Rapid content response: can you do it?

Communications organizations need to act fast these days – like the bicycle maker that recently pounced on a green gaffe by General Motors.

Here’s how it went down.

GM put out this ad, targeted at college kids…

GM 'stop pedaling' ad

…showing a poor sap on a bike in front of a cute co-ed who was riding in a … wow, car!


…and then there was this part:

bad part

“Yep. Shameless,” wrote BikePortland.org publisher/editor Jonathan Maus. “But just more of the same from the auto industry.”

Cyclists went ballistic. The auto company – a recent beneficiary of American tax dollars, contributor to our national debt, and the front end of a pretty big greenhouse gas supply chain – actually had the gall to promote its cars as, well, an alternative mode of transportation.

Why pedal, indeed? Why drink tap water when you can get a plastic bottle from Fiji? Why compost your leaves when you can let the garbage man take them to the landfill? Heck, why regulate carbon emissions when it’s easier just to spew?

Cyclists occupied Twitter with complaints about GM. The company quickly apologized (smart) via Twitter, shifting the blame onto college kids (dumb, but no one called them on it):

We're listening

One company in the bicycle industry, Giant Bicycles, actually made some hay with the story. The bike manufacturer came up with this take-off on GM’s ad and, within about 24 hours of the twitstorm’s beginning, posted it on Facebook.

Giant Bicycles reply parody ad

That’s quick.

The Giant post gained more than 1,000 likes and 386 shares (a pretty big share ratio). That’s solid engagement and a boost for the brand. Although Giant is admired for Toyota-like value, it doesn’t have the cachet of the Pinarello, Orbea or maybe even Trek brand. So leading the charge against GM’s foul, if only for a minute, adds an emotional dimension to Giant.

Either way, Giant’s rapid content generation feat is rare. Sure, savvy communications organizations know how to join a Twitter conversation, but quickly developing solid content like the parody ad almost never happens. Many companies and agencies still use byzantine “public relations 1.0” workflows for social content creation, review and approval – assuming they can conceive of a clever response in the first place.

Too often, it still takes a month to put out a press release. Even if social content takes half the time, this pace simply won’t work. In the age of Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, an opportunity goes cold long before you’ve had a chance to run your proposed creative response up and down the chain of command, collecting edits, suggestions and feedback at every turn. By the time the content is blessed, if it ever is, it’s worthless.

To get results in 2011, be ready to act. Faster than you ever have. Like Giant, which is said to be the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.

So … how does a giant company like Giant get so fast on its feet?

Well, we asked them*.

CleanSpeak: First, how did you come up with the idea for your parody ad?

An Le, Giant Global Marketing Director: GM’s ad was so off the mark that it made our idea quite easy. We simply illustrated the real “reality” of what college students (and many of us) are facing these days – rising cost of fuel, congestion, and an ever-expanding waistline.

CleanSpeak: How did you get the ad done so fast?

Giant: Instead of going through our agency or design house, we did this piece in-house. It took us about two hours from conception to going live on Facebook. With Facebook, we have a quick and casual way to get a message out to our core audience, and we would not have produced this parody ad if Facebook did not exist.

CleanSpeak: Do you pull off these quick content creation feats very often?

An Le on a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.Giant’s An Le in a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.

Giant: We create content daily – be it news, videos, photos, etc. – but this is our first parody ad.

CleanSpeak: What’s your process for approving the concept and, later, the final? How many approvals?

Giant: We don’t have too many layers of management at Giant. I have final say in creative, and in creating this particular ad, our in-house designer (Nate Riffle, who sits next to me) and I bounced ideas back and forth and had it done in a couple of hours. If we work with a design agency, the process is similar but does take a bit more back and forth.

CleanSpeak: What is your secret for fast content creation?

Giant: Be quick. Avoid committee approval. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Have some guts to take chances once in a while. And don’t be malicious – do it in a spirit of fun.


* via email. They provided answers from their global marketing director in one hour and five minutes. Do your spokespeople move that fast? We got the right email address by pinging Giant’s Twitter address. That yielded another quick reply. Who’s monitoring your Twitter feed for media/blogger inquiries?

Fragrance fouls provoke protests

Successful marketing draws attention to itself, sometimes drawing a bull’s eye on its own back.

Case in point is Abercrombie & Fitch, which critics claim has been dousing its products, employees and storefronts with a signature cologne that, it turns out, includes a potentially dangerous chemical. Diethyl phthalate has been linked to sperm damage in adult men and abnormal development of reproductive organs in baby boys.

Teens Turning Green marched on Abercrombie’s San Francisco store yesterday, calling the store’s perfume-igation “toxic trespassing.”

“Why,” says TTG’s overly hip video letter to the Abercrombie CEO, “are we overwhelmed by an unwanted and unasked for odor inside and outside your stores, [one] that permeates our clothing, penetrates our lungs, invades our personal space and occupies our personal consciousness. This is unacceptable.”

