Three Companies Get it Right

In this Age of Empowerment, a time when connective technologies such as Facebook, Twitter and Change.org enable consumers to hold companies increasingly accountable for their actions, companies need to take bold steps to demonstrate their commitment to their communities.

In recent days, three companies have done just that, taking big risks to be on the right side of topical issues.

Coca-Cola’s much heralded (and much attacked) “It’s Beautiful” SuperBowl ad made a courageous statement about our nation’s rich history as a melting pot. With a soundtrack of “America the Beautiful” sung in a variety of languages, the ad presented a series of short vignettes of a highly diverse group of Americans. The edgiest one, perhaps, showed two fathers holding hands as they rollerskated with a young girl and then joined together in what appeared to be a family embrace. Unfortunately, in addition to receiving great praise, the ad also triggered our nation’s shameful history of racism and intolerance with Twitter responses such as #SpeakAmerican and #BoycottCoke. Coke likely anticipated such a response, but concluded that net net, embracing diversity is good for business and for its reputation, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Yesterday, AT&T, which easily could have stayed quiet on the issue and avoided controversy, wrote a corporate blog post, “A Time for Pride and Equality” embracing Human Rights Campaign’s call for sponsors to stand up for LGBT equality and criticizing Russia’s policies. “Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society.” As a former employee (and, full disclosure, a shareholder through retirement savings), I know AT&T is not always quick to embrace risk, making this statement all the more notable.

Finally, this morning, CVS declared that it would stop selling tobacco. As its CEO Larry Merlo writes on the company website, “Cigarettes and tobacco products have no place in a setting where health care is delivered. This is the right thing to do.” In its statement, CVS says that this move will cost it an estimated $2 billion in annual sales, but that it expects to be able to make up the lost revenue in other ways.

All three of these examples are cases in which the companies easily could have played it safe and ostensibly avoided risk. But their forward-looking leaders recognized that, in fact, the biggest risk you can take is not taking risks. I expect that the community and the market will reward these companies for their bold moves, and hope that more leaders will take note and follow suit.

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Citibike – The Perfect Marketing Campaign

I’m not usually quick to praise large banks. But I have to give credit where credit is due — Citibike is the perfect marketing program and especially notable for a company that has taken a number of hits to its image in recent years.

While most companies are tripping over themselves to deliver meaningless offline and online impressions that impress nobody, Citi has linked its name and brand with a service that directly benefits both New Yorkers and visitors to New York City.

It’s hard to go anywhere in downtown / midtown Manhattan without seeing the elegant docking stations and cyclists riding the shiny new bikes with prominent Citi logos prominently yet tastefully displayed from every angle. This ubiquity throughout Manhattan would be hard to achieve with any traditional media — and besides does anyone really pay attention to ads on bus shelters and taxicab roofs?

Judging from the 50,000 memberships, 650,000 rides and 1.5 million miles traveled in just over a month since the program launched, the program is obviously fulfilling a previously unmet need for New Yorkers. Plus, the program has a positive image association for Citibank with fitness, especially among influential millennials. And the program also has great public affairs benefits, as the sponsorship is directly helping a pet project of Mayor Bloomberg. (It’s surely no coincidence that Citi’s Executive Vice President of Public Affairs, Ed Skyler, previously served as Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor of Operations and had also served as the Mayor’s Press Secretary and Communications Director.)

Of course no innovative marketing program is without risk. The program (and Citi as its sponsor) have received plenty of criticism for launch delays, technical glitches and complaints about the docking stations taking up precious street parking. (Why New York City gives up so much real estate for free or under-market parking for private cars is a topic for another post.) Two weeks after the program launched, the New York Times ran an article “2 Weeks In, Bike-Share Program Is Hitting Snags.” But with risk comes reward. As Citi’s Skyler told New York Magazine, “You get very few opportunities to cut through the noise and make an impression in the fabric of a city like New York, which is our hometown.”

Now that the program has launched, there are many ways that Citi could further leverage the program to reinforce and further strengthen the community benefits of the program. It is great that Citibike offers discounted memberships to NYCHA residents. Some of the many other ways Citi could further leverage the sponsorship would be to organize Meetups to bring together loyal Citibike fans, sponsor special bike rides for Citibike members, and provide special offers for Citi customers to get free / discounted memberships.

I also hope that more companies learn from Citi’s example and do similar community marketing programs. Some of many ideas include partnerships with schools, civic tech initiatives (such as Code for America), and developing innovative programs in conjunction with other essential city services such as the NYC Transit / MTA. As Citibike is showing, working to benefit the community can be a more effective form of marketing and brand-building than traditional advertising or sponsorships.

Oh, by the way, I still call it Shea.

I have no relationship, professional or otherwise, with Citibank and though I am an active cyclist I am not a Citibike member, as Citibike is not (yet) available in my neighborhood.

The Importance of Summer Internships

Go to any tech conference in New York City or the monthly NY Tech Meetup and you’re sure to hear entrepreneurs desperate to find good talent. Though the city and the nation are stuck in an era of high unemployment, there’s actually NEGATIVE unemployment in the tech sector – demand is so great that developers are working multiple jobs.

At the same time, New York City’s Department of Education is working to ensure that students are prepared to face the real world, by being ready for college or careers when they graduate from high school. A proven way to help high school students prepare for their post-secondary life is by gaining meaningful work experience through internships.

I am pleased to be working with NYC’s Department of Education to help identify businesses and organizations to host summer interns who are participating in the CTE Summer Scholars program. This program recruits students from a number of New York City’s strongest Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs in IT, advertising and media. Rising seniors and juniors who have been selected through a rigorous application process are matched with host organizations based on their skills and interests and the focus and needs of the host company. The students will work on-site Mondays – Wednesdays and will attend classes and workshops on Thursdays – Fridays.

Companies can be creative in deciding on the work they give to interns – it’s a great opportunity to have extra capacity to manage projects such as social media monitoring, online research / competitive analysis of websites and apps, inventorying of IT systems and networks, web design, art & design, video editing, and multimedia library management.

In addition to getting motivated young people helping out for the summer, companies will get great exposure and goodwill in the community and with leaders in NYC government. Plus, the program is funded by a generous grant from Bank of America so the students receive a paycheck (often for the first time in their lives) without any cost to the host organization.

We are currently identifying organizations that will host students this summer. If you are interested in serving as a host organization, please contact me at rich (at) upperweststrategies.com.