that garage roof. And we haven’t even talked about solar hot water, which is even cheaper than solar cells, or wind power, which is cheaper too. Best yet, these power sources are built, installed, and maintained locally, right here in America, unlike the billion dollars per day we ‘export’ out-of-country for oil, for example.”
  • “Renewable technology isn’t just a energy issue, it’s a global competition. We don’t have a natural monopoly on sunlight or wind, and the Danes, Germans, and increasingly, the Chinese ‘get it.’ They aim to be the energy technology vendors to the world, and—having paid more attention to it than we have—they’re as good or better than we are.”
  • “Questioning conventional authority is a powerful way to succeed in business and in life. A couple of guys from UPS once asked ‘why not try to avoid left-hand turns,’ with their 95,000 big brown trucks.”
  • What we discovered from doing good is a new business formula that is now being mimicked by the largest companies on earth…. when you make a better, higher quality product, you leap all the way to loyalty without having to spend as much on advertising…. When you make it better, you get loyalty. And with loyalty comes the most powerful purchase incentive in commerce—word of mouth.”
  • “I can assure you that there will be more jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency, preventative health care, organic/non-toxic agriculture, textiles and cleansers (I have yet to meet the consumer who prefers to eat the yogurt with more pesticides or synthetic hormones than in the traditional fields.).”
  • “The whole notion of service is very attractive to smart employers. From a practical perspective, those of you who volunteer and give your time and energy to work on positive change are exactly who we CEO’s want to hire.”
  • “Don’t forget that as consumers, we wield enormous power to choose the polluting, consumptive and failed ways of the past or the renewable and sustainable ways of the future too. When we purchase anything, we are voting for the kind of communities, society and planet we want. And I have learned that corporations spend billions of dollars to tally those votes.”
  • “We stand at the edge of the next wave, the sustainability revolution in which we use green chemistry which leaves behind no toxic residue, cradle to cradle technology which generates no waste, renewable energy with no carbon footprint, industrial ecology with waste from one process being the food for another, will be the norm.
  • “Personally, I feel there is no greater societal priority than to embrace the conversion to renewable energy and organic food production with all of the climate, ecological and health benefits. When people tell me that organics is not proven, I respond that it is the chemicals that are not proven, but the early results are poor as we face an epidemic of cancers and preventable disease. The same is true of our energy policy, which has been driven by generations who have grown up in the oil and coal business and believe that mining the earth’s crust is the only way to fuel our needs.”


How Marc Gunther found a sustainable voice

Marc Gunther is one of the most respected thinkers, writers and speakers on business, the environment and corporate social responsibility.

Last year, Ethisphere ranked him # 39 out of 100 “influentials” in business ethics, ahead of Jim Koch, T. Boone Pickens, James Goodnight and Paul Newman. It’s a well-earned reputation.

In a wide-brush conversation, I asked him about his early influences, career highlights and how he became enamored with business ethics and sustainability.

Gunther grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. “I was a child of the Sixties. My parents weren’t that politically involved, but our Rabbi was part of the civil rights movement; he had marched with Martin Luther King. That inspired me.

“I was an idealist, growing up during one of the most interesting times in history with JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK. Incredible social progress was being made, from the civil rights movement to the women’s movement. Vietnam and Watergate were happening. This had a big impact on me.”

Gunther graduated from Yale in 1973 with an English degree, but couldn’t find a job in journalism. His first gig was with a clean air activist group funded by Ralph Nader. “I inspected boilers in New York City, making sure pollution controls were being met, working with City enforcement groups. It was literally a dirty job.”

Then he cracked journalism.

Over the next two decades, he climbed the newspaper ladder, starting with the Paterson (N.J.) News, then The Hartford Courant, The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Washington Bureau of Knight Ridder. He covered many topics, but wrote most often about TV, media, politics and business. Gunther also interpreted the Internet in the nineties, writing stories like “What is cyberspace?” and “What is e-mail?”

