Admit flaws to achieve perfect tone

Rhetoricians call it “arguing against interest.” In simple terms, it’s a good way to build credibility fast. You readily admit a weakness in yourself or your argument to actually advance your larger case. I swear to you, your honor, I had no role in the killing of which I’m accused. I was out of state, uh, delivering a shipment of drugs. This mechanism causes the audience to wonder, who but an honest-to-God truth teller would disclose something so damning?

Arguing against interest can be a powerful tool for building brand credibility. Look at Domino’s Pizza, now publicly admitting their old pizza was terrible. Or Dos Equis: What, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer? This is a beer commercial!

What makes arguing against interest so powerful is its stark contrast against the vast majority of communication that argues, often lamely, in its own interest. Ads, websites, press releases and corporate blogs dump buckets of overstated goodness on a cringing consumer. You know, if you buy the right camera, you’ll shoot National Geographic quality images. With the right diamond necklace, you’ll be back on your honeymoon, and with a fabulous spouse.

Not saying such images aren’t seductive, but overstatement is the Achilles heel of marketers who are mired in old-school corporate communications. While gilding the lily has never been a great persuasion technique, today’s audiences despise it. They are sophisticated, discriminating and skeptical, if not cynical, driven largely by social media.

Case in point
A wonderful example of a brand arguing against interest to deepen credibility is Patagonia, the maker of outdoor apparel for skiers, rock climbers and campers (it’s like a crunchy Timberland). They’re not just sprinkling their content with a few aw shucks asides, they’re actually building their brand around a concept that, at first glance, is directly opposed to their own goal of making money.

The company’s Common Threads Initiative is urging customers to buy less clothing, wear it longer, repair it instead of throwing it away, and when it’s worn out, hand it back to Patagonia for reuse or recycling.

… to wrest the full life out of every piece of our clothing, the first three of the famous four R’s are equally important – to reduce, repair and reuse as well as recycle.

Under reduce, the company is calling on consumers to “buy what you’ll wear, and want to keep long enough to wear out” in order to “get by with fewer clothes.”

Under repair, it’s offering to fix zippers for free if the garment has enough life left in it.

(The company already has a recycling program that’s collected 39 tons of used clothes.)

This initiative is like General Motors telling you to drive your clunker into the ground because it’s the right thing to do. Of course, Patagonia is a for-profit business and commercial brand. So their larger goal with the Common Threads Initiative, one assumes, is to deepen customer loyalty, reduce raw material costs, and put a noble face on plain ol’ customer service (I mean, they’re probably going to fix zippers anyway).

Deep in the content
All this is clearly a flavor of cause branding, but Patagonia is taking it to the next level with a generous dose of argument against interest throughout its public content. For example, Patagonia recently underwent a corporate social responsibility (CSR) audit. A nonprofit watchdog organization took a hard look at their operations. Patagonia blogged about the audit in great detail. The post mentions a couple of instances of where the company fell short in the review (arguing against interest). They even admit they’re a founder of the group that was auditing them. Who even blogs about audits, much less the negative findings and conflicts of interest? Now you might be asking, where’s the marketing value in this? What comes through is not Patagonia’s warts, but its seriousness about being green and transparent. It’s as authentic as you can ever expect communications to get. And utterly believable.

Another example: In writing about the new Common Threads Initiative, Patagonia talks about its five-year-old recycling program, whose goal was to make all Patagonia clothes recyclable within five years. “This we will achieve in fall 2011,” Patagonia writes, “a year behind schedule.” Another argument against interest. This line is just sitting there in the copy, no excuses, no tortured transitions, just a fact. You make the call. This kind of statement is convincing.

Patagonia has a minisite, The Footprint Chronicles, that drills into the origin of Patagonia garments. Click on the Merino 2 Crew sweater and learn that the wool is sustainably ranched, the dye is okay, and the factory is okay,  but the wool travels 16,280 miles from sheep to store. “This is not sustainable,” the Patagonia website tells us. Who says this about their own supply chain? Nobody. In how many instances is it true? All the time, presumably. Patagonia cares so much about getting it right they readily admit what they’re still getting wrong.

In another Patagonia post, a blogger admits his orthopedic problems ruined his climbing adventure. One would expect tales of glory. But while Nike has LeBron and UGG Under Armour has Tom Brady, here’s Patagonia speaking through a guy whose arm keeps dropping out of his shoulder socket.

If all this arguing against interest sounds like overkill, it’s only because we’re calling out the exceptions to the rest of the Patagonia content, which as you would expect is generally favorable to the company. But this positive content is all the more believable next to a few well-conceived arguments against interest.

