72andSunny, a leading creative agency, known for its work for Samsung, Google, Activision and others, has launched a brand citizenship practice headed by Jim Moriarty, a former tech exec who spent 10 years running the non-profit, Surfrider Foundation.
The agency isn’t the first to address brands’ social and environmental efforts. But its approach is notable for a few reasons: it aims to take “good” out of its CSR silo and make it a core marketing concern, tying it to cultural impact–a particular specialty of 72andSunny–and to business results. Brand citizenship will also be integrated into client briefs from the outset, instead of being an add-on. In this way, social good follows the path of digital, social and content–things once thought of as channels or departments, that are now mindsets that inform the whole creative project.
Anecdotal social media evidence, and research, do indicate that more consumers are concerned about what’s in that burger/phone/sneaker they’re about to buy and the ethics of the company that made it, and that those concerns translate into purchase decisions.
Several studies echo the findings of a 2014 Nielsen report that reveals that 55% of respondents are willing to pay more for socially responsible products, and that the majority of people check product packaging for indicators of sustainable practices (in another study, 60% of people said that buying goods from socially responsible companies is important to them).
As a result, more corporations–especially those without an obvious social-good link or legacy–are taking a harder look at connecting “citizenship” (a label used here to incorporate social and environmental acts and policies) with the buying behavior of consumers. In other words, brands are acting on the growing realization that doing good, like being creative, is not just about optics, it’s about business results.
And, as brands’ social-good activities increase, the challenges grow too–to integrate social good and marketing in an authentic way, to make something that makes sense, that inspires talk and action, not crickets and contempt, and to make something that works.
At 72andSunny, Moriarty and brand citizenship will be embedded in three of the agency’s brand teams at launch (likely Google, Samsung and Tilamook), and within each brand brief from the outset. We spoke with Moriarty and 72 CEO John Boiler to talk about the new practice and about brand citizenship as marketing mandate now.
Fast Company: Jim, why did you decide to lead this new practice at the agency?
Jim Moriarty: Before Surfrider, I was in technology companies–large ones like SAP and small ones. I was somewhat the unlikely person to run Surfrider and the reason they picked me was because of my expertise and experience in technology. I spent a decade at Surfrider and I saw a few trends. A lot of the people I saw showing up were skewing toward the demographic that people label as millennials. ANd I think there’s an important nuance there because we’re not just talking about quote unquote millennials. It’s actually all these people who have embraced technology and transparency as kind of an extension of their daily lives. They are very aware, they are vocal, and they’re advocates and activists. I also saw that the fastest growing revenue line was corporate partnerships. And the interesting thing there was that we were saying no to 70-plus percent of those opportunities. Non profits trade on reputation and brand and you can’t cheapen that. What I saw in the partners we worked with was how do it well and how not to do it well. The short version is that there are two million non-profits in the US. They have amazing stories. And then you have corporations that have scale and they need that deeper engagement. So bringing the two together makes sense. But what I was missing was the X factor. It’s not enough to have a great story and ability to scale that story. It sounds like it should be but it’s not. What’s really needed is ability to shape and connect that with culture. And that’s what 72’s DNA is. This not about CSR. It’s leaning into the brand and going deeper with the customer–essentially, companies trying to provide richer lives for consumers, but having that connect directly to their brands.
What does this look like at 72? How will the brand citizenship practice work, and where will it sit in the agency?
John Boiler: At the heart of it, our whole premise is: we make a huge impact in culture on behalf of the brands we work with. We take that seriously. When we looked at the stuff we’ve done over last year or two, especially when you take the media buy out–the stuff that’s made a great impact in culture–a lot of those moments have been around philanthropic or brand citizenship components. Like Google’s Made With Code (a Google initiative to inspire more girls to start coding ) and all the way back to the Benetton campaign (the agency’s “Unhate” project ). We recognize that we do have a good hit rate of making an impact in culture when we attach a brand to a cause in a meaningful and authentic way, and use our creativity to amplify that connection.
JM: There isn’t a band citizenship department. We’re not building a staff out. It’s embedding in the (teams). And what I’m really doing is helping the teams themselves to come up with these ideas to extend the brand to drive the business.
So the crux here is taking brands’ social/environmental good elements and making it part of their marketing. Why is that important?