When Fortune magazine hired him in 1996, he wrote even more about business. “I was beginning to wonder what had happened to my idealistic values. I had gotten off track.”

Around the time Gunther turned 50, he wrote a cover story for Fortune called “God and Business.”

“I interviewed people at the intersection of religion and corporate America. People like Jim Collins of “Built to Last” talked about business and values. I spoke with a Notre Dame priest who also taught MBAs. These people got me thinking about business in a fresh way. They were treating people well and believed business can – and should be – a force for good, for positive social change.”

The story became a turning point for him professionally and personally.

“Until then, I had a cliché view of business. The tension that existed between business and values got me thinking in a fresh way. Suddenly, I was no longer interested in writing about media companies, the entertainment industry, American Idol.”

Gunther began writing with “a sense of purpose.”

He wrote a cover story about the greening of Walmart and one about Jeff Immelt’s efforts to reshape the values of General Electric. “Those were two very interesting reputational turnarounds.”

He wrote a cover piece about Hank Paulson, as well as spirituality in the workplace. He authored stories about the business of carbon finance, the rise of corporate social responsibility, the zero-waste movement, genetically-modified rice, environmental activism, corporate governance, AIDS and gay rights in corporate America.

Last December, Gunther (and about 100 others) was let go by Fortune. He calls this experience “a hugely valuable event,” because it connected him with even greater numbers of interesting people and opportunities. Gunther likens it to an economic model called creative disruption “where things are destroyed and then new things spring up.”

The social media revolution is serving him well. His popular blog is proliferating. Gunther is on Facebook, YouTube and he’s started Tweeting (@MarcGunther).

His blog is being syndicated by two of the most influential online environmental voices, and The Energy Collective.

Proving “creative disruption” brings good karma to good people, Gunther not only still writes for Fortune, he authored the current cover story “Warren Buffett takes charge” about the Chinese company BYD.

Gunther smiles and in his self-effacing style says, “This could be a first – a laid off reporter writing a cover story for the publication that let him go, four months after it happened.”

What PR isn’t – nine things

Most people equate public relations with media coverage and publicity or confuse it with advertising. They’re selling it short – way short.

1. PR isn’t narrow, it’s broad.
Public relations – properly practiced – takes into account every single stakeholder (or “public”) an organization deals with in its daily life. Employees. Consumers. Local communities. Local/state/federal governments. Bloggers. Partners. Policy makers. Channels. Reporters. Industry analysts. Buy- and sell-side financial analysts. Stockholders. Literally, everyone an organization touches. There may be different levels of priority, but they all have to be factored into the mix.

2. PR isn’t self-serving, it’s serving others.
Public relations has a broader – and more strategic – agenda. It’s all about earning a trusted reputation with stakeholders by acting in their best interests – not the organization’s own myopic agenda. An increasing number of smart companies are adding corporate social responsibility to their agendas for this very reason.

3. PR isn’t advertising.
Advertising exists to sell. Advertisers can communicate whatever they want (within reason of course) because they pay for it. They can decide what they want to say, where they want to say it and how often they want to repeat themselves. It’s a controlled process.

By contrast, public relations is an uncontrolled process. It’s an adventure, shifting constantly as it mirrors real-time happenings.

4. PR isn’t best at awareness building.
There are lots of ways to build awareness. PR’s “secret sauce” is its ability to build credibility.

5. PR isn’t sales, but it influences sales.
Some people confuse search engine optimization (SEO) with PR. They’re two completely different things. SEO is focused on optimizing a Web site to increase targeted traffic. PR is focused on earning a trusted reputation which in turn creates positive word-of-mouth.

6. PR isn’t publicity or marketing.
Public relations is typically relegated to the marketing function. This organizational structure may reflect the perceived role of PR within an organization, namely that it exists to help market products and services.

While promoting products and services may be a piece of the PR pie, it should never be its sole focus. When it is, public relations becomes a lower-level function called publicity.