So, how bad is Abercrombie’s “Fierce” for men? It’s well below the median in a list of popular fragrances containing secret chemicals (not listed on product labels), according to a report by the Environmental Working Group in May. And the chemical in question is already present in 97 percent of Americans.

That tells us the critical factor in making Abercrombie a big, juicy target is apparently the carpet-bomb scent campaign. Allergy sufferers and chemical-sensitive individuals are built-in sympathizers, as well as parents concerned about Abercrombie’s sexualized advertising. Abercrombie is clearly the perfect foil for the Teens, a media-savvy organization with an enviable list of sponsors spreading its outrage Facebook, flickr, YouTube, posters, petitions and more.

They’ve got everything but their own fragrance.


How the Fortune 500 learned to love the EPA

How powerful has environmental cred grown? Powerful enough for an EPA renewable energy program to attract more multinational corporations than Steve Forbes’ New Year’s Eve party. In a country like ours that almost fetishises private enterprise, you know you’ve arrived when the Fortune 500 comes to play.

The EPA’s Green Partnership program publishes annual lists of the top 50 renewable energy consumers in the program. Several are local, state and federal agencies who might be expected to toe the line considering that the current occupant of the White House is a renewable energy fan. There are also a few universities – reliable members of the liberal vanguard on most social issues. But the private corporations on the list outnumber the universities and public agencies 33 to 17. And we’re talking heavy hitters like Intel, Kohl’s, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, Walmart, Motorola, Lowe’s, Herman Miller, Sprint, ING Bank, Safeway Inc., Dannon, Bloomberg, Staples and Hilton Worldwide.

These aren’t exactly members of the Ben & Jerry’s hippie corporate crowd, so what’s in it for them? I mean bottom-line benefits – dollars and cents. You can talk about corporate responsibility all day, but in the end corporations exist to make a profit. Anything that doesn’t make a profit in the corporate world has the shelf life of a fruit fly. The Green Power Partnership program doesn’t put a dime in their pockets. Actually, it’s probably the exact opposite. Renewable energy is still more expensive than fossil fuels, so from a purely economic standpoint a corporation would be better off burning coal.

Yet not only are these companies part of the Green Power Partnership, they had to bust some tail to get in. Companies that want to be a Green Power Partner have to estimate their annual electricity use; review their power purchasing requirements; find and buy green power; then prove they actually bought it. The EPA strictly defines “green” in this context as wind, solar, biomass, biogas, geothermal, or low-impact hydro. Or, if you want to hear it in the original bureaucratese, “A green power resource produces electricity with zero anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) emissions, has a superior environmental profile to conventional power generation, and must have been built after the beginning of the voluntary market (1/1/1997).” Applicants have to submit certified information to the EPA, and it’s subject to review.

So it doesn’t help the bottom line and you have to bust a gut to qualify. Again, where’s the upside? I still maintain it’s not on the bottom line. But it is on the top line. In the last few years the corporate attitudinal axis tilted they decided that sustainability isn’t a hippie pipe dream – it’s good business. They want consumers to know they’re walking the green walk because consumers care, and it helps their public image.

Green power’s influence extends beyond consumer markets into business-to-business. Take Intel as the bellwether for this movement. Intel isn’t a consumer business, but it developed a consumer brand through the “Intel Inside” campaign. Now it’s speaking directly to consumers again through its two-year-run atop the Green Power Partnership ranking. Intel buys 1.4 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy per year – or 51 percent of its total consumption. Google “Intel renewable energy” and you land on a page in the Intel press room dedicated to its renewable energy purchase program. The headline? “Intel Tops EPA’s List of Green Power Partners.”

That’s a huge affirmation to the power of public perception. The ultimate expression of corporate power was once “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” With companies like Intel leading the charge, hopefully that will change to “What Intel does for the environment is good for the country.”

Oil fatigue and making ourselves care

Who really cares? That’s a vital question, maybe the question, in clean tech communications.

You can sit in a conference room all day hashing out your product positioning, but if you can’t get your audience to feel, you’ll never get them to act.

This truth concerns me from a life-or-death perspective as some of the most concrete, tangible, visible symptoms of our planet’s problems – the things that make us care – are fading away. We, the audience, care just a little less each day.

The BP well has stopped spewing, so the underground oil cam is boring. Tony Hayward has sailed away from the executive suite, taking his $18 million and our anger with him. The oil slick is … well, where the hell has it gone?

Climate change is at least as frustrating as oil fatigue because it’s an abstraction even as it suffocates the planet. Although it’s sweltering here in New England, global warming will seem pretty academic in December. And while the slow implosion of the ocean’s food chain isn’t as jarring as the pothole on your street, ocean warming is being blamed for a 40 percent decrease in the ocean’s algal biomass.

