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Stand By Your Cause: What Marketers Can Learn From Dawn & The Oil Spill

3p Contributor | Friday July 9th, 2010 | 3 Comments

By Jacquie Ottman

Long marketed by Procter & Gamble as an “effective yet gentle” way to keep dishes free from even the greasiest of grease, Dawn dishwashing liquid was widely publicized  during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989 as an ideal way to remove residue from afflicted bird and mammal species.

Fast forward to mid-April 2010, just days before the 40th anniversary celebration of Earth Day. P&G decided to create awareness for its 30-year long support of bird rescue groups by launching a new installment to a campaign begun last July featuring $1 donations to wildlife for the purchase of specially-marked bottles supported by a dedicated website and social media. The goal: donate $500,000. But just two days short of Earth Day the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, leaking 60,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico and killing eleven workers—and untold birds and fish.

Now, in what may represent at once every brand manager’s nightmare and boon, Dawn is being drawn into the mess, with bottles appearing in photos and video footage with dead birds, and the brand is the butt of a well-publicized joke of Steven Colbert and others in the media for the “convenient timing of their marketing campaign”. Some recent studies have even found that washing the birds with Dawn doesn’t necessarily guarantee their survival once released back into the wild.

P&G now finds itself in the unenviable position of attempting to minimize risk to the Dawn brand and P&G’s reputation as an environmentally responsible corporation to boot. Pulling the campaign might imply that P&G was exploiting the link between wildlife and their “effective yet gentle” formula after all. However, sticking with the campaign continues to keep them in the midst of controversy. An alternative stance might be a call to support renewable energy and an end to oil-drilling once and for all. What should Dawn’s brand handlers do?

A call into P&G spokeswoman, Susan Baba this week indicates that P&G is in fact sticking by its campaign—a move I support wholeheartedly. Here’s why: Dawn has a unique opportunity to shift emphasis from passive support of wildlife via its planned “$1 on specially marked packages” effort to a more leader-like strategy of empowering concerned consumers to assist in the cleanup by supporting their campaign.

Check out Dawn’s Facebook and Twitter pages and now notice updates on the oil spill, detailing the numbers of birds washed and released on a certain day, as well as information on how fans can get involved. One post even details the laudable efforts of 11-year-old Olivia Bouler, who raised over $70,000 to the cause by mailing hand painted drawings to individual donors. To their credit, P&G has not attempted to link the brand any more overtly to the spill via, for instance, targeted media outreach. Instead, they are sticking to their campaign goal of $500,000 in contributions to the International Bird Rescue Research Center and The Marine Mammal Center. I support their continuing the campaign in this manner, and in doing so, proving their commitment to a cause that will one way or another, long be associated with their brand.

Lessons for Would-be Cause-Related Marketers

The sticky situation P&G has found itself in for its Dawn brand suggests that when it comes to cause-related marketing campaigns, tread carefully. Some important tips include:

  1. Pick a cause that ties in strategically with your brand’s positioning.
  2. Be prepared to stick by your cause when the going gets tough – this is the acid-test of exhibiting genuine support for a cause versus merely exploiting an issue for marketing purposes.
  3. Stay focused. Avoid the temptation to stray from your cause when the going gets tough—as would be the case if the campaign were to evolve to an emphasis on renewable energy.
  4. Heed the critics but don’t necessarily be dictated to. As P&G’s Baba reminds us, “Any program has critics, especially ones run by a large corporation like ours.”

Speaking of critics, I realize not everyone will agree with my point of view, hence a reason for writing this post. Weigh-in please. What do you think?

Jacquie Ottman, founder and president of the NYC-based J. Ottman Consulting is an expert and consultant to industry and government on green marketing. Her latest book entitled, The New Rules of Green Marketing (Berrett-Koehler 2010) is due out in Fall 2010.  Click here for more details.

Shannon Sutherland contributed to this post.


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  • JC

    History has shown us time and time again that noble deeds are often criticized by others or even attacked by society at large. For today's corporation – especially one as large as P&G – the possibility of criticism and attack is far greater. This article not only illustrates how cause-related marketing is not as simple as it looks but provides sound advice for marketers that may find themselves is a similar situation. Well done to P&G for standing their ground and sticking by their cause, and for providing such a valuable resource for the workers in the gulf.

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  • Stephen Wayhart

    Jacquie, your point of view and P&G's stance is spot on – full steam ahead. I admire P&G's commitment. Their success is a testament to their thoughtful brand leadership and courage. The general public is smart enough to see P&G's honest efforts. When questioned, I think I'd love to see P&G ask the media critics and cynics what they or their company's are doing to help the environment and/or the Gulf Coast. But then again, I don't and they shouldn't because the have too much class.

    • Jacquie Ottman

      Right on, Stephen. Nice to hear from you on this. JO

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