7. PR isn’t one-way, it’s two-way.
When you send out an e-mail blitz to a prospect, run an online banner ad or issue a news release, these are all examples of one-way communication. The message is crafted and pushed out. These are closed-loop systems.

By contrast, true public relations is an open system and a two-way process. The goal isn’t simply to communicate, but rather to be understood and believed. To affect this attitudinal change, continual conversations must take place between the communicator and message recipients (publics). If companies/organizations don’t listen well or engage in open, honest dialogue with the people they want to influence – and change behaviors when necessary –trust isn’t built.

8. PR isn’t fabricated.
The technology industry learned a valuable lesson with the dot com bust. If you spin stories that aren’t true, the fabric doesn’t survive many wash cycles.

Effective public relations isn’t rooted in hype. People are smart and instinctive; they quickly figure out when unfounded claims are bogus. When they do, brands suffer damage.

9. PR isn’t about “me,” it’s about “you.”
To become a successful brand, a product or service must become a personal, positive thing – an individual experience – something that feeds a person’s own self identity.

Great PR is focused on helping a company strategically figure out how to deliver a consistent brand experience, which in turn, yields a community of interested, involved participants.

Super Bowl ’09 ads tackle corporate social responsibility

There was plenty of usual advertising fare on last night’s Super Bowl, from Pepsi’s silly “Pepsuber” and Budweiser’s schmaltzy “Clydesdale Circus,” to Doritos’ frat boy “Crystal Ball” and GoDaddy’s steamy “Major league enhancement” spot.

But the ads that got my attention weren’t peddling products.

Among a sea of seemingly entertainment-for-entertainment-sake ads were a handful of visionary advertisers who aligned their companies with social causes while simultaneously driving traffic to their corporate Web sites.

Did you notice?

GE ran a clever spot – inspired by the Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow character – plugging “smart grid technology.” Yes it was self-promotional, but it also conveyed a “larger than GE” thought leadership message built around its successful “Ecomagination” campaign which urges a cleaner, greener world.

First time advertiser Pedigree used humor to make a bigger statement. It showed owners of exotic pets frustrated by their behavior:

  • An ostrich chasing a mailman
  • a wild boar sticking its head out a family car’s rear window to catch some air
  • a rhino rampaging through a living room as the owner called its name to go out for a walk
  • a bull that wouldn’t catch a Frisbee.

Pedigree capped off the frivolity with a crisp message:

Maybe you should get a dog. The Pedigree Adoption Drive. Help us Help Dogs.

Pedigree has promised to donate one bowl of food to animal shelters every time their Super Bowl commercial or related vignettes are viewed on the Pedigree Web site. Their objective is to get 4 million Web site views, enabling Pedigree to make the claim that every sheltered dog in America was fed for one day.

Denny’s literally stepped up to the plate with its Super Bowl ad. While advertising their Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s announced an amazing act of kindness: giving away free Grand Slam breakfasts for everyone in America on Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at all 1,500 locations. While self-servingly winning new customers, Denny’s is also building tremendous ‘helping others’ goodwill at a time when people need it most.

Frosted Flakes raised the bar with its 30-second “Plant a seed” spot, urging people to visit to nominate youth playing fields to be rebuilt pro bono by Kellogg’s. Tony the Tiger even made his Super Bowl debut. After sorting through thousands of nominated playing fields, Kellogg’s will narrow the list to 100. Then it will select 30 which will all be brought back to life by Kellogg’s.

The NFL and United Way have long collaborated on many “giving back” campaigns, frequently communicating their good deeds via TV spots. This year’s Super Bowl featured a simple ad that tackled the subject of childhood obesity and promoted a mobile text link to donate.

It’s about time.

72% of Americans wish their employer would do more to support a cause and social issue. 87% are likely to switch from one brand to another brand if the other brand is associated with a good cause (Source: 2007 Cone Cause Evolution Study).

Last night’s advertising assault finally included companies with a conscience who understand that it’s good business when brands make-the-world-a-better-place.