A cherry-picked CSR strategy

Fictional characters that embody the brand abound in marketing, but MTV has taken the concept to another level with Cherry Girl, a virtual ambassador for the cause of social responsibility.

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Ventures business The Scarlett Mark was brought in to help MTV develop a CSR campaign to sell the idea globally. There was no real-life personality deemed suitable for the job. The Scarlett Mark’s co-founder, Richard Peters, reveals: “We looked at who inspired us around environmental issues but they were all quite political, even the cool people. We also wanted to get away from the types of people who can afford to be eco-friendly in a ‘my-second-car-is-a-Prius’ kind of way.”

He explains: “We wanted to do something positive. It’s very easy to go down the cliché route, giving people reasons why they shouldn’t do things and then try to couch that in ‘MTV attitude’, but that very quickly becomes patronising.”

While there are many examples in marketing of characters created to represent brands, from the Honey Monster to the Milky Bar Kid (see Cillit Bang case study, below), examples of characters created to exist separately from the brand and not aimed at selling anything are thin on the ground. Peters cites The Sunday Times’ Style magazine’s witty and often scathing agony aunt Mrs Mills as an example of a character that embodies an attitude that represents a brand, but sells nothing.

Yet The Sunday Times managing editor David Mills (no relation) says that contrary to popular belief, Mrs Mills is a “real” person and not a creation managed by a committee. Cherry Girl stands alone as a cause-related fictional figure.

Jackson adds that since Viacom’s research found that most young people around the world feel powerless about how to protect the environment, as it is seen as too large an issue to tackle, it was vital to do something that people could relate to.

Jackson observes: “This is a very stressed generation, more so than most post-war generations…The idea with Cherry Girl is to show a lifestyle that is fun and fulfilling, and, as a by-product, happens to be sustainable.”

He thinks that when addressing young consumers, hedonism is an important concept but one rarely addressed in CSR campaigns, which tend to be more about behaving well or doing good things.

Jackson says that although hedonism and idealism may seem at first to contradict each other, they can actually be compatible if treated in the right way. He explains: “What we have been trying to do – and it will evolve even more – is to satisfy hedonistic natures with new ideas and philosophies that relate to idealism. In future, we will draw our hedonism from new values.”

Jackson says making responsible issues interesting and fun is particularly vital in those developing markets where the last thing the youth of these aspirational societies want to hear is that the grandparents of their Western counterparts have effectively ruined things for them and consumption is therefore out.

This is particularly so in many parts of the world where people are beginning to generate an income that makes consumption possible for them in ways it never was before. It is notable that Cherry Girl has seen particular interest from consumers in Latin America, including Brazil, eastern and south-eastern Europe, the Middle East, South-east Asia and China.

Since Cherry Girl’s blog is translated into numerous languages, she can be styled

slightly differently for each market she appears. While her values are universal, Jackson says that customising her for each part of the world means her messages can fit better into the culture.

The Scarlett Mark’s Peters, whose company maintains the blog separate to MTV, says Cherry Girl’s overall look and outlook is distinctly urban, which is deliberate. “Young people aspire to go to big cities and lead exciting, urban lives. Cherry Girl’s look is a touch utilitarian – almost a funked-up uniform,” he explains.

With a touch of hyper-reality, Cherry Girl has been blessed with a pair of, well, massive ears. Peters says the idea behind that was to make her look “quirky”. In some ways the fake ears add to her enigmatic and unconventional persona.

Peters says: “We are not trying to make her look like she is a real person, but we behave as if she is. There is a subtle difference.” He elaborates: “We are not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. She is not real; but it feels like there is something real behind her.”

The ear issue, believes Peters, helps differentiate Cherry Girl from clumsier attempts to create fictional spokespeople (see case study, below). Rather than fooling people into thinking that she is a real girl, it’s more important that she is seen as an interesting spokesperson for living life in a certain way.

Cherry Girl was developed just 18 months ago and launched on “Earth Day” in April this year. Now people are interacting with her on a regular basis. Some people have written songs about and to her, others have carried out eco-projects in their own communities and filmed and uploaded the results onto her Facebook page, making Cherry Girl, to some extent a user-generated content aggregator. Peters describes her as a “champion of small people in small communities”.

