Sunday August 23, 2009
On the one hand, you have to ask yourself, what took them so long? Now that Anheuser-Busch has rolled out a new marketing campaign in which it is packaging cans of Bud Light in the team colors of various college teams, it seems like an obvious idea. Other marketers of just about everything from stadium chairs to caskets put their product in the colors of the local team. Way back in the 1980s, when Doug Flutie was the star quarterback for Boston College, I saw a dog wearing a maroon and gold sweater with the words “Dog Flutie” on it.
But at the same time you can see why adults who run programs that involve young people pull their hair out after the moves of certain consumer product companies. R.J Reynolds promoted Joe Camel, a cigarette-smoking cartoon character for years. Abercrombie & Fitch produced a catalogue of 20-somethings one year that reviewers called soft-porn. Now college administrators are worried that beer cans emblazoned with the colors of their schools might promote binge drinking among underage students.
Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of corporate social responsibility, says the “fan cans” are aimed at people of legal drinking age. But obviously alcohol marketing campaigns are bound to be noticed by students under the age of 21, particularly around college campuses. That’s why the administrators are worked up. At least 25 colleges have formerly asked Anheuser-Busch to drop the campaign near their campuses. To its credit, Anheuser-Busch says it will do so near any college that makes a formal complaint.
Anheuser-Busch is no longer a public company, having sold out to InBev NV of Belgium in 2008. And alcohol is one of those products most socially responsible mutual funds screen out anyway. But these are the sorts of business decisions that draw the attention of socially responsible investors. Anheuser-Busch says it is committed to stopping underage drinking. Coloring their beer cans in school colors creates some doubt. Another company may be committed to product safety. How well it reacts when a problem is spotted would prove it. Yet another firm might talk about its commitment to the environment, but it’s unwilling to spend the money to reduce its impact.
Marketing is often about gimmicks and gimmicks lead to impulse buys. Heck, if someone put a Red Sox logo on a reasonably priced bottle of cabernet, I might give it a try. But I’m not 19 and I won’t be an undergrad hanging with the dudes on Saturdays this fall, laughing about my cool-colored brewsky can.
Wednesday August 19, 2009
I've never confirmed this but it would seem reasonable to assume that products sold by Whole Foods are grown or made by socially responsible companies. And we can probably assume that companies that are included in Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list would be good employers. And firms on Business Ethics 100 Best Corporate Citizens list are likely models of corporate governance.
Now a small group in Los Angeles wants to tie all those things together with a single seal of approval for consumers. The Good Company Seal would judge companies by examining its conduct in five areas: employees, the environment, their consumers, the community and their suppliers. If they pass the group's review they'll be awarded the Good Company Seal, which they can display on their products and in their advertising and marketing materials, providing assurance to consumers that they are socially responsible firms.
The idea was conceived about 13 months ago by Jeffrey McKinney, a marketing and advertising professional who says he was frustrated that there wasn't a comprehensive and simple way to assess whether or not the products you're buying are in step with your personal politics.
McKinney says he and three others drew up their principles and are assembling an "integrity committee" of people who are expert in social responsibility in those areas. They'll be the group who will judge companies when they apply for the Good Company Seal.
Except that this is where McKinney's idea, while a good one, still has a long way to go. He's not a well known non-profit or the federal government. He has not brought in any other established groups in social corporate responsibility to lend credibility. He's working to convince companies that his group has the expertise to judge them by its criteria and that this seal of approval from his group will have meaning. At some point he'll also need a PR campaign to raise awareness among consumers.
Then there's the question of value to the company. Firms that apply for the Good Company Seal will be asked to pay a $1,000 application fee. If they make the grade, they're then offered a three-year licensing agreement to place the seal on their packaging and elsewhere. That costs $150,000.
McKinney says he's gotten good feedback since he went public earlier this month and that the licensing fee really isn't the big concern for companies. Rather, it's whether or not he and his group have the resources to do the work that establishes with certainty that a company is socially responsible. He says they do. The last thing he wants to have happen, he says, is to award a Good Company Seal to a company that doesn't deserve it.
