September 21, 2005
By David Lazarus
In most ads, a company is trying to sell you a product, or a brand, or some oxymoronic notion of corporate philosophy (as if the pursuit of profit wasn't credible self-justification in a capitalist marketplace).
But flipping through a recent copy of the New Yorker -- the Sept. 5 issue, to be precise -- I came across several ads for leading companies that spoke to a relatively new trend in corporate outreach.
Although the companies in question collectively touch nearly all U.S. consumers and are together worth billions of dollars, they're not selling products here, or their respective brands, or even a clear declaration of philosophy.
What these companies -- Chevron, Altria and Starbucks -- are selling is their own thoughtfulness.
"They're trying to elevate the conversation above what it is they do," said Steve Manning, managing director of Igor, a San Francisco brand consultant. "They want to be thought of as something bigger than just goods and services."
This approach, he added, should be a red flag for most consumers.
"Honest people don't tell you they're honest," Manning observed. "Cool people don't say that they're cool. We should all be wondering why these guys feel a burning need to tell us how good they are."
The first ad that caught my attention was a two-page spread for San Ramon oil giant Chevron. Similar versions have appeared recently in other publications (including this one).
The ad depicts a bulletin board with a variety of images tacked on, most related to energy and exploration, along with, for reasons that aren't clear, a prominent photo of smiling black children.
"The world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered," the ad says. "So is this something you should be worried about?"
Chevron offers no direct answer to its own question. But it indicates that a transition to alternative fuel sources is needed. "Consumers must demand, and be willing to pay for, some of these solutions, while practicing conservation efforts of their own," the ad says.
It refers readers to a Web site, willyoujoinus.com, that features an online forum on energy issues. The site's rules say discussion moderators can block any posting that is, among other things, "threatening, abusive, libelous" toward a specific corporation.
As such, I couldn't find any messages addressing the seeming disingenuousness of an oil company that pocketed $6.4 billion in profit during the first half of the year positioning itself as a catalyst for conservation and alternative fuels.
But Chevron's ad leaves no room for doubt that the company is thinking long and hard about these things. It notes that Chevron is "committing over $100 million every year on renewable energies, alternative fuels and improving efficiency."
It's unclear what this "commitment" entails or how much money is spent on renewable energies and alternative fuels as opposed to "improving efficiency." (In any case, $100 million represents just 0.7 percent of Chevron's record $13.3 billion in earnings last year.)
Nicole Hodgson, a Chevron spokeswoman, declined to give a breakdown for the $100 million figure. But she acknowledged that the company isn't actually spending this amount on new fuel sources.
Hodgson said Chevron is improving operations at its refineries and along pipelines, and such changes will result in energy savings for the company. "That's included in the figure," she said.
Hodgson said the goal of Chevron's ad is to "create a dialogue" about energy issues. "We're not trying to solve these issues," she said. "We just want to bring people together to discuss these issues."
In Altria's case, the cigarette and snack-food behemoth is reaching out to consumers in the form of an introspective personal essay.
"The value of seeing the whole forest," the company's ad says. "By the parent company of Kraft Foods, Philip Morris International and Philip Morris
Under a photo of lush, green trees, the brief text basically describes Altria's vast retail offerings, from Velveeta to Virginia Slims, and the company's awareness that it must "strive to meet the expectations" of shareholders, customers, regulators and society.
"For a company as newsworthy as ours," it says, "at times it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. But to look beyond immediate challenges and position our company for long-term success, we have to keep the whole forest squarely in sight.
"And that's a vision we feel is worth sharing," the ad concludes.
What vision? What are they sharing?
"I don't get it," commented Suzie Ivelich, head of strategy at the San Francisco office of brand consultant Wolff Olins. "They say they're thinking about something, but I'm not sure what it is."
Tara Carraro, an Altria spokeswoman, explained that even though Philip Morris changed its name to Altria more than two years ago, "there's still a significant number of people out there who don't know what Altria is."
For this reason, she said, the ad is intended to convey that "we're not just a tobacco company."
That's not much of a vision, though.
"Well, it's our vision," Carraro replied. "It's important to us."
Finally, we have an attention-getting ad for Starbucks in which an actual coffee filter is attached to a magazine page. "What makes coffee good?" the ad asks. Printed on the filter is the answer:
"Fresh beans. Filtered water. The right equipment. Expertise. Health coverage for part-time employees. Plushy chairs. Sustainable agriculture. Micro-loans. Community programs. Shade. Concerts. Book drives. Impeccable technique. Tree plantings. Music. Personal relationships with farmers. Smiles. Giving back. Looking forward. And sometimes, milk and sugar."
This is Starbucks, mind you, a company that all but pioneered the $3 cup of coffee and in July reported quarterly net income of $126 million, up 29 percent from a year earlier.
Those profits are pouring in from more than 9,500 coffee shops worldwide -- virtually one on every street corner (or so it seems).
"There's been a lot of negative perception about the 'Starbuckization' of America," said Paul Parkin, a principal at Salt Branding in San Francisco. "I think what they're trying to say is that they like who they are, and they want you to like who they are too.
"I'm not sure what they're selling in this ad," he added, "except that they're part of the world and that they care about it."
Sanja Gould, a Starbucks spokeswoman, said the ad is "designed to communicate to our customers who we are and what we stand for."
"Consumers increasingly want to know what a company stands for beyond the product they purchase," she said. "We are a values-based company, and believe we have something to say that consumers want to know."
Manning, Igor's managing director, said companies tend to fall back on vague generalities when they don't have specific accomplishments to point to.
"These companies are each depicting themselves as having deep thoughts," he said. "But if they were serious, they would demonstrate what they mean instead of telling you that they're thinking about these things."
Manning said that since the war in Iraq broke out, he has noticed more of a "warm and fuzzy thing" in corporate messages.
"I'm not sure what they're all trying to say," he said, "but it looks like everyone wants a group hug."