It’s hard to stand out as an ethical business these days.
Americans strongly prefer businesses that correspond with their social values: 90% say they are more likely to be loyal to companies that are trying to make a difference, while 88% would buy products with social or environmental benefits. So it’s no wonder that companies are attaching themselves to causes left and right, sometimes to their own peril. A few months ago, I wrote about oil and gas company Baker Hughes’s attempt to support breast cancer by creating pink drill bits, only to be called out for fracking, a process that releases carcinogens. And last month, Starbucks tried to spur conversations about race in stores in the U.S., only to face a flurry of criticism for being tone deaf.
In the midst of all of this noise, what’s a socially conscious entrepreneur to do? This is a question that P.J. Brice, who founded paper-plate company Cheeky Home in November 2014, frequently ponders. His objective is to provide 10 million meals to the hungry by the end of 2015 by donating 11 cents–or one meal–to Feeding America for every packet of plates or cups sold. Given that Cheeky is sold at Target, which has a massive consumer base, Brice is aiming high, but he believes he will be able to reach even more people with the help of a celebrity spokesperson.
That celebrity, Cheeky is announcing today, is Mario Batali, who will serve as chief culinary ambassador and own a small part of the company. Batali will do his part to make Cheeky a household name by talking about it whenever he can; he also plans to throw several food-related events in the next few months that will feature Cheeky tableware and drive home the message about food insecurity in America. Batali is an interesting collaborator for Cheeky. On the one hand, he’s been a longtime supporter of Feeding America, a board member of the New York City Food Bank for over a decade, and an advocate for ending hunger in America. “The hunger relief issue is the other side of my toast,” Batali tells me. “I’m lucky enough to make money on the food business, so it is meaningful to me that people are fed regularly.”
On the other hand, Batali regularly finds himself in hot soup. A few months ago, his Greenwich Village restaurant Babbo was hit with a $10 million lawsuit from neighbors complaining about “excessive odors, toxic emissions, noise, and vibrations.” Perhaps more disturbingly from a cause perspective, Batali and his business partner Joe Bastianich were accused of skimming tips from their workers across their eight restaurants in 2012, and were forced to settle the suit for $5.25 million. Going back even further to the days of Occupy Wall Street, Batali compared Wall Street bankers to Stalin and Hitler, which caused a lot of angry traders to boycott his restaurants. Batali acknowledges that his loose lips sometimes gets him in trouble. “It happens all the time,” Batali tells me. “I say things that are on my mind. It is never rehearsed with a PR agent or a media trainer.”
Brice says that he has weighed the costs of bringing on Batali, including the possibility that his larger-than-life personality will eclipse the charitable message or that a possible indiscretion on his part could tarnish the brand’s image. But for a six-month-old brand like Cheeky, Brice believes that the benefits of reaching Batali’s audience outweigh the risks. Batali has a massive fan base with 719,000 followers on Twitter and over 400,000 followers on Facebook alone; when he speaks, people listen. “We believe that this is absolutely going to be a tremendous value add,” Brice says. “We want to gain some large-scale traction in the short and medium term.”
But celebrity endorsements are just one part of the equation. The other part is making sure that Cheeky stands out for having a strong ethical core, since consumers are quick to see when a company is “cause washing” or jumping on the social-good bandwagon without making a serious, authentic commitment to a cause. “Companies are now including a layer of corporate social responsibility to their business to appeal to a growing body of consumers that are pretty much demanding this from brands,” Brice says. “But, candidly, that’s not necessarily convincing enough for millennials. They want brands that can really stand for a cause, not just pay lip service to it.” Brice is working hard to make Cheeky the kind of company whose social-good chops are solid. “What is unique about Cheeky is that the cause came first. I think brands that start out with the cause and then think about selling a product do stand out with consumers,” he says.
Why use paper plates as the vehicle for this cause? “There’s a connection between the cause and the product,” Brice explains. “People are prompted to think about those who are struggling with hunger as they eat from these plates.” Apart from the symbolic value of the plates, Brice wants to sell products in a mass-market category, rather than a niche one, because he felt it would allow the company to get its message out quickly and reach its charitable goals faster. By providing prettier plates at the same price point as the other big players on the market, like Dixie and Solo, Brice believes that consumers will be willing to convert to Cheeky the next time they need plates for a party or a barbecue. “There are so many great ideas out there that are not large enough to make a significant impact,” Brice says. “Disposable tableware, on the other hand, is an enormous category. Grocery stores set aside so much space on their aisles for these products.”
Brice hopes that the Batali partnership will drive even more people to Cheeky and the cause behind it. But, of course, this kind of partnership can suddenly fall apart should Batali do or say anything off color. When Paula Deen made racist comments last year, companies like Smithfield Foods, Sears, Walgreens, and other brands cut off their relationships with her within days.
Brice does not believe anything like this will be necessary. He also points out that he is bringing other A-list celebrities on board in the next few months to be Cheeky’s lifestyle and design ambassadors. (Brice couldn’t name the other celebs because they are not yet confirmed, but said that someone like home-furnishings macher Jonathan Adler is the right idea.) Ultimately, celebrity endorsements can be an uncertain strategy, so Brice is smart to hedge his bets.