By acknowledging that’s nobody’s perfect, starting with yourself, you can strike the perfect note.

New Orleans sustainable development must also include survivability

Great things can come from rebuilding after a disaster. Rebuilding downtown Chicago after the 1871 fire started the era of high-rise construction. The great urban spaces of Boston, San Francisco, and even Cleanspeak’s hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, arose from fires and earthquakes. They ushered in innovations like brick construction and firewalls to keep blazes from spreading, new sanitation systems, parks and squares.

Today’s sustainable development advocates view post-Katrina New Orleans as the Chicago or San Francisco of large-scale sustainable development. New Orleans is a unique laboratory for developing technologies, construction methods, business practices and government policies for re-building communities sustainably, goes the green thinking. It’s like what happened in Greenburg, Kansas, which rebuilt itself sustainably after a 2007 tornado destroyed the town, but on a larger scale. A forum in New Orleans, next week, “The Green Rebuilding of New Orleans Conference,” is one of many attempts over the last four years to chart a sustainable course for the city’s future. Organizations like The Holy Cross Project have already begun building sustainable housing in damaged areas.

I want to jump on the advocates’ side because I’m a sustainable building freak, not to mention an architecture nerd. I’m just not sure that New Orleans and sustainable development are synonymous.

Even if every newly constructed building in New Orleans is LEED certified, built from recovered materials and blessed by Pope Al Gore himself, it won’t be sustainable development because of the larger realities about New Orleans. Can it be sustainable to rebuild vast areas of a city that lies mostly below sea level when scientists say the seas are rising and weather patterns are growing more extreme? A city in a bowl bracketed by a large lake and the mouth of the Mississippi River? A city that has flooded disastrously twice in the last 100 years? A city that needs 148 pumps working continuously to keep it from filing up with water?

Let’s face it, if anyone proposed building a city in a spot like New Orleans today, they’d be tasered and put under guardianship for their own safety. The Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico  are a levee break or a pump failure from reclaiming the city. How much effort and how many resources are wasted when new construction is wiped out by the next catastrophic storm?

So if sustainability was the only consideration in re-developing the damaged parts of New Orleans, then it would be hard to argue the pro-redevelopment position. There are, however, cultural, moral and social justice issues that weigh in redevelopment decisions. The hardest hit sections of the city were largely low income. Is it morally acceptable for governments to withhold reconstruction aid in those areas because the long-term prospects are uncertain? Flooding destroyed several government low-income housing developments. Is the government morally obligated to rebuild them? Can private lenders be compelled to approve mortgages for new homes in flood-damaged areas when Katrina showed how vulnerable they can be?

The reality is that owing to political and social factors, the damaged Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview and New Orleans East sections of the city will most likely be at least partly rebuilt through a combination of public and private aid. So it might as well be done sustainably, but under a broader definition of sustainability than has been applied so far. Sustainable construction usually means energy efficiency, non-toxic materials, recovered materials, etc. In the New Orleans context, sustainable also means surviving the next natural disaster. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright created new construction techniques when he designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo because earthquakes were a constant threat. It survived a devastating earthquake in 1923 because Wright designed it with: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel

  • a reflecting pool that provided a source of water for fire-fighting, saving the building from the post-earthquake firestorm;
  • cantilevered floors and balconies that provided extra support for the floors;
  • seismic separation joints, located about every 20 meters along the building;
  • tapered walls, thicker on lower floors, increasing their strength; and
  • suspended piping and wiring, instead of being encased in concrete, as well as smooth curves, making them more resistant to fracture.

The engineers and architects who rebuild New Orleans have to apply that kind of thinking to the city’s realities. Maybe New Orleanians will ride out the next flood in homes that can float on the floodwaters, then settle back into their foundations when the waters recede. Who knows. The point is that sustainability, in this case, must also include survivability.

There’s no doubt New Orleans offers a unique opportunity to develop sustainable building designs and methods. Attention to surviving the city’s unique, if not hazardous water-bracketed topography will help ensure what rises in New Orleans to replace what Katrina destroyed will be a fitting living monument to the lives lost there, and a testament to American’s talent for wringing progress from disaster.

Kindle 2.0 a new wave in reading, but an old story in recycling

Books, magazines and newspapers on one hand, Amazon’s Kindle 2.0 reading tablet on the other. A classic matchup of the old and the new, of a better way of doing something that’s been done for centuries. A tale of trees saved, of landfills spared the bulk of unwanted paper and the detritus of broken and obsolete Kindles, because Amazon has set up a recycling program to recover batteries and other potentially harmful components after Kindle loses its final spark.

