With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 upon us, there has been some debate as to whether or not marketing linked to this national tragedy is appropriate—or a tasteless violation of principles of decency. Companies and brands (and the agencies that support them) are right to be concerned about being perceived as exploiting a searing national tragedy for corporate gain.
But given the fact that a decade has passed, that real needs persist related to the tragedy, and that consumer appetite for cause has never been stronger, we are at a point where companies can, and should, market around 9/11—provided they go about it in a principled and thoughtful way.
Ten years later, 9/11 is very much still with us. Wounds caused by 9/11 are still raw (especially for those who suffered loss of family, colleagues or loved ones), Ground Zero is still a construction site, and America is still enmeshed in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq connected to that fateful morning. But the wheels of time are starting to turn. As former President Bush recently described, although 9/11 will always be an emotional trauma for those who lived through it, one day people will look back and this will be another date on the calendar, viewed through a lens of historic distance, like Pearl Harbor. Today, we are partway along that journey.
At the same time, 9/11-related needs persist. Communities and individuals still impacted by the events include children and families of 9/11 victims, first responders and law enforcement, even the rescue dogs who combed the rubble are now aged and in retirement. And let’s not forget supporting our military personnel, who regularly risk their lives to keep our country safe and prevent tragedies like 9/11 from happening in the first place. Exemplary nonprofits like Folds of Honor and Paralyzed Veterans of America strive to provide support to individuals and families who have made the ultimate sacrifice of life or injury to protect their country (In full disclosure, I am proud to say both of these terrific organizations have been clients).
Finally, for consumers, corporate commitment to all forms of societal impact has never been more important. Based on research conducted by Cone over the past 20 years, now more than ever people expect companies to commit to meaningful ways to drive positive societal impact. As recently as 1993, only 66% of people thought it was OK for companies to link support for causes to marketing of products; today that number has risen to 88%.
The convergence of these factors creates a unique opportunity for companies. With ten years gone by, so many needs out there, and strong interest among consumers in supporting causes, doing nothing out of fear of being perceived as overly commercial seems like playing it way too safe. The real question that marketers should be asking on this somber anniversary is not IF they should be supporting programs that commemorate the 9/11 attacks, but rather HOW they might they be leveraging their resources to pay tribute to the sacrifice of others and to strengthen our country’s future.
Take the American Express “I Will Volunteer” program, powered by a Facebook application that makes it simple for people to volunteer in their communities—paying tribute by dedicating time to helping others as part of the federally recognized 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance. It’s hard to argue that this is exploitative when American Express is partnering with legitimate nonprofits like MyGoodDeed and the HandsOn network and backing up their efforts with a real commitment to impact by providing a $1 million grant for service projects to commemorate 9/11. This is on top of an already considerable track record of support for 9/11 rebuilding (American Express was directly impacted by the tragedy, losing employees and facilities in the attacks on the World
Other examples have begun to crop up recently. A chain of health clubs advertising a discounted rate for first responders and the military, a New York winery donating a chunk of proceeds on specific products to the 9/11 memorial, etc. The key question is: What will consumers take away when they experience these? Crass exploitation? An attack on principles of common decency? Probably not. More likely that these brands and companies care, are committed to helping others and are doing something to make the world a better place.
That’s not to say that anything goes. Companies that want to do something to commemorate the 9/11 tragedy—now or in the future—need to go at this carefully and thoughtfully. Said simply, this means understanding their assets, crystallizing their intent, and clearly identifying their desired impact. Here are five fundamental principles of cause branding that are particularly relevant for companies considering any 9/11-related promotion:
- Be authentic: Make sure that you deeply understand your brand’s unique equity, mission, purpose and values and act in a way that supports these.
- Embrace risk: Leadership today is about standing up AND standing for something. This may mean taking on difficult or controversial issues. Remember there was a time when breast cancer, AIDS, and a host of other issues that are now part of our daily fabric, were taboo.
- Be unique: Find your unique take on an issue, identifying a specific challenge that you want to help solve. For example, supporting military families is broad; providing scholarships to families impacted by military service, is more specific and actionable.
- Don’t go it alone: Nonprofit partners provide critical credentialing and expertise in achieving social impact. Given concerns about exploitation and 9/11-related marketing, this support is even more critical than usual.
- Communicate impact: Consumers want to know what you are doing to drive change and how their support for your brand will translate into action. Be clear about your impact and think carefully whether this will perceived as meaningful and actionable by consumers and other
Our experience over the decades shows that by taking on substantive and emotionally powerful issues in an authentic fashion, companies can earn consumers’ support, respect and loyalty. Although 9/11 continues to be a pivotally significant event in our nation’s history, companies shouldn’t shy away from engaging their resources to commemorate and drive positive change—as long as they go about it in the right way.
Originally published 11/6/11