Admit flaws to achieve perfect tone

Rhetoricians call it “arguing against interest.” In simple terms, it’s a good way to build credibility fast. You readily admit a weakness in yourself or your argument to actually advance your larger case. I swear to you, your honor, I had no role in the killing of which I’m accused. I was out of state, uh, delivering a shipment of drugs. This mechanism causes the audience to wonder, who but an honest-to-God truth teller would disclose something so damning?
 
Arguing against interest can be a powerful tool for building brand credibility. Look at Domino’s Pizza, now publicly admitting their old pizza was terrible. Or Dos Equis: What, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer? This is a beer commercial!
 
What makes arguing against interest so powerful is its stark contrast against the vast majority of communication that argues, often lamely, in its own interest. Ads, websites, press releases and corporate blogs dump buckets of overstated goodness on a cringing consumer. You know, if you buy the right camera, you’ll shoot National Geographic quality images. With the right diamond necklace, you’ll be back on your honeymoon, and with a fabulous spouse.
 
Not saying such images aren’t seductive, but overstatement is the Achilles heel of marketers who are mired in old-school corporate communications. While gilding the lily has never been a great persuasion technique, today’s audiences despise it. They are sophisticated, discriminating and skeptical, if not cynical, driven largely by social media.
 
Case in point
A wonderful example of a brand arguing against interest to deepen credibility is Patagonia, the maker of outdoor apparel for skiers, rock climbers and campers (it’s like a crunchy Timberland). They’re not just sprinkling their content with a few aw shucks asides, they’re actually building their brand around a concept that, at first glance, is directly opposed to their own goal of making money.
 
The company’s Common Threads Initiative is urging customers to buy less clothing, wear it longer, repair it instead of throwing it away, and when it’s worn out, hand it back to Patagonia for reuse or recycling.
 
… to wrest the full life out of every piece of our clothing, the first three of the famous four R’s are equally important – to reduce, repair and reuse as well as recycle.
 
Under reduce, the company is calling on consumers to “buy what you’ll wear, and want to keep long enough to wear out” in order to “get by with fewer clothes.”
 
Under repair, it’s offering to fix zippers for free if the garment has enough life left in it.
 
(The company already has a recycling program that’s collected 39 tons of used clothes.)
 
This initiative is like General Motors telling you to drive your clunker into the ground because it’s the right thing to do. Of course, Patagonia is a for-profit business and commercial brand. So their larger goal with the Common Threads Initiative, one assumes, is to deepen customer loyalty, reduce raw material costs, and put a noble face on plain ol’ customer service (I mean, they’re probably going to fix zippers anyway).
 
Deep in the content
All this is clearly a flavor of cause branding, but Patagonia is taking it to the next level with a generous dose of argument against interest throughout its public content. For example, Patagonia recently underwent a corporate social responsibility (CSR) audit. A nonprofit watchdog organization took a hard look at their operations. Patagonia blogged about the audit in great detail. The post mentions a couple of instances of where the company fell short in the review (arguing against interest). They even admit they’re a founder of the group that was auditing them. Who even blogs about audits, much less the negative findings and conflicts of interest? Now you might be asking, where’s the marketing value in this? What comes through is not Patagonia’s warts, but its seriousness about being green and transparent. It’s as authentic as you can ever expect communications to get. And utterly believable.
 
Another example: In writing about the new Common Threads Initiative, Patagonia talks about its five-year-old recycling program, whose goal was to make all Patagonia clothes recyclable within five years. “This we will achieve in fall 2011,” Patagonia writes, “a year behind schedule.” Another argument against interest. This line is just sitting there in the copy, no excuses, no tortured transitions, just a fact. You make the call. This kind of statement is convincing.
 
Patagonia has a minisite, The Footprint Chronicles, that drills into the origin of Patagonia garments. Click on the Merino 2 Crew sweater and learn that the wool is sustainably ranched, the dye is okay, and the factory is okay,  but the wool travels 16,280 miles from sheep to store. “This is not sustainable,” the Patagonia website tells us. Who says this about their own supply chain? Nobody. In how many instances is it true? All the time, presumably. Patagonia cares so much about getting it right they readily admit what they’re still getting wrong.
 
In another Patagonia post, a blogger admits his orthopedic problems ruined his climbing adventure. One would expect tales of glory. But while Nike has LeBron and UGG Under Armour has Tom Brady, here’s Patagonia speaking through a guy whose arm keeps dropping out of his shoulder socket.
 

If all this arguing against interest sounds like overkill, it’s only because we’re calling out the exceptions to the rest of the Patagonia content, which as you would expect is generally favorable to the company. But this positive content is all the more believable next to a few well-conceived arguments against interest.

By acknowledging that’s nobody’s perfect, starting with yourself, you can strike the perfect note.

 

From tail fins to hybrids with Russian and American accents

Events in Russia and the U.S. are making this a big week in eco-friendly personal transportation. Starting close to home, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid arrived at showrooms in California, Texas, D.C. and New York on Wednesday. The Volt’s release comes just a week after Nissan delivered its first Leaf hybrid to a customer in the San Francisco Bay area.

