Claire Beale On Advertising: Fighting crime is clever marketing

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The Independent Online

Isn’t it interesting that it’s taken vulnerable corporate balance sheets to really get big businesses thinking carefully about how to make life better for all of us.

Adland’s cynics had expected the recession to put a brake on all those fluffy marketing initiatives designed to tell consumers how green and caring the world’s biggest brands really are. But what’s actually happened is that “giving something back” has become a new marketing battleground.

The marketing industry calls it corporate social responsibility. CSR is an ugly little tag that belies a rather wonderful thing: big companies using some of the profits they earn to make our world a better place to live in.

From planting trees to funding grass-roots sport, you’ll struggle to find a big business these days that doesn’t proudly display its CSR policy alongside its corporate mission statement and financial results.

Only last week the mobile phone company O2 announced it would be giving kids payouts of £300 to fund projects that will improve their social environment, such as creating community gardens, fighting knife crime and launching sports clubs. It’s called Think Big and there’s a £5m fund for good causes – more if the idea is a success.

Now, is that your cynical muscle I see twitching? Surely you don’t think O2’s just trying to better rival Orange’s excellent Rockcorps initiative which asks young people to give four hours of their time to a community project in return for exclusive gig tickets, or a cunning ploy to lock-in young consumers.

Ronan Dunne, O2’s chief, knows what you’re all thinking. “I don’t expect to sell a single additional phone on the back of this,” he insists. “What I do want people to say is that O2 is a company they want to do business with.”

The fact is, Think Big is a shrewd way of attracting and keeping young customers and an utterly laudable investment in local communities. If O2 earns new customers out of it, all the better – that way it’s even more likely to persevere.

Of course there’s nothing new about big business philanthropy. Cadbury has been doing it for nearly 200 years and built its business around campaigning against slavery, for better housing and sanitation and a more environmentally sensitive approach to industrial development.

But CSR does particularly suit the digital age, when big companies and the way they conduct their business are so utterly exposed to interrogation by consumers. Consumers are increasingly choosing to spend their money with those companies they know will divert some of it back into making a positive contribution to the environment or society.

And modern marketing is now absolutely about building relationships with customers. At best those relationships move beyond the buyer/seller paradigm into a more holistic partnership with consumers, where the brand acts as a facilitator of useful products and services that society might not otherwise be able to provide.

What’s also interesting is that careful advertisers are now expecting their ad agencies to embrace CSR every bit as enthusiastically. When one of the world’s biggest media agencies, MPG, recently made 50 redundancies in the US, the socialist/anarchist group Industrial Workers of the World rose up to protest.

But it wasn’t MPG but one of MPG’s clients, the department store chain Kmart, which found itself under attack. IWW protesters brandished banners proclaiming “Shame on Kmart. Drop MPG” outside Kmart’s offices.

In a climate when big businesses are ever more fearful of upsetting anybody at all, this sort of protest means that clients are beginning to demand that their suppliers – ad agencies included – are as ethical and community-minded as possible.Quite right. At a time when the ad industry is trying to defend itself on issues such as alcohol commercials and advertising to children, a little bit more social responsibility is rather overdue.

Best In Show: (Mother)

The trouble with most dating ads is that they tend to star the sort of people you spend most of your single years trying to avoid.But Mother’s new TV campaign for is remarkable for its perfect casting. That and a wonderfully light and playful script. Two cool but believably-beautiful people find themselves, back to back, in a music shop. They casually start playing the instruments, singing to each other about themselves.

It’s not until the end of the ad that they turn round to take a beautifully timed, lingering look at each other. It’s almost enough to make you wish you were single again. And if you are single, now you know where to go.