The bizarre sight of traumatised Kosovan refugees sporting the latest high street fashions can be witnessed in refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania.
This is thanks to at least a hundred UK companies which have responded to their plight, donating clothing, food, hygiene products, books and toys with a trade value of more than 500,000. The final figure, taking into account time, vehicles and manpower, could run into millions of pounds.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) says the corporate response to the crisis is unprecedented. This is no small claim given the level of response to such recent humanitarian crises as Sudan and Hurricane Mitch.
While the best interests of the refugees may be at the heart of the companies’ response, the potential for positive public relations cannot have escaped most marketers.
Edward Carwardine, Unicef regional officer for the South-east of England, is surprised by how quickly companies have responded to the crisis. Carwardine, who recently returned from a week in Macedonia, says most companies take a long time setting up corporate fundraising campaigns, but businesses have responded to the conflict within days.
He says: “Companies have responded incredibly well. It’s almost unprecedented. But I’m sure there isn’t a hidden agenda. When I was in Sudan, people were living in squalid conditions, wearing the latest designer clothes.
“In the refugee camps around Kosovo it is also strange to see very British brand names being used by refugees. There has been cynicism about corporate agendas, but generally the companies want to help and are not concerned about brand placements or possible markets.”
British Airways has organised four airlifts to date, which have cost the airline more than 100,000. It is the biggest aid airlift BA has undertaken in ten years. The first three flights to Saloniki in Greece, carried more than 130 tonnes of aid.©
One cargo plane carried 80 tonnes of aid from Stansted to the Macedonian capital Skopje, close to many of the refugee camps.
Last week a consignment of toys and relief supplies left the UK bound for refugee camps in northern Macedonia.
Unicef distributed the toys, including crayons, teddy bears, games, dolls and playschool activities to children in the temporary camps. There are 591,000 refugees – 25 per cent are in camps.
Val Ross, head of community affairs with toy manufacturer Hasbro, helped to co-ordinate the donations from companies affiliated to the British Toy & Hobby Association.
She says while food and clothing are paramount, toys are also important. “Toys are a way of relieving the trauma and give children something to own, as many have been forced out of their homes with nothing.
“This is about the company being responsible. It is absolutely a humanitarian effort. Companies are people just like everyone else.”
This sentiment is echoed by Emma Mason, head of corporate public relations with supermarket chain Safeway.
She says: “We realised the need was incredible. We did get a lot of publicity from this, but it is a very fine line between helping refugees and promoting the company. We have not been aggressive about this. Quite frankly it would be bad taste. The important people are the refugees.”
As well as providing goods and lorries, more than 100,000 has been gathered by Safeway through collections in stores.
In addition, the company has been inundated with requests from customers keen to see their ABC loyalty points donated to goods for Kosovo. More than 7 million points have been collected so far, and will be exchanged with goods for the aid effort.
Hamish Pringle, director of cause-related marketing consultancy Brand Beliefs and co-author of Brand Spirit – a book which outlines how cause- related marketing builds brands – says that all brands need a belief system, due to changes in consumer awareness. While some brands clearly stand for a set of beliefs – Coke represents America while Tango stands for off-beat, rebellious youth values – many brands have no such clear positioning. One way of getting around this absence of brand values is to use cause-related marketing – linking a company with a cause for mutual benefit.
Pringle adds: “One question about people jumping on the Kosovo bandwagon is at what level are they operating? I wouldn’t describe Kosovo as cause related.
“It seems to be a humanitarian thing. Companies are responding in the same way as the public and the climate is just right for them to do that.”
Pringle, former vice-chairman of marketing at Saatchi & Saatchi, adds: “Of course, if companies get this right, it will sell products. People do switch to brands that support ethical issues.”
The Express newspaper’s current emergency appeal has generated a strong response from the general public and corporations. Working with Unicef and BA, The Express claims to have ensured tonnes of much-needed aid has gone into Kosovo.
Graham Ball, campaigns editor at The Express, says companies are still contacting the newspaper without being asked.
He says: “People in companies are no different to people who watch the news. They are mostly motivated by the same images of suffering. Kosovo has been well publicised and companies can see the refugees need certain goods.”
Ball says British Airways’ involvement gave confidence to other corporate donors. There was a snowball effect, especially with smaller companies.
He adds: “Companies want to be seen as ethically aware, although we haven’t given any of the companies huge advertising. In fact one bank which gave us 5,000 asked not to be named.
“Some people are making a mockery of diet foods being sent out, because many of the refugees are starving. But these products are being used as supplements to meals, not on their own.”
Ball adds: “It’s easy to be cynical, but I don’t think there is any chance of Albania or Macedonia becoming a market for the products. It is not an early exercise in creating a new market, because the area just does not have the infrastructure or the economy.”
But this crisis has set a precedent for the corporate response to future appeals. The next crisis will be the acid test. Companies will have to overcome the fear that their goods will end up on the black market. Ball assures companies this has not happened with The Express appeal.
“I think it has been a remarkably uncynical exercise, although one wonders if certain rivals – without naming names – have a certain commercial imperative,” he says.
“Consumers are sophisticated these days and how they perceive companies is important. So if one is seen to have a greater ethical dimension than its rival, it has the advantage.
“There is a growing confluence between charities and companies, and this is the most visible expression of that.”
While the consensus seems to be that companies are acting from the heart, the provision of aid does have a subtle marketing spin-off. But this will be of little concern to the distressed refugees who are filling the camps of Macedonia and Albania.