Jackson says: “You can see there are people forming a like-minded club. People who feel similarly about the world they live in and in some way try to live a little bit this kind of lifestyle, but now see someone who is really ‘doing it’ in an all-encompassing way. She is getting an incredible depth of response.”

Building this depth of relationship with her audience and allowing Cherry Girl to evolve at her own pace has helped bestow upon the character an enviable authenticity. This, Jackson explains, is why other brands and organisations are keen to use her to push their causes too.

Cherry Girl’s separateness from MTV will allow for future development in all kinds of potential ways, say her creators. Peters says there is a company in the Ukraine interested in publishing a comic based on her; and she would lend herself to concepts such as video games, ebooks and graphic novels. MTV is perfectly open to the principle of other brands, even competitors, working with Cherry Girl, as it is more important to push the cause than the brand behind it.

This independence from the MTV brand is not the only thing that makes the Cherry Girl concept so unusual. The business model behind her appears to break new ground as well. Although she was created in response to MTV’s brief, her existence is underpinned by a tripartite arrangement where MTV, agency The Scarlett Mark and production company RSA all retain a stake in her.

Jackson explains that all the companies had different elements they could bring to the business model. The Scarlett Mark could develop the creative concept, RSA could bring her story to life on film and MTV could offer access to a global youth audience.

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Working on such an innovative cross-platform product is where the lure of Cherry Girl lies in a commercial sense for MTV, explains Jackson. While the brand wants her to push the cause alone, not its company, a project crossing so many different media can only add to MTV’s experience.

He adds: “The business model for us is if we can create an individual who resonates with a large audience, and other people can see a business advantage in taking that and delivering her in other platforms, then obviously there will be some commercial advantage for us.”

It also helps the MTV brand stay relevant to the concerns and ideas of its audience, which can only be a good thing in Jackson’s eyes. “If we deepen our relationship with our audience then that’s no bad thing.”

While the concept and business model appears to be a new and creative way of tackling CSR, how much difference to the environment can Cherry Girl actually make?

Ethical business consultancy Risc International’s managing director, Sharon Greene, says that Cherry Girl is innovative in its approach, adding that the project is: “Very interesting; it’s a specific positioning, it’s non-patronising and it is getting people engaged and motivated around this particular subject – and is doing it quite well. It is not sponsored by the brand in a visible way and there aren’t, to my knowledge, examples of other brands that have done anything similar.”

Jackson admits that creating a virtual ambassador for a cause is a “luxury” that wouldn’t work for every company. A media company with a large research budget has the ability to know its audience and the remit to be more creative than other companies in a recession.

But there are still opportunities for other brands to get involved. While only a media owner might be able to generate a virtual personality effectively, it is worth noting that a previous MTV campaign on HIV and Aids, Staying Alive, has signed up brands like The Body Shop to create products to support its efforts.

The creation of virtual personalities like Cherry Girl, which can be tailored to make messages about responsibility relevant to multiple different consumers, seems set to be a continuing trend, becoming more sophisticated with each manifestation.

Cherry Girl seeks to engage an audience by understanding their motivations and concerns rather than adopting a “we know best” attitude to CSR issues. As Jackson says, the future of CSR will be all about moving away from “being preachy and telling people what they should be thinking”. It appears the sometimes patronising marketing messages associated with good causes are set to be recycled along with the rest of the rubbish.

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Case study: Cillit Bang

Virtual characters used to represent brands are not always effective and can backfire, especially if they take on a life of their own.

While Cherry Girl might be the first virtual spokesperson for a global cause, brands have been using fictional ambassadors to promote their products for some time.

Reckitt Benckiser was left cringing back in 2005 when its fictional frontman for its Cillit Bang household cleaner, Barry Scott, caused an outcry when “he” posted comments on a blogger’s website that caused offence, forcing RB to apologise.

“Barry” had appeared in several Cillit Bang television advertisements, beginning in 2003. The ads featured Barry – a larger-than-life character, demonstrating various Cillit Bang products in action, with shouty but enthusiastic commentary and catchlines such as “Bang! And the dirt is gone!” and “Look what it does to this penny!”

