Okay -- do me a little favor? Get out your copy of Can't Buy Me Like. Go to the table of contents and pencil in the following: “Chapter 12. Carrotmobs.” Then print out this column and paste it into the end of the book.
How the hell did we miss this?
When Doug Levy and I wrote CBML, the premise was a dramatic shift into a new Relationship Era of marketing, in which consumer decisions would be made based on trust, reputation, values, conduct and essentially all the criteria that have always governed ordinary human relationships. Naturally, we used many a case history, many a data set and many a trenchant quotation to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that brands will rise or fall based not on their ad messages but on their inner selves.
For instance, as evidence of the Internet's ability to document behavior, we wrote about GoodGuide, the non-profit that rates brands 1-10 on healthfulness, environmental impact and employment practices. (Seventh Generation Baby Lotion -- 8.6, Buddha Baby Hemp Seed Hand & Body Lotion, Dreamsicle -- 2.2) And we certainly cited chapter and verse on brands that disappointed the public and were pilloried in social media to devastating effect.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure comes to mind. United Airlines is another splendid example. And perhaps we should add (oh my!) Apple.
So, yeah -- we supported our argument. But somehow we failed to take note of Carrotmob.org, a movement of do-gooders who have genetically modified the consumer boycott with some Groupon DNA to create consumer buycotts. Companies are encouraged to change their practices not with a stick -- the threat of a boycott -- but with a carrot, the promise of new customers. This eliminates the boycott’s extortionistic character and replaces it with positive incentive for change.
Is there such a word as intortion?
If Carrotmobsters spend $550 in a Budapest coffee shop on a certain day, the shop will save water by buying a low-flow toilet. If Carrotmobsters spend $1200 at a Sydney Italian restaurant, the owners will start a vegetable garden, start composting and improve the efficiency of its refrigerators. If a Bangkok grocery stops using plastic bags, Carrotmobsters will pledge $19,000. More than 250 times in 20 countries over 10 years, Carrotmob has directed retail traffic to businesses wishing to be rewarded for civic-mindedness.
“The big idea here,” says founder Brent Schulkin, “is that people want to vote with their money and have their purchases reflect their values.”
Indeed, consumers are increasingly doing just that -- individually. It is easy to show the correlation between popular admiration and profitability. But even in such expansive cause-marketing initiatives as Red and Pepsi Refresh, it’s hard to either credit incremental sales to the initiative, or more importantly, to distinguish social responsibility from slick marketing.
"The thing that’s missing is agency," Schulkin says. “The feeling that you the consumer have control and influence over how these things happen. ‘Hey, Pepsi Refresh! Great! But I know you’re trying to sell me Pepsi. It feels like marketing.’”
When Carrotmob is working, by contrast, it feels like collaboration -- plus genuine gratitude in exchange for genuine sacrifice. And gratitude tends to grow into loyalty.
Since its inception, Carrotmob has gone back and forth between non-profit and for-profit models. It is now, finally, a for-profit startup with a decade of experience. Its revenue comes as a percentage of all sales accruing from a particular project. It could scale either via a drazillion projects along the long tail, where it has resided for a decade, or by mega-initiatives with gigantic marketers. Late last year, for example, it announced a partnership with Unilever -- although nothing beyond brainstorming has yet emerged
“A lot of branding comes down to storytelling,” Schulkin observes. “What Unilever is looking for is a chance to tell the story of what they’re doing.”
Duh. The challenge for Carrotmob is to make sure the story is not only true, but the whole truth. There must be no opportunity for greenwashing, windowdressing or sleight of hand. If Carrotmob gets involved in a single project for a single brand -- Schulkin hypothesizes something to do with cage-free eggs in Ben & Jerry’s products -- it can’t confer a general Seal of Approval that would obscure, say, Brylcreem hiring child labor to boil kitten eyes in its manufacturing.
Schulkin understands the potential problems. He is loath to impose a purity test on corporations, because nobody is pure and perfection is the enemy of good, “but it’s up to us to come up with boundaries. It’s case by case. At the end of the day, both us and consumers and advocacy groups are gonna know if it smells funny."
This may come down to the question of the chicken and the cage-free egg. If the mob comes to a brand with its money and a proposition, there is no reason for suspicion. If a brand starts trying to attract a mob, it might be a good time to start sniffing.