JM: It’s a critical difference. And Matt Jarvis (72 partner and chief strategy officer) has distilled it down to a few words: it’s offense not defense. I’ve been in the non profit sector and I’ve seen companies lobbing money over a wall to feel good or because it’s a pet project of the CEO or it’s an extension of the CSR department. It has very little influence on the brand, or they have little budget a lot of the time. And while all a lot of those initiatives under CSR are good–its good to green your supply chain—they’re not necessarily connected to the brand. And that’s the offense piece. It’s not just that businesses can change the the world, it’s via consumers.
As mentioned, there have been a lot of studies that show that people–“millennials” especially–use a company’s social and environmental record to inform product buying. Do you see this borne out in reality? A lot of people bought iPhones over the years–and there wasn’t always a particularly compelling social/environmental story there…
JM: First of all, under Tim Cooke Apple is doing a lot of positive and amazing thing–they invested $3 billion in solar; the first week he was in office he opened a lot of employee giving. programs. Even the companies we could use as examples of what not to do they are embracing this on a pretty big level.
But I do think the answer is yes. I think its interesting that there’s almost an innate cynicism–we disbelieve trends that are happening in front of our eyes. Eyeglasses as an example were invented 700 years ago and Warby Parker was just valued at over a billion dollars. There’s not a lot of innovation there–there are no wireless connections, or new features–its a story; it’s an identity. That’s what I’m seeing on a very large scale. What the internet has done is it’s driven transparency and access. And what mobile has done is put that in our pockets. So wherever we are–we walk up to a food truck, say–and we not only have access, we have ratings, live. I think that transfers to Coach, Apple and every other brand out there. So I think a massive shift has taken place.
There has been an uptick in the number of brands creating sort of social good-leaning ads, whether they have a clear social good story or not. What’s the effect of this–on one hand it seems like a step forward but does this make people jaded? What do you think of the work that’s been done so far, and how will your approach differ?
JM: With every trend there are awkward first attempts. I was at Surfrider when green became trendy. And you saw awkward first steps–like Coke putting green labels on Dasani bottles. I think we should expect awkward first attempts across the board but the wonderful part in my mind is, I tend to look at things five years out, and I think all these things will be shaped by consumers. So if consumers push back, especially on global public companies, those companies will get smarter and their out-of-beta approach will get tighter and more meaningful.
One of the things I’ve seen, and Patagonia offers a good example of this is, is that people sometimes talk about the idea of taking on an issue and since they have a business approach, they think success equals solving that issue–down to zero. Like Bill Gates and malaria–in that example it may be possible to eradicate that disease. But what I think might be a more sound approach for corporations is to look at these initiatives like a journey–a journey with that common thread. Patagonia will never completely solve the environmental issues we’re facing. But they do have that ethic so deeply ingrained–that project like “Worn Wear” even if they are awkward in their first attempts, they resonate within the larger journey umbrella. That’s where the success is–figuring out what the umbrella message is–where are we going, what is this journey–and then iterating on that.
JB: When you look at the way brands do corporate citizenship, it’s often been part of the defensive posture of PR. It was used defensively; it wasn’t growing brand love or loyalty with this emerging audience of younger people who are into seeing transparency and authenticity in brands’ behavior. So we thought before brands fuck up the idea of doing the right thing, let’s flip this. So the most authentic cause that’s most directly attached to the engine of the company, lets make it so it’s a no brainer. So that anytime a consumer or fan learns that “oh this brand is doing cause y,” they should go “oh of course.” Another thing we’ve seen is brands doing one-offs–it hurts brands because people think oh, you’re greenwashing this season be you’re having a bad time with the greenies. Our point of view is that hurts the brands and it hurts the cause. The only way these causes can do good in the world is by having a perpetual presence, a steady drum beat. And to be that, you have to be self sustained–it should also should be selling widgets.
You mention thinking five years out. So, five or 10 years from now, will this be the norm–will brands across every category will have this built in?
JM: I think there will be leaders and laggards. You have geographic nuance–South Korea for example will act different than China and the US. But I think that what we’ll see is short term financial returns–quarter on quarter investments and returns for stockholders–start to take on a slightly longer view tied to market capitalization and those things tied to the value of the brand. Because if you trade on products and features, and all you’re trying to do is make this quarter’s numbers…there are a lot of examples of roadkill out there that suggest that’s not enough. You need a larger story. Some people will care a lot about that early on, and some people will care less, but it’s a trend that’s growing.