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3 Min Read

No Soap

When you come down to it, there are really three basic ways that the public forms its impressions of philanthropy and what it does. Actual actions taken by foundations, such as awarding grants. How grantees describe what foundations are supporting them to do. And, of course, the work communications staff do to help shape awareness and understanding of their organizations’ work, mission and accomplishments.

Unfortunately we know from research, that there’s still lots of confusion about philanthropy, and we’re far from the in-depth knowledge public knowledge that those who work in the field have been dreaming about for years.

That’s why I found myself wincing while reading a recent interview in Forbes with Shelly Lazarus, chairman of the global advertising, marketing and public relations firm, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, about how philanthropy can help build brands.

We’re not talking branding a foundation — but the consumer goods manufacturers who use philanthropy to further their business interests.

Asked about the role of philanthropy in “building a brand,” Lazarus told Forbes:

Philanthropy is fascinating. It’s a lot deeper than what we traditionally called philanthropy, which
was very often just writing checks to cultural institutions. All companies purport to be market-driven. They are driven by the forces of the marketplace and what customers say. Well, the customers have spoken and have said that they care whether a company is a good citizen. A company’s philanthropy tells you what it is at its core. So companies have to think seriously about how to use their marketing dollars to do things out in the world that make a difference to the people who are part of their brands.

As an example of this philanthropy-is-good-for-your-brand approach, Lazarus pointed to how Unilever put its “philanthropy” dollars to work on behalf of the Dove brand of soap products.

We ran a commercial on the Super Bowl that was not about Dove as a shampoo or a soap but was all about the effort to raise young girls’ self-esteem. People responded remarkably. And since we live in the 21st century now, the way they responded was by going to the Dove Web site and starting conversations about what is real beauty, and don’t we have to help our daughters, and isn’t it remarkable that Dove is taking on this effort–all in tandem, of course, with the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

I don’t know what bothers me more — that Lazarus isn’t a bit shy about linking Unilever’s corporate and philanthropic goals, or that instead of helping promote a better understanding of philanthropy, we’re getting a marketing 101 lesson that can only further confuse people about what philanthropy is meant to do.

I shared these comments with a friend whose reactions were similar, if not more pointed than mine.  He wrote: “I question the wisdom of purchasing the most expensive television time on the airwaves for an ad targeting 14-year-old girls. That was not about reaching the girls. That was all about branding.”At the end of the day, this is all too slippery a soap for me.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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