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By September 26, 2017Culture

Ethically and environmentally discerning consumers are willing to pay a little bit more for products and services that do good for people and less harm to the environment. Thank goodness, for companies like you.

And thank goodness for companies who practice social responsibility – a new term for a historically successful approach.

Through much of the 20th century Edward L. Bernays, the pioneer of modern public relations, showed many of the world’s most prominent companies (i.e. P&G, GE, GM, Macy’s) how to make more money by serving the public interest and their own. The challenge, Bernays explained, was to identify and exploit the coincidence of private gain and public interest. The dual-purpose strategy worked often. Earned goodwill increased the bottom line for his clients whose campaigns urged Americans to read more books, eat healthier, stop smoking, prevent schoolyard bullying, and so on.

Today, the $170 billion empire Unilever is setting an example that good public relations is once again “a trendy sentiment – that’s it’s possible to make money by acting virtuously – on a global stage,” the recent article “The Fresh Scent of Success” in Bloomberg Businessweek (9-4-17) noted in its corporate profile.

Unilever has been shaping consumer habits for generations. The conglomerate’s founders popularized the bar of soap and today make Dove (and its acclaimed feel-good “Real Beauty” campaign), Axe body spray, Vaseline and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream among hundreds of other products used by 2.5 billion people every day.

Led by progressive thinking CEO Paul Polman, Unilever believes “that encouraging health and happiness in emerging markets will turn millions of the global poor into consumers for the first time,” the Bloomberg Businessweek article said. Just one example, Unilever’s behavioral scientists developed a campaign, complete with choreography, to teach youngsters in Vietnamese villages how to scrub their hands and brush their teeth – using Unilever products supplied for free to school clinics.

The “path to ethical-earnings nirvana,” as Bloomberg stated, begins with “an uncynical effort to fight the perception that ‘corporate social responsibility’” is a gimmick or disingenuous social marketing to disguise or compensate for greedy, damaging business practices.

Time and the economy and our culture will tell whether Unilever’s existential approach to do well and do good will be a trendsetter or passing fade. One thing is certain, Bernays — whose historic and creative successes include launching a campaign for Ivory to get kids to bathe by sponsoring a nationwide soap-sculpture competition — would agree the corporate benefits of promoting health and happiness are priceless.


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