However, it’s open to debate how effective recycling programs like Amazon’s are. High tech products account for about two percent of the American solid waste stream, according to the EPA, but that percentage is growing rapidly. If the waste stream is growing as manufacturers like Amazon, Dell, Apple, HP and IBM are enacting recycling programs to gain green cred, then something isn’t working. But before throwing cold water on the Kindle, let’s dwell for a minute on its potential appeal to consumers and its considerable environmental upsides.

Should Kindle 2.0 take off with the predicted gusto, it could be the turning point in paperless reading. Kindle, and less-heralded cousin produced by Sony, have what previous generations of electronic reading tablets have lacked; enough convenience, portability and content in one compact package to wean readers away from hard copy books and periodicals. Kindle is thin, light, and can run for four days on a single charge. Its screen uses a technology called “E-Ink” that employs physical ink arranged and re-arranged electronically as the reader flips along. E-Ink is easier on the eyes than conventional screens and doesn’t fade in bright light, so Kindle works everywhere books do. Except that Kindle is a whole library, because its wireless access capabilities provide almost ubiquitous access to a quarter million publications, with more on the way every day. Writing in Slate and Newsweek, Jacob Weisberg makes an excellent case that Kindle can revolutionize the reading and publishing worlds as the dominant reading media of the future. Kindle 2.0, in other words, could be the iPod of reading.

If Kindle becomes the dominant mass reading media, it will have vast environmental benefits. Removing paper from the reading equation saves billions in natural resources and environmental impact. Hard copy publications consume trees and cotton fiber for paper, soybeans for ink, fuel for shipping to retailers, and more fuel for taking back overstock. Pulping and recycling unwanted hard copies means using lots of electricity and, often, chlorine bleach. Books, magazines and newspapers that aren’t recycled take up landfill space. If the landfills are uncapped, they’re probably leaching old petroleum-based inks into water tables, and even soy inks in enough volume can probably damage ground water.

Those benefits are on the front end. The back end is another story. Manufacturers’ recycling programs are not stemming the tide of discarded electronics, and that’s not exclusive to Kindle and Amazon. It applies to Apple iPods, Dell laptops, HP printers, Sony Playstations, and just about anything else that beeps when you turn it on. Most of the current programs place too much onus on the consumer to contact the manufacturer, package the unwanted item, and ship it someplace for recycling. It’s still easier for the average consumer to just bury the dead laptop in his/her trash can and let the garbage crew deal with it.

Yet those same consumers will fill a bucket with used plastic bottles and metal cans and set it out right next to their trash can for curbside recycling. The key is convenience. The industry needs a new recycling model that includes incentives, penalties and convenience. Many municipalities charge homeowners by the bag to haul away trash, but allow unlimited free recycling. In a twist of that model, why not tack on a mandatory refundable recycling fee onto the price of every high-tech product sold? The fee goes into interest-bearing accounts to offset the program’s costs. At the end of an electronic product’s life, the owner brings it to a local site, like a retailer, where it’s accepted for recycling and they get their fee refunded. Such programs might not make any money, but they can be structured not to cost anyone, and they will serve the higher purpose of keeping high tech materials out of landfills and incinerators.

Tech products like Kindle can reduce the overall environmental impact of industries like publishing. But until they can be recycled as easily as an aluminum can, they will not be a solution, just a smaller problem.

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.

Nothing says green like … Wally World?

Who’s greenest? Warm and fuzzy Apple? Crunchy Whole Foods Market? Or supposedly sinister Wal-Mart, the company that’s big-boxing America with help from the Chinese?

That’s right, Wal-Mart, according to a new report issued by the Ceres investor coalition of Boston.

The report uses a “Climate Change Governance Framework” to evaluate how 48 US companies and 15 non-US companies are addressing climate change through board of director oversight, management execution, public disclosure, greenhouse gas emissions accounting, and strategic planning and performance. Some of the largest global companies in 11 consumer and technology sectors were evaluated using a 100-point scoring system based on this framework.

Wal-Mart scored a 69 to Apple’s 28 and Whole Foods’ 27. The median score was 38.

Starbucks, another brand with nefarious intentions in the eyes of large pockets of consumers, came in at 52. Leading the ranking were buttoned-up Big Blue (79), Tesco (78) and Dell (77).

Hey, it’s just one ranking on one narrow set of criteria, but for me it’s a poignant reminder of the power of brand, trusted or not, to at least occasionally trump reality.