So why am I blogging about something that is still in the very early stages? I have no connection with Jeffrey McKinney. The whole project may be a way for him to make a living. But it's also in line with what we're discussing on this site. Companies that are considered socially responsible are of interest to socially responsible investors. If the Good Company Seal turns out to be another way to find those companies, all the better.
Friday August 14, 2009
Have we gone through the looking glass? Is up down and black white? Forbes magazine has named ExxonMobil its “Green Company of the Year.” Yes, the company that environmentalists love to hate, the largest oil producer in the world, one of the black hats to climatologists, has been cited for the steps it has taken to help reduce carbon emissions.
Specifically, ExxonMobil has been honored for its increased investments into natural gas, a cleaner-burning and more plentiful source of energy than petroleum. ExxonMobil is about to finish a $30 billion project to develop the world’s biggest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.
According to Forbes, “all the big oil companies” are drifting away from petroleum to natural gas. If it has the numbers right, there's good reason to cheer. The magazine reports that per unit of energy delivered, methane releases 40 percent to 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal and a quarter less than petroleum. “Coal fuels half of U.S. power generation. Replacing all of it with methane would cut CO2 emissions by 1 billion tons a year.”
The story really leaves a different impression of ExxonMobil and its environmental concerns than an article last November in the New York Times that was headlined “Green is for Sissies.” The thrust of that piece was that demand for ExxonMobil’s product continues to rise, leaving us with the conclusion that the company wasn’t about to change until its customers changed.
But in fact, it would probably be difficult to find a major corporation in the U.S. that isn’t taking steps to improve its environmental impact. They may still not be virtuous enough to make any “Buy” lists among managers of socially responsible funds, but they are changing. General Electric is a major player in solar energy. Wal-Mart may still have labor problems, but it has lightened its environmental impact by reducing packaging from suppliers and changing is delivery systems. It’s not because the managers of those companies are all environmentalists or social activists. They realize taking such steps is good for business in the long run.
Forbes' endorsement probably won’t change the poor opinion hard-core environmentally responsible investors have of ExxonMobil. But it would suggest the company is headed in the right direction from their point of view.
Thursday August 13, 2009
There’s an article in today’s New York Times about the Citigroup oil trader who is due to make about $100 million in compensation this year, after earning a similar amount last year, and how that fits in with the whole debate about compensation on Wall Street. It’s a story I blogged about recently after a report on National Public Radio.
The trader’s name is Andrew Hall and he heads up Phibro, a commodities trading firm owned by Citigroup, which is one of the big banks that received federal bailout money last year. Because it received those taxpayer dollars, Citigroup is subject to a review of compensation by Kenneth Feinberg, the Treasury Department’s new “pay czar.” The question is what will Feinberg do about Hall’s $100 million?
Citigroup says Hall’s pay package should be exempt from government review, because his contract was signed before that review process was created. The Obama administration and Congress view bonuses and Wall Street pay like raw meat and Hall’s $100 million package is an easy handle to grab when debating the entire compensation issue.
Does anyone really need to be paid $100 million – and two years in a row for that matter? Perhaps if they’ve got annual bills totaling $99,999,000 or so. Otherwise they could probably get by with a little less. But that’s really beside the point, as much as social investors might see that sort of a payout as an enormous red flag in terms of corporate governance. It may seem excessive, ridiculous and even obscene to some, but to Citigroup it made sense. According to the Times, Hall is the top performer at Phibro, which has provided about $2 billion in revenues for Citigroup during the past five years. They had a deal: Hall would get a certain percentage of what he earned for the company. Earn a lot, get paid a lot. That’s capitalism.
The issue is risk. While Hall apparently took big chances and they paid off, others in the financial services industry were not so skilled. The consensus is that the financial crisis that has hit the U.S. was caused by encouraging excessive risk for enormous potential rewards, but not installing enough safety if plans flop. Traders such as Hall have much to gain, but the burden of failure falls on the company, the financial system and – in the extreme – the taxpayers. The question is how can that change?