Marketing is ubiquitous but not for constituent compounds that make your cell phone buttons soft, your sweater stretch or your office chair just firm enough to discourage sleep. Try counting on one hand the number of molecules that have gotten a brand campaign. Kevlar and Lycra don't count.
Industrial giant Cargill's polyols unit is hoping to create consumer recognition and maybe even a little excitement about a component of foam. Not shaving foam, which at least has the benefit of being sexy (judging from the ad clichés), but the soft spongy stuff in your bed, chairs, cushions and couches.
One thing Cargill does have going for it is a sustainability message, which in the post-Gulf spill era will count. That's because foam has, until recently, been made with chemicals that are synthesized entirely from fractions of crude oil.
Minneapolis-based Cargill's five-year-old BiOH Polyols division makes one of the two components of foam, but from soy, not crude. The company is hoping to get its sustainability message out and also get its own brand name into the minds of consumers with a crowd-sourced social-media contest starting in September.
Project UDesign, a collaboration with Century Furniture, Toray's Ultrasuede and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) developed by The Kaleidoscope Partnership, a Minneapolis-based social media agency, comprises a contest in which a handful of SCAD students enter their designs for sustainable wing chairs. The 25 initial entries will be winnowed to nine finalists by a panel of expert judges, and then a crowd-sourcing element commences.
During the summer, the company has posted updates and videos of the students on Experiencebioh.com and on the BiOH YouTube channel. On Sept. 8 six final designs will be posted to BiOH's Facebook page. Consumers have a month to vote for their favorites with three finalists to be announced in October.
The final voting after that will happen on Facebook on Oct. 4 and Oct. 20, or in Century Furniture's showrooms. Century will run a Tweetup on Oct. 18, wherein the three SCAD finalists will do a live tweet.
The winning chair will be produced by Century Furniture with royalties going to the winning student. In the process, Cargill will use the platform to talk about sustainability, and BiOH's role in foam manufacturer.
Leslie Carothers, CEO of Kaleidoscope, says the program is a first-ever such event for the furniture industry.
Carothers says that while manufacturers of furniture and bedding foam have their own branding for foam that contains soy-based polyols, BiOH wants to raise awareness first that foam is from crude oil, but that it doesn't have to be entirely crude-based, and it wants to preserve is brand equity so that consumers ultimately think of BiOH when they go looking for sustainable furniture.
"The truth is, BiOH wants to protect its market share. We want consumers to demand BiOH but we are also trying to straighten out the differences. Branding BiOH is what we are paid to do but if consumers get that BiOH is a company educating them about sustainability, that's great. On my own Twitter feed, I'm explaining that really latex -- from rubber trees -- is the only really green option."
She says while there's an inherent challenge to getting people to care or talk about something as un-sexy as soy polyols, the efforts have garnered results. "There have been some 1,962 blogs about it so far," she says.
Nicole Nachazel, assistant marketing manager for BiOH, says the bottom line is that every million pounds of BiOH Polyols used in foam manufacture saves 84,000 barrels of crude. That doesn't make it green, notes Nachazel, but it does make it better than the alternative.
She says the company's primary focus will remain social and traditional PR. She says that consumer voting starts Sept. 3 and that, based on results, the company may do another such program. "We are looking at new and original ways of crowd-sourcing, traditional and pr, to get the word out about BiOH."