Russian Yo

 

The Volt is the American car industry’s first serious attempt at a mass-market hybrid on par with the Toyota Prius. GM has made several half-hearted attempts to develop electric vehicle in the past, in between corresponding attempts to kill the electric car industry before it became a threat. This included the EP-1, a leased electric vehicle that GM famously recalled, crushed and buried back in the ‘90s, and a fairly lame little science project in the late ‘70s called the Electrovette. It was a Chevy Chevette powered by a bank of low-tech lead acid batteries, and never made it into full production. With the Volt, GM is finally putting serious wood behind the hybrid arrowhead. It was named 2011 Green Car of the Year at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and is already lining up for a street fight with the Leaf, the 2011 European Car of the Year.

The hyper-hyped Volt’s appearance isn’t much of a surprise, but news out of Russia is. Russian mining magnate Mikhail Prokhorov this week unveiled a hybrid car called the Yo that claims 67 miles to the gallon, compared to 51 for the Prius. Prokhorov is bankrolling the company. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Russian products what comes to mind is vodka, caviar, oil, gas and gangsters. Russia has been such a wild west of organized crime and looting of public resources since the Soviet Union collapsed that it’s easy to forget the country produced some enviable engineering during the Cold War. One of those accomplishments, according to the New York Times, is the Yo’s ultra-efficient electric

generator, which is paired with an engine powered by gasoline or natural gas. The engine runs at a constant, fuel-efficient rate and powers the generator, which produces electricity to power the drivetrain. Electrical capacitors absorb the starts and stops that sap conventional gas engines’ efficiency.

A new hybrid for the world’s ninth most populous country. A hybrid car battle in the U.S.

If this week’s hybrid news portends changes for the future, then another piece of auto-related news this week is a symbolic parting with the past. Chuck Jordan,  the General Motors design chief responsible for the iconic finned and chromed Detroit arks of the 1950s and ‘60s, died this week. His designs helped define post-WWII America, right up to the 1990s. Jordan’s designs symbolized American power, optimism and consumption. Maybe Mr. Jordan’s passing on the same day the Volt hits the market marks a change in the symbolism around American vehicles from consumption to a cleaner environment.

Sustainability knows no age limits

smart carSprinting across a Portsmouth street to feed my parking meter before our ever-diligent meter officers presented me with another $10 love note, I had to stop short to let a car pass. At first it looked like any other car, albeit in a screaming shade of fluorescent green, but as it rolled toward me over the Memorial Bridge I saw it was one of those two-seat Smart Pure Coupes.
 
You’ve probably seen a Smart car. They’re about the size of your average household appliance and they look like they should have big wind-up keys sticking out of their butt ends. You could park one in the bed of a Ford Ranger pickup without touching either side. They’re popular as delivery cars in urban areas, so long as you’re delivering something small. Say a pack of Life Savers. One at a time.
 
It wasn’t the car itself that made me stop and take notice, though. It was who was driving it. The gent behind the wheel and woman sitting next to him appeared to be well into their seventies, with gray hair and glasses and clothes that, at least from the chest up, didn’t match their vehicle’s Skittle-lime, ultra-hip image. They appeared to be the kind of people who, if you’re schooled on your stereotypes, should be driving a Detroit dreadnought with the left blinker on. They did not look like a couple who should be driving a motorized Tonka truck that gets 33 mpg city and 41 highway, yet there they were tooling toward downtown Portsmouth in what could have been their living room Barcaloungers lashed side-by-side.
 
For most of my life (I’m 46) “tree hugging” has been mainly (and unfairly) associated with the younger set. If we’re going to build a sustainable society, however, it won’t be by waiting for the current generation of schoolchildren to start running the world. We have to change minds and behaviors now. That’s why the sight of that older couple in the Smart car gave me a pleasant jolt. It also brought back an unlikely “green” conversation I had with a city councilor when I was a reporter covering Marlboro, Massachusetts.
 
The councilor’s  name was Herman, and from all outward appearances he was about as environmentally conscious as a Norwegian whale hunter. He was a conservative Republican, an Army veteran, and the retired owner of his own welding business. He was long on gruff and short on tact, though he had a deceptively good heart. He was the kind of guy who would make derogatory comments about an ethnic group but be a good neighbor to a family of that group who moved in next door.
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Good heart or no, you would not tab Herman as an environmental maverick, which is why the talk we had in 1991 is so clear in my mind to this day. We were killing a few minutes outside city hall so Herman could have a smoke break before the next council session. I liked talking to Herman because he was completely uncensored, and told me a lot of stuff he later wished he hadn’t. That evening though, the conversation was about an article he read on plug-in cars. Not the glorified golf carts that passed as electric cars in the ‘70s, but real road vehicles. The concept fascinated him.
 
“I’d do that, have one of them little cars for around town and save the Pontiac for long trips,” he said between drags on a filtered Merit. “You’d pay for the electricity, but think of all the gasoline you wouldn’t burn.”
 
If Herman could be open minded about alternative transport, there’s hope for the world. Herman and the couple in the Smart car are proof that if you can make a good enough case and supply reasonable alternatives, even generations supposedly set in their ways will make the environmental choice.
 
Of course, when Herman was done educating me about plug-in cars, he snubbed out his cigarette on city hall’s granite staircase then flipped the butt onto the sidewalk. I guess we’ll have to take progress where we can get it, in small doses.
 

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