Plastiki gets the art of caring. The sailboat, made of 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles, just arrived in Sydney after 128 days crossing the Pacific and spotlighting the blight of plastic trash in the ocean. It was an inspired communications gambit that has successfully given compelling physical form to an environmental concern we hardly see.

The vessel was years in the making. Sometimes it takes that kind of effort to make people care. Keep that in mind when you’re fighting the good fight for clean technology.

Sadly, bad news can be easier to care about. Although the plankton decline isn’t so scary, when Louisiana’s seafood restaurants become pasta joints, that will certainly get people’s attention.

Next BP victim: ‘brand journalism’

The brand journalist is the one of the most compelling marketing concepts I’ve encountered in a while.

A brand journalist is an in-house newshound, preferably with professional reporting experience, who works for your company instead of an independent news organization. You unleash him or her to mine stories – from the inside – that make good corporate blog posts, video, photos, charts, e-books, white papers and the like. The theory is that the content, conceived and produced by a real enough journalist, will be compelling, polished, believable, persuasive and maybe even authentic.

“Brand Journalism is not a product pitch,” says marketing strategist David Meerman Scott. “It is not an advertorial. It is not an egotistical spewing of gobbledygook-laden corporate drivel. Brand Journalism is the creation of Web content … that delivers value to your marketplace and serves to position your organization as one worthy of doing business with.”

When I first learned of the practice, it was a eureka moment. Media consumers are starving for authenticity, and the business world is generally failing to deliver it. Brand journalism! This was the answer.

So leave it to BP to spoil a good thing.

The company has contaminated the Gulf with “BP reporters” writing eerily feel-good posts and coaxing positive comments from locals. Comments like “there is no reason to hate BP” and “the oil spill was an accident.” One ‘BP reporter’ actually characterized cleanup work as a “ballet at sea as mesmerising as any performance in a concert hall, and worthy of an audience in its own right.” Gag me.

As if BP weren’t already leaking credibility by the barrel, CNN last night tore them a new one for posts like these.

Said media watcher Howard Kurtz, “There isn’t one person in America who is going to be fooled by this propaganda campaign. The reporting has been so positive you’d think they were on BP’s payroll. Oh, that’s right, they are on BP’s payroll. Maybe that explains it.”

Want authenticity? You’ve got it in Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, La., and force of nature. “You know, instead of hiring PR people to talk about ballets on the water, if we just do the right thing, sit down and deploy every piece of equipment, there’s something [for BP] to hang your hat on,” he said. “Look in the camera and say, ‘We’re doing everything feasibly possible to save coastal Louisiana, to contain this oil, to pick it up, to make this wrong right. There’s your PR. But don’t just say it. Go out there and do it, and the PR will take care of itself.’”

Pretty good counsel.

I still like the idea of brand journalism, but an unprecedented environmental disaster has somehow yielded an unprecedented PR disaster. So maybe BP should just give it a rest.

Fables of Abundance

The other week, I blogged that renewable energy alone will not be able to compensate for an anticipated precipitous decline in world oil supply. We said we need to invest in energy efficiency to bridge the gap. This week, I look at the challenges of becoming a more efficient world, starting with you and me.

In the mind of the average consumer the image of efficiency and its close cousin conservation is one of deprivation and austerity. Certainly not the stuff that made America great! America was built on fables of abundance.

But doesn’t efficiency have its own attractive tale to tell? Take the iPad, for instance. Turns out it’s really energy efficient. Among the many ballyhooed features of the iPad, right up there with the sexy interface, is its amazing battery life. Wait – praise for efficiency? Sure, because that’s efficiency delivering something people really want; truly mobile computing. After all, who wants a mobile device that needs to be tethered to an outlet? The iPad isn’t just slick fun – it’s slick , fun, freedom!

The trick is to find similar gut-level needs that, “marketed” effectively, can motivate us to adopt ways of living that reduce our spiraling energy demand and offset some of the anticipated energy gap mentioned in my last post. So, what gut-level need can energy efficiency deliver?

How about control for starters? People like the ideas of self-sufficiency and self-determination. Especially in uncertain times, feeling like you have a firm grip on your ship’s tiller is empowering. Technologies and initiatives that increase energy efficiency could be positioned as delivering personal control – a bulwark against the uncertainties of see-sawing gasoline prices, rising utility bills, increased commuting costs and carbon taxes.

Or, what about status? People like to stand out, get noticed, feel like they’re ahead of the pack in some way. When gasoline breached $4 a gallon in the US back in 2008, a new breed of braggart emerged on the American car scene – the hypermiler. In the world of hypermiling, status wasn’t about horsepower and 0-60 times. It was all about miles-per-gallon. Want to be king of the hypermile hill? Drive smarter. Right now, utilities are tapping into that same competitive quest for eco status by sending monthly statements that show how your energy use stacks up to similar homes in your neighborhood. (It’s anonymous.) Many were surprised that the odd-cool look of the Prius sold so well even before the spike in gas prices. They assumed it would be best to camouflage a hybrid under the wrappings of a more traditional looking car body – like Honda did with its hybrid Civic. But early adopters often want to stand out. Why spend the extra money on planet and climate saving efficiency if nobody notices? The same principle can be applied well beyond the automotive segment.

