In June I attended the #promise conference in New York City, which brought together a congregation of companies that had promised to do good for the world. It was sponsored by a number of major corporations who were using social media as a platform for communicating their efforts in charitable pursuits. PepsiCo, both a sponsor and a featured panel speaker at the event, spoke at length about the success of Pepsi Refresh, a social media initiative now impossible to miss. They talked about the great brand engagement they’ve experienced with the campaign, various social capabilities that have allowed them to reach out to consumers in new and exciting ways, and how giving away millions of dollars to good causes has, in turn, produced a more loyal consumer.
Not a moment into the Pepsi panel and the live twitter feeds on either side of the stage were aflutter. Someone had tweeted asking why Pepsi had agreed to serve Aquafina bottled water, a plastic bottle made from BP petroleum, which was currently leaking all over the Gulf Coast? This opened up a floodgate and the retweets started pouring in. To Pepsi’s credit, they never stopped the conversation. It just sat there scrolling on the screen as their marketing rep continued to expound on the work of the Refresh project.
Consumers and brands never used to have this type of relationship. Grievances were either aired to customer service reps or consumer publications. CSR programs, if companies had them, were privately invested in. In the early days of the Internet, they may have been a tab on a website. But companies didn’t have to answer to consumers. You either bought their products or you didn’t. Simple enough.
But here we are in a new world. One where the word on everyone’s mind is “transparency, transparency, transparency.” Brands know and fear this aspect of social media. It opens you up to your consumer in ways that are mutually empowering. You can talk to people more directly about their interests, their passions, reach them where they are most active, in the moment, one-on-one. Consumers, in turn, can demand more from you. They create a powerful network of influencers and tastemakers. They expect you to answer to them. They expect you to be honest with them. If they sense you are faking it, they will rat you out.
This was all one thing when it was just about selling products. But now companies have to work harder to sell themselves. Consumers are more and more are demanding for brands to be “good”– to do the right thing by your suppliers, staff, give back to the community and be environmentally friendly. Its no surprise that Undercover Boss became such a runaway hit. It’s as if the digital consumer is demanding, “Don’t just tell me what you do. Show me who you are and I will tell you if you can play in my world.” Facebook and Twitter provide easy and fast ways for companies to appear to be doing the right thing, while continuing to drive profit and brand loyalty.
Innovative new companies are leading the wave with social good being part of their business objectives. David Dorfman, the founder of Itzso, works with artisans in developing countries to create fairtrade fashion and accessories. While creating high-fashion products that will appeal to the consumer is crucial, Itzso was primarily created for the purpose of establishing sustainability in underdeveloped countries. “These days the consumer isn’t given many fair trade, non-mass produced options in fashion,” says Dorfman, “The more people connect with the fabric they are putting over their bodies and the accessories they are decorating themselves with, the more they connect with themselves and the world around them.” Dorfman believes it is not enough just to have a beautiful design, it needs to be made in a way that honors everyone involved. The process of any company should be fair from beginning to end. Imagine if every company did its part, what would our consumer society look like then?
Here is video of David speaking about being fashionably responsible:
Both companies and consumers are continuing to define what it means to be socially responsible in a social media world. And each side is proceeding with caution, wondering who they can trust and just how much. As companies work harder and harder to campaign “goodness” in the social media space, consumers also have to work harder to ask themselves – are the right people benefiting here?
We, too, have a responsibility to the causes we support.