[I prepared this for a talk at the PICNIC: Urban Futures conference. If you’d rather see me talk, go here. I think there's something in this idea but it hasn't really had the benefit of being discussed robustly in public so I'd love to know your thoughts.]
I believe that successful brands need to behave more like philanthropists. In the next few years brands will have to place a blend of Branded Utility and CSR at the heart of their marketing activities.
Let’s start with an understanding of philanthropy. The first philanthropist was Prometheus (a Titan of Greek mythology). Known for his wily intelligence, he stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humanity. Greek playwright Aeschylus coined the word Philanthropy (meaning “a love of humanity”) to explain Prometheus’s actions. Since his gift of fire represents knowledge, science and technology, the myth attempts to explain how man went from a pre-conscious, pre-animalistic state to one of culture and society. His gift of fire was the ultimate act of empowerment - giving humanity the tools with which they could fend for themselves.
Jumping to the Modern Era, philanthropy seems to appear at times of rapid urban expansion. From the industrial revolution (with Lord Shaftesbury and Elizabeth Fry); to the great philanthropists of the US Gilded Age (Carnegie and Rockefeller); to the members of The GivingPledge in today’s “Urban Age”. This makes sense since the expansion of cities is accompanied by a widening gulf between the urban super-rich and the city's poor. It is this gulf that spurs the well-meaning super-rich on to do "good works".
There is an important distinction between charity and philanthropy. Philanthropists usually have grand designs to improve the welfare of human society. This is partly due to self-interest – industry-leaders appreciate that an empowered population is a wealth-generating population. It means that their solutions normally involve big projects to create infrastructure that empower individuals through education, human rights and technology. Selfless charity, on the other hand, has in the past cared less whether its actions might fuel an economy. [I make a slightly different distinction in the Picnic talk which, for obvious reasons, I no longer agree with.]
It is this self-interest, large-scale ambition and the desire to empower individuals that makes Philanthropy a useful lens through which to view brands and marketing. We are currently experiencing one of the fastest expansions of city dwelling in the history of man. This time brands will join the super-rich (and governments) in helping to create infrastructures that empower the burgeoning throng of city-dwellers. By providing tools and services that improve the experience of living in cities, brands can make the necessary evolution from interrupting to engaging consumers.
Here are a few examples. They may seem flippant but I have purposely tried to avoid the more worthy CSR-style examples in order to make the point that brands can empower people in a wide variety of ways. Each of the examples show a brand improving the experience of living in a city while receiving benefits itself.
Improving the commute – Barclay’s London Bike Scheme
It clearly works for commuters – it has had 6 million journeys and in over 110k subscribers in the year and a half since launch. It seems to work for Barclays, too – the estimated ROI from its £5m investment is 300% and they have just signed for another 5 years.
Enabling shared experiences across cities – Heineken Starplayer
The insight behind Starplayer was that Champion’s League games, which usually happen on busy weeknights, are solitary affairs for viewers who don’t have time to meet up with friends to watch them. The desire to share the experience is still strong however, as seen by the amount of online banter around the games. So Heineken created something that would socialise the experience while at the same time increase brand salience.
Re-connecting with nature – Wiekse Zonneradar
Similar to the Pimms campaign in London - this service told people where, in their close vicinity, there was a beer terrace in the sun. This way they could get the most out of the sun in their city while the brand benefited by being front of mind when people arrived at the terraces.
Turning the city into a playground – Bing’s promotion of Decode by Jay-z
By embedding the book's content in relevant places within the city, Bing and Jay-Z turned the urban landscape into a massive treasure hunt. Allowing people the opportunity to chance upon the content created value to the experience of living in the city while Bing benefited from being the search engine people used to find the content.
So what is the benefit of thinking about brand activity in this way? What does it add rather than using the term Branded Utility?
- Firstly, I think it is a case of ambition. Like the great philanthropists, brands should be aiming to create enduring infrastructures that change consumers’ experiences.
- Secondly, I think that a wider set of brands should consider this sort of behaviour. Branded Utility has more often been applied by premium brands but the ideas behind Brand Philanthropy makes it more important for brands to create stuff for the less economically empowered urban groups.
- Lastly it is worth bearing in mind the fate of the original philanthropist who, for his efforts, was chained to a rock by Zeus for an eagle to eat out his liver for eternity. Making sure any philanthropic activities are rooted in consumer research and linked in some way to business results should mean that brand’s efforts don’t get punished in the same vein.
As I said at the beginning, I'd love to know your thoughts on this. Am I bonkers or is this a useful lens to look at brand activities in cities? Let's see...
Slideshare charts here.