How Industrial Companies Can Clean Up Their Image
For a long time, industrial businesses have had to fight a war on two fronts. On the one hand, they’ve had to do battle with the market, trying to sell products amid heavy competition. And on the other, they’ve been fighting a struggle to maintain an excellent public image. Most people still see heavy-duty industrial production as detrimental to the environment.
This view comes from the writings of 19th-century authors who characterized the mills of England as “dark and Satanic.” Since then, we’ve lived in a culture that fundamentally mistrusts companies that make the stuff we all need to live reasonable lives. Talk about biting the hand that feeds!
In the early days, this mistrust had a religious tone. Digging up the Earth and turning over vast tracts of the countryside to production seemed like a rebellion against the natural order. People shouldn’t live lives of relative luxury and abundance. The rule for most individuals should be squalor and fleeting happiness.
Then, in later years, the emphasis changed to become more scientific. Now critics don’t focus so much on God’s natural order, but that of the universe instead. Humanity was pushing up against nature, and so she would eventually push back.
Superficially, these objections to industry seem different from each other, but they’re actually coming from the same psychological place. It is the idea that we should somehow work with nature, instead of trying to master her and forge a new future in our image.
Practically speaking, we can’t go back to traditional lifestyles. There are too many people. We need an advanced economic system to keep everything humming along without people running out of food. If it weren’t for industrial production and logistics, the policy response to the coronavirus pandemic just wouldn’t have been possible. It is only because there is so much slack in the system that politicians could send people home for weeks. It could not have happened in the 1918 pandemic.
In a way, we’re fortunate to have such industrial might at our disposal. When historians talked about the importance of “US industrial might” entering WWII to save Europe from domination, they were talking about a country with the same output of modern-day Italy. Not insignificant, but hardly the behemoth America is today. We sometimes forget just how much growth and capital accumulation has occurred in the seventy years since.
Despite all the positives, industrial companies remain under permanent siege from the media and specific segments of the political class – many of whom directly benefit from environmental exploitation. Industrial companies have a permanent public relations issue on their hands, with universities periodically divesting them in an attempt to signal how virtuous they are.
What can firms do to fight back against this wave of criticism? How can they turn their image around?
Take Cues From Nike
In many ways, Nike is the quintessential industrial company, churning out clothing for a global market at relatively low prices. The brand continues in the long industrial tradition of finding ways to automate more and more tasks that were once done exclusively by hand. Like the first industrialists, it invests heavily in machinery and technology to allow workers to get more done on any given day. Theoretically, everyone should benefit.
However, Nike ran into trouble a few years ago after developing a reputation for operation sweatshop-like conditions in some of its factories. Even though the evidence was thin, it was enough to make up a lot of people’s minds that the company was behaving unethically.
After years of priming about the evils of profits, the general public was quick to spot Nike’s dark motives and convicted them of exploiting vulnerable people.
Nike, however, didn’t sit back and allow events to play out uncontested. Instead, the company launched an effective PR strategy to turn its image around.
The outrage began when it emerged that Nike paid workers in Indonesia as little as 14 cents per hour – not enough for anybody to live on. People began boycotting the company, and it had to announce some layoffs.
Nike, however, hit back. It changed rules with its suppliers so that they would pay a living wage. And it admitted that it had made a mistake. Bosses at the company weren’t deliberately cruel – they were playing the game. But they still decided to make public their apology and commitment to change things for the better.
Within a few months, they turned the whole thing around. People began respecting them again, and Nike returned to being the foremost sporting clothes brand in the world.
Leaders of other industrial businesses can learn a great deal from Nike’s disaster. Consumers and the media have certain bugbears that they will highlight immediately if they think there’s a problem. These are essentially triggers that lead to the creation of stories. Exploiting workers is one of them because it chimes with the media’s overarching ideology. Taxes are another. Pollution is a third. Businesses need to think about anything that they do that vaguely clashes with the prevailing narrative. If they don’t, they can find themselves quickly on the end of negative coverage.
Present Themselves As High Tech
People don’t consider industrial production universally bad – just the polluting variety. Here’s a secret very few activists know, though: even the high-tech industry creates a mountain of waste. Even so, advanced manufacturing facilities get a good rap. Thanks to games like SimCity, there’s a prevailing belief that their only waste product is pure steam.
Presenting yourself as a high-tech business, therefore, can dramatically change your image. You go from being capitalistic and dirty to scientific and clean. Suddenly, you can sidestep all manner of sins and gain an image detached from the reality of your operations.
Focusing on R&D is a massive boon if you want to win over hearts and minds. Despite the media’s negative attitude, journalists love the fruits of science and economic developments. They’re fundamentally believers in technology, providing you with ample opportunity to add to your brand capital.
Presenting yourself as high tech depends primarily on your premises, not your product. As long as your facility looks like the Apple campus, you can use it in your marketing to highlight the incredible work you’re doing to improve the environment.
The details matter here. White is a good color scheme because it evokes cleanliness and science. You also want engineers to dress in white coats so that they look more like physicians – another cherished category.
Even your choice of manhole cover can make a difference in perceptions. If you use septic tanks, you can use these as access ports, plus talk about how you recycle waste at your enterprise.
Talk About The Future
For many people, the future is much brighter than the present. Fifty years from now, we will have all the technology we need to clean up the environment they believe and provide a high standard of living for everyone, not just the rich. It sounds like wishful thinking – and it probably is – but talking about the future is a powerful tool. The reason is that when you are forward-thinking, the world can look how you like. The present grounds us all in reality, but the future does no such thing. Who’s to say that things won’t change tremendously?
Big oil understands this concept perfectly. These companies will probably never cease refining crude, but that doesn’t matter. When they talk about the future, they’re not really discussing their authentic ambitions. Instead, they’re engaged in a branding exercise. In thirty years, nobody will go back and check whether a particular company really carried through on its promises to save the world. Instead, they’re going to hear the message today, and believe it.
You can talk about the future in all sorts of ways. One is to provide a vague vision of the technology that you’d like to create to solve pollution problems in the future. Another is to share your green vision for the industry. You could even talk about how you’re transitioning to a more ethical operating model, whatever that means.
The basic crux of the idea is to shift attention from what you’re doing now. It’s the classic bait and switch.
Shift To Alternative Lines
Finally, a lot of companies are setting up new production lines to make healthy, sustainable, and affordable products that cater to today’s market. Please note that these products aren’t necessarily about driving sales and revenue (even though they might). Instead, they’re just a part of your strategy to show that you’re doing something to make yourself more sustainable. It’s a “get out of jail free” card.
Psychologically, the way it works is incredibly simple. You offer customers the ethical choice alongside your regular product lineup, giving them the opportunity to buy it. If they don’t take it, then it is their fault, not yours, and you’re off the hook. If they do, then it reflects well on your brand, Remember, when fast-food restaurants tried to sell salads? It was a massive marketing ploy.
Categories: Outside Contributors