ARE MARKETERS spending more money on social causes because they want to or because they believe it is expected of them?
Two of the four grands prix at the September 21-22 Loeries communications awards in Cape Town were for campaigns promoting social issues. MTN's "The Everywhere Library", devised by advertising agency MetropolitanRepublic, aims to increase literacy in Uganda by distributing digital books through cellphones. And Draftfcb Cape Town's "Fire Blanket Calendar" campaign for Engen is intended to reduce the incidence of paraffin fires in shack settlements by distributing calendars which double as fire-retardant blankets.
The Ubuntu Award, which recognises marketing campaigns that promote social causes, was the fastest-growing category at this year's Loeries, with an 80% increase in entries. Loeries CEO Andrew Human says the award seeks to reward brands "that do good while doing business".
When it was launched, he says, the award was ahead of its time. Now he expects the idea to filter down into the broad marketing landscape.
So far, nearly all the entries come from SA companies and their agencies. In time, he hopes the idea will also gain support from the rest of Africa and the Middle East, which are also part of the Loeries.
"We should strive for a time when no brand can operate with impunity while not making a positive contribution to our society," says Human.
BBDO SA chief creative officer Mike Schalit certainly hopes things are changing. Three years after launching the Mal Foundation, a nonprofit agency created to persuade companies to undertake marketing projects to benefit the community at large, he recently told the FM: "It's been very frustrating. It's so far away from the normal way of thinking that it creates doubt. Some people ask, 'What do you mean, there's no profit?' They think it's a con."
The challenge, he says, is to get the attention of CEOs, who have wider perspectives than CSI managers.
Some projects are under way and he is still confident the concept will gain ground.
Human says the growth of the Ubuntu Award is an indicator of the growth in sustainable marketing rather than brands just pushing product sales.
Cynics, however, suggest brands are less concerned with making a contribution than with ticking off their black economic empowerment compliance box for corporate social investment (CSI).
But MetropolitanRepublic founder Paul Warner says a number of brands are going beyond their CSI budgets. Some do so enthusiastically. MTN, he says, "doesn't consider itself as just a mobile company but as one that is able to change people's lives through telecommunications".
Others find the idea more difficult. Warner says: "We've had to convince them they can use their marketing for good while delivering on their bottom line".
Draftfcb Cape Town executive creative director Mike Barnwell says brands are forced to be more socially aware by the public's increased access to information.
"The fact that the world and its issues are now more connected than ever has resulted in a place where we've started to develop a collective consciousness," he says.
"With transparency now being the norm, brands are held more accountable than they were in the past.
"They're being defined by what they do as much as, if not more than, by what they say. Transparency and connectivity have incited a need for conscious communication and brands that are not seen to be actually living out their values are in for a hard time."