The aim was to make the cheesy Barry a kind of ironic cult figure, and to some extent this worked. Tributes to Barry and his phrases can still be found online today.

The ads were so popular when they came out they provoked many spoofs on YouTube and fan websites, although some people suspect the source of some of this material came from the brand itself rather than members of the public. One video, created by music producer Jakazid, became so popular it was released commercially as a 12-inch record, CD and download and achieved some chart success.

But things went awry for Barry and Reckitt Benckiser when it was decided he should have his own blog in 2005. Instead of allowing Barry’s blog to evolve naturally, the firm’s PR agency, Cohn & Wolfe, allowed someone to “be” Barry and post comments on other people’s blogs.

“Barry” posted a comment on the website of prominent blogger Tom Coates, who had written painfully about meeting his estranged father after almost three decades, “Barry” invented a past for himself that included a similar ordeal. He suggested that Coates “drop him a line” if he needed further support.

When Coates followed up on the post, it soon emerged that “Barry” was not a real person and a storm of criticism at this apparent cynical marketing ploy blew up, leading to acres of newspaper coverage.

Coates himself referred to the matter as “revolting, corrupt, cynical, disgusting, sick and dishonourable”. An apology from “The Cillit Bang Team” followed but inferred that they had not been responsible for the error. This only served to make matters worse when the original comment and the apologetic email were traced to the same server.

Though the Cillit Bang brand has ultimately survived the scandal and Barry has continued to appear in advertising (although his blog fell silent), the saga did nothing to demonstrate how best to use a virtual character in marketing.

While Barry was simply a cheesy spokesperson with fun catchphrases, people were happy to experience his messages. When he stepped over the line into making comments not about cleaning but real emotions, the joke wore off.

The lesson is clear: virtual characters can be a hit with consumers but don’t try and stretch them further than the areas where people expect them to appear. Barry Scott illustrates both how virtual spokespeople can benefit and hinder a brand.

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Viewpoint: the future of CSR
Sharon Greene, managing director of consultancy Risc International

We are in a consumption-based society and economy and most of us do enjoy buying things. We’ve talked for years about ‘shopping therapy’ but there is a real movement towards wanting to buy better, not necessarily buy more. That is something that is fundamental and has not yet totally been understood by a lot of the large brands.

There are still too many brands that are not listening to consumers and instead create the illusion of CSR to tap into the growing “green trend”. Indeed, some brands ignore CSR altogether or instead work on superficial initiatives. They therefore underestimate the intelligence of the consumer and the transparency that exists today as a result of blogging and social networking.

From the consumer perspective, people do not have a mono-dimensional view of CSR. It is not just about ethics; it’s not just ecology. It is also about health – feeling good and wellbeing. It is also about social engagement and social responsibility. For the consumer, CSR is a multi-faceted issue, whereas the majority of companies usually come at it from one point of view only. This doesn’t satisfy the more holistic approach that the consumer wants.

There are lots of big global companies that are trying to do something holistic, but when you look for the good student in this class, you inevitably end up finding small companies. When you are starting from the ground up, it is easier to get it right. It is more difficult for big companies.

When I was at a conference earlier this year, I was astounded by a presentation from Procter & Gamble about the work it is doing to provide clean water to children in emerging markets. It is a really fantastic programme. I asked P&G why it wasn’t talking about it and the reply was: “Because we are P&G, as soon as we put our head over the parapet, we get knocked down. So we just get on with it and are doing what we can do”.

This is where the challenge lies for big companies. They know they have to clean up their act and many are working towards a better way of doing business. But not all of them are doing it to the same degree or with the same sincerity. The problem is because they have been seen as “the bad guys” for so long, it is very difficult for them to be perceived as doing it in a positive way.

Perceptions also vary from market to market. A good example of this is EDF, the French energy company, whose Green Britain campaign blew up in its face when it was dismissed as “greenwash”. Yet in France, EDF is recognised for investing in alternative energy supplies by sponsoring people on an individual basis to be more energy efficient and do the right thing in their own homes.

We should not underestimate the point at which consumers are ready to change their consumption habits; nor the degree to which they are crying out for big companies and small companies alike to make that easier for them to do.”

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