For three days last week, I camped out at the Social Good Summit at the 92nd Street Y on New York’s Upper East Side, not far from where the UN was rumbling to a start and bringing gridlock to the streets. I attended to get a better sense of the relationship between cause marketing, content marketing and brand marketing as these terms are gaining currency. I got more than I bargained for.
From a distance, the event did not seem all that auspicious as it had the UN branding all over it—no offense. My first and only dealing with the UN was decades ago when I edited Pedal Power for Work, Leisure and Transportation. The book, a Rodale outlier, with contributions from professors at MIT and Oxford University, included information on how to use pedal power to draw water from deep wells. This use case was intended primarily for Africa. Long story short: I went to the appropriate UN committee asking for a $100,000 for test cases in sub-Sahara Africa. Someone told me they couldn’t consider anything under $10 million. I was going through my “back-to-the-land” and “small is beautiful” period and wasn’t sufficiently schooled in Big Ideas.
The Social Good Summit seemed like a version of speed-dating on steroids, with dozens of sessions presented each day concurrently with no breaks and no coffee. I haven’t been able to reach the organizers to ask why such a schedule, so I assume that the unrelenting drum-roll of speakers was necessary because there is so much good to spread around. I was on my way to becoming a believer.
I’ve been to hundreds of conferences and organized a fair number myself but remember few. I’m not exactly sure of the reason for this, other than my shrinking brain. Most events are pro forma, put on by associations that have constituencies to appease. Understandably, the agenda might go down like yesterday’s gruel. And if it’s warmed over digital, it’s still gruel. The Social Good Summit seemed to touch deeper roots. To borrow from psychology: there was something archetypal afoot.
I got a clearer understanding of the title for this conference after sitting in a crowded theater with 1,000 attendees; many of them, it seemed, were Millennials. And of this group a high percentage were women. As the Summit would show, this group brings new ideas, technologies and a social consciousness to the ills of our country and world. After bearing reluctant witness to the political clown show in Washington DC, it was refreshing to be in a room where the operative worlds were compassion and service. I thought of the poet Auden’s longing for new styles of architecture and a change of heart. I thought about Pope Francis’ recent remarks about understanding the “other,” bringing an anima consciousness to the Papacy, a genuine embrace of the feminine for the first time in memory.
I go on, of course, but this feeling was in the air. The event, which reached 120 countries (streaming, web, etc.) and was hosted by Mashable, showed the new face of social good. It is driven by social, powered by mobile technology, and measured by engagement. Storytelling was the essential ingredient in the engagement cycle. I don’t recall the word “charity” being used. The focus is on “action to effect change.”
The emphasis on girls’ (LetGirlsLead) and women’s causes was paramount. The Gates Foundation is in the thick of it. Melinda Gates stressed the fact that, by 2015, 95% of the global population will have some access to mobile. She stressed that enlightened story-telling is the centerpiece of any fund-raising effort.
Even content got a makeover. Every story, every article, every photograph on any platform can become the source of a cause campaign. A good example of this kind of platform is Ryot.org, a Millennial news site that ties fundraising to very diverse content. The underlying assumption—very Millennial—is that no piece of journalism is complete without a cause to action. This is all very immediate and spontaneous. An article about anti- Obamacare ads is fit subject for a campaign to raise funds for healthcare in Africa.
I was surprised at how extensive the adoption of sustainable business practices have become by the large brands. Ikea seems to be leading the charge, enforcing a Code of Conduct with the massive supply chain of 11,000. The company has invested $2 billion wind farms and solar panels. Coca-Cola is also deeply concerned about sustainability and with good reason. The company does business in 208 countries, many facing water and other resource shortages. It is one thing to hear Al Gore talk about the effects of climate change, but entirely another when an executive from Coca-Cola speaks about climate representing a real threat to their business and bottom line.
A central and compelling theme at the Summit was the growing role of advertising and creative agencies in promoting social causes. This is a global collaboration as the World Economic Forum, the Advertising Council, and Ketchum, the PR agency with a presence in 70 countries, have joined the effort. Called “Creatives for Good” and launched June 2013 at the Cannes Festival, it is essentially a best practices platform of 60 campaigns from around the world on social issues such as health, education and the environment.
To be sure, the Ad Council has a long history of PSA’s, such as TV spots against drunk driving. But this is different because Millennials look for an implicit connection social causes and the commercial compact. As a number of speakers suggested, brands want to be connected to a higher purpose and unmet needs. Brands need a social currency. So do advertising agencies.
Some of the winners of the cause campaigns at Cannes include: Saatchi & Saatchi for “Days of Hope,” which addresses the suffering of the homeless during winters in Europe (a homeless person gave the TV weather report); Ogilvy for “waiting for Seven Years,” which featured a dialysis patient telling his story in a crowded train station; Ketchum for “The Tree Comments,” a commercial about the environment. When a chestnut falls from the tree, it strikes a membrane that makes music and tells a tale.
On another front, the Leo Burnett Agency was involved in a campaign: one billion, one day, one message, one word in answer to the rhetorical question: The World Needs More? The responses flooded in: #change, justice, peace, shelter, etc. in a variety of languages from the four-corners. This wasn’t the old Coke campaign warmed over. The agency scraped the social marketplace for key words. Brands paid $1 a word for sponsorship. This is a good example of brands and consumers joining together around a cause. It didn’t hurt that Beyoncé brought a little juice to the proceedings.
The Summit made clear that the embrace of cause by major brands signals a fundamental shift and has become part of their mission statement. Gucci’s “Chimes for Change,” powered by Catapult, a crowd-funding site, promotes education, health and justice for every girl, every woman, everywhere.
Unilever is a good example of a company that not only associates its brands (Dove, Lipton, Ben & Jerry’s, Persil and others) with particular causes. Its corporate mission statement embraces a Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). Unilever’s objectives include: 1. Help more than one billion people improve their health and fitness. 2. Halve the environmental footprint for Unilever products. 3. Source 100% of our agricultural materials sustainably.
I’ll repeat myself: much of this conference was given over to the empowerment of women. The agenda and a legion of women speakers spoke to this. Perhaps I have been attending too many male-dominated conferences because what really surprised me at the Summit was the tone of the meetings. I’m not talking about UN courtesy and deference. The panels were populated by successful women executives, some of them working for Dell and other companies committed to women’s empowerment. Dell is committed to empowering one billion women by 2020. I can’t recall the number of times I heard speakers mention that we are witnessing a new Women’s Movement, global in nature, connected by mobile, fed by social and supported by some of the most prestigious brands. Again, this was not UN speak. It was in the air, in the ranks, and in the brands.
I’ll close with a note about mobile and health because it was central to the Summit and has implications both at home and abroad. Johnson & Johnson is a big player in the sector, focusing especially on maternal health. In one example in the US, pregnant women are given three free text messages a week to ask their doctors questions and schedule appointments. This has been a huge success. There are also people in the field explaining the Affordable Care Act. Follow-up research suggests women in the program feel more prepared to be mothers and are much more diligent keeping doctor’s appointments. This program—text4baby—has received a lot of attention and donations through Facebook and Twitter.
During the course of the conference a number of people said, “This is not your father’s UN” and they certainly had a point. And neither was it your mother’s cause marketing campaign.
The full conference agenda can be found at www.mashable.com.