A powerful conversation needs more than just talk

Companies will always need to sell products. But to succeed these days, they need to sell something more. Companies need to market ideas bigger than themselves and to promote their organizations as the vehicle through which those ideas flow

This is the template for growth in the 21st century, an age of increasingly sophisticated consumers seeking more than mere goods and looking for companies whose bottom lines are about more than bigger market shares.

In the case of Seventh Generation, that means being a green company first and a green products company second. But we're not just walking the talk. We're creating the talk itself. We see our job as not so much about selling things as it is about shifting consumer behaviors through continual discuss-ions with them about the need for change.

This strategy differs significantly from the traditional consumer product company model. Rather than simply market products, we're marketing ideas and information via a series of conversations with new and prospective customers. While our products certainly lie at the heart of whatever we're discussing, they're not the raison d'etre of our efforts.

The "Million Baby Crawl" is a good example. Designed to support federal legislation that would reform toxic chemical regulations, the campaign website allowed visitors to create a customized animated "baby," talk about why the issue was important to them, and then join a virtual march on Washington to demand a safer environment. The program generated a huge response while successfully positioning us as a leader on the issue and placing our brand in a national spotlight.

Other initiatives have included our "Tampontification" campaign, which discussed the issues associated with traditional feminine care products and encouraged women to talk about menstruation; the "Show What's Inside" program, an effort that urged the cleaning products industry to mandate full ingredients disclosure; and the "Laundry Revolution," which challenged people to save energy by washing laundry in cold water.

In each case, we leveraged the power of social networking and other digital technologies to engage customers in conversations about important issues. These dialogues were not a side effect of our PR programs, they were the very point of them - and the end results did a lot more than boost sales.

By viewing PR programs not as tools to sell more product, but as legitimate opportunities to encourage dialogues and spur change, we're defying the often well-earned stereotype of a faceless company doing a few random deeds to look good. Instead, we're forging emotional connections with our customers and creating an authentic brand with a high level of consumer commitment that's evidenced by the 363,000 members of our customer loyalty program, the Seventh Generation Nation, our 106,000 Facebook friends, and the 21,000 Twitter followers who have made us that network's number-one household brand and a top 40 brand overall.

That's the kind of customer loyalty money can't buy. Indeed, a strategy that views PR not as an arm of the marketing department, but as a legitimate force for creative good is one that companies of all kinds would be wise to pursue. Not only would it build a better world, it makes good business sense in an era when consumers are smarter than ever and eager to use their buying power as a force for good.

Today's consumers don't simply want to consume; they want to participate and be part of something bigger than themselves. Becoming a conduit for conversations about those bigger things effectively fulfills these higher aspirations. When a company acts in its customers' emotional interests, it builds a much stronger and more resilient brand.

The key is honesty. Your conversations must relate to your company and its people and come from within not without. A manufactured cause won't do. But if you find ideas and issues that are real to you, they'll be real to your customers and the interactions that follow will become powerful tools to secure your brand's market position and longevity.

It's a lesson we learned long ago. (There's a reason our PR director's official title is "conversationista.") Use PR efforts as opportunities to converse with your consumers. You'll find the results are a whole lot more than talk. 

Jeffrey Hollender is cofounder, executive chairman, and chief inspired protagonist of Burlington, VT-based Seventh Generation, the US' leading brand of non-toxic consumer products.

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