And there are many more human needs and wants that efficiency can be paired with (how about efficiency gadgets for that never ending human need for novelty?), but the point is we need to harness self-interest, not pretend it doesn’t exist. We start by choosing and creating the right words, imagery and ideas that motivate action and behavior. Efficiency and conservation have been too often aligned with abstractly noble or utilitarian sentiments; saving the planet or perhaps saving some money (eventually). Getting an efficiency mindset to really take hold demands a belief that it can deliver something personally valuable.

By building more compelling imagery – starting with us as marketers and reaching all the way up to the Marketer in Chief – efficiency has as much, possibly more, intrinsic appeal as alternative energy. After all, lots of the alternative energy stuff is “five to 10 years away” and seemingly always will be (where is my hydrogen economy?). Insulation, smart glass, telecommuting, car sharing, geothermal heat pumps, new urbanism and smart planning? That’s efficiency, and that’s here, now ready to deliver more control in uncertain times, status among peers, novelty and more. So, if you’re starting out in a quest for green market dominance with a venture that’s efficiency or conservation-focused, look to spin a new fable of abundance based on the self-interest needs or wants that your product or service can deliver.

Our planet’s situation: ‘crisis’ or ‘quest’?

How we brand environmental challenges may have a big impact on our planet’s fate.

So suggests New York Times “Dot Earth” blogger Andrew C. Revkin. “If I had to choose one of two bumper stickers for our car — CLIMATE CRISIS or ENERGY QUEST — I’d choose the latter,” he says. “This doesn’t mean I reject the idea that we face a climate crisis. I just don’t think that phrase is a productive way to frame this challenge, particularly as defined over the last few years in the heated policy debate.”

If we must consider ourselves in crisis, he says, let’s define it right. Citing a colleague’s argument, Revkin views crisis less as catastrophe or cause for alarmism than a crucial or decisive moment, a turning point. This approach seems to cool passion without sacrificing urgency. And though Revkin sees a need to act immediately, he wants to focus on the positive.

I’m talking about a sustained quest, from the household light socket to the boardroom, the laboratory to the classroom, the smart post-industrial American city to the struggling, (literally) powerless sub-Saharan village. This is not some onerous task, but an active, positive assertion that the ways we harvest and use energy — an asset long taken for granted and priced in ways that mask its broader costs — really do matter. Dry places do this with water all the time. In Israel, there is no toilet without two flush options. It’s not some goofball green concept; it’s just the way things are done.

The TriplePundit blog’s Deborah Fleischer has some complementary ideas for effective sustainability communications. Although the post has corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports in mind, the principles can apply to any communication.

Tell positive stories about specific challenges and successes.

Make a specific request. Instead of calling for a new green mindset, for example, suggest specific actions like printing on double sides or reusing water bottles.

Engage people’s emotions. Data and logic are great, now bring it home. How many trees does that equal? Present a photo of a forest as big as the thing you’re talking about, or work in three dimensions by, say, creating a sculpture from all the plastic water bottles you’ve collected in your office. For mind-blowing, emotion-charged examples of consumption run amok, see artist Chris Jordan’s portraits of mass consumption.

Finally, use non-controlling language. Try please think about and please consider instead of you should.

Whether your planet or your business is at stake (somehow I believe they’re interconnected), how you say it is important.

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.

A rosy idea for clean energy measurement

In a recent news release for a cleantech client I struggled to quantify the energy savings and environmental impact that the technology delivered in a meaningful way. Communicating clean energy benefits can often trigger a mish-mash of metrics, like energy units (e.g. kilowatts/hour) made, dollars saved or potential pollutants scrubbed from the atmosphere.

To that end, Scientific American introduces us to a new scientific measurement for energy savings called the “Rosenfeld” named after the so-called “godfather of energy efficiency,” Scientist Arthur Rosenfeld.

One Rosenfeld equals an energy savings of 3 billion kilowatt-hours per year — the same amount generated by a 500-megawatt coal-run power plant. As Scientific American describes it, the Rosenfeld metric provides a much needed:

“… measurement that would help regular people visualize efficiency’s massive potential, but also be as accurate as possible.”

Weight Watchers have calories, cars have MPG and my woodstove boasts in BTUs. It’s not a bad idea that communications pros in clean tech industries coalesce around a standard, meaningful unit of energy savings measurement. And while we’re at, let’s nickname it the Rosy for simplicity’s sake.