Last fall, Timberland introduced its Earthkeeper boots, a new waterproof line made of recycled and organic materials. The products were "unbelievably successful" and "got great consumer feedback," says Margaret Morey-Reunner, Timberland's manager of values marketing. Because CSR is so prevalent in the company's culture, employees naturally began to think of how to expand the "earthkeeper" concept beyond products.
"We realized how powerful the name was and thought we could create a cool movement," she says. "We've had retail programs... that combine product marketing and retail with our CSR agenda, but saying how great we are has never been a primary objective.
"We're boot-makers who care about the environment and like to participate in the debate. We're not experts on the environment," she adds. "It's more important to provide the platform [and] draw on the expertise and insight of others. By virtue of our beliefs and position as a prominent brand, we have the opportunity to engage consumers in... ways around our environmental stewardship."
The Earthkeepers campaign, which launched globally on June 10, aims to inspire 1 million people to take action to lighten their environmental footprint. It centers on online social networking tools, including partnerships with YouTube and Changents.com, a Facebook presence, a blog, and a Web site.
Through its partnership with Changents - an online destination focused on social change - "Earthkeeper Heroes" are given a global platform. Five heroes have been named thus far, including a group of Dartmouth College students who will travel to 40 cities in a vehicle called the "Big Green Bus," fueled by waste cooking oil, to promote the use of sustainable energy.
Robin Giampa, director of corporate communications at Timberland, notes that the development of the Earthkeepers program was very organic. "It's something we've all embraced... and run with in a way that we think makes a great deal of sense," she notes.
"The campaign is a fire-starter for facilitating dialogue, engaging with individuals to encourage environmental action, and to celebrate those who are taking steps to reduce their impact," Morey-Reunner adds. "We could have just built a Web site, but [we wanted] to go where people are talking - YouTube, Facebook, blogs - to reach them on their terms in the spaces in which they're talking.
"The Earthkeepers.com blog allows us to address any number of issues," she adds. "YouTube is natural place consumers go to see video, so we created a brand channel [with] videos we've created, partner videos, and favorite environmental videos that were always on YouTube. Thousands of consumers communicate on Facebook, so it's important that we have a presence there and participate."
"We're not trying to... give all the answers," Giampa notes. "We're encouraging people to share their own ideas and inspire others. We're learning as much as we're sharing."
Henk Campher, VP of corporate responsibility at Cone, which began working with Timberland in 1997, notes that the company's long history of community engagement made it easier for Timberland to take such a big step in online engagement.
"When Timberland goes into a community, [it develops] local partnerships because that's where [the community] wants [it] to engage," he says. "That principle of engagement is even more important online. Be-cause it's a part of Timberland's culture, it was easier to take that step."
Harnessing the power of online communities provides huge reach, and the Earthkeepers campaign is Timberland's broadest effort to date. Less than three weeks after its launch, The YouTube channel had nearly 80,000 views; the Facebook Earthkeepers group gathered almost 1,100 members; and the "Earthkeeper Heroes" story on changents.com had more than 22,000 views.
"Many companies will look at new media through old media eyes," Campher notes. "[Because of] the nature of new media, you can't have a plan set in stone. Timberland realizes each [online channel] defines how [their audiences] want to interact. There isn't one way to do it. Each must be nuanced and approached differently. I don't think any other company has tried to talk to the audience in their own language to this extent. Timberland is always prepared to take risks. It's open."
Mark Malinowski, VP in Cone's brand marketing practice, notes how programs begin to grow organically when companies are open to broad online engagement.
"What's unique about Earthkeepers is it really isn't promotion-based," he says. "It's creating dialogue between brand [reps] and consumers about important issues. It's helping start a movement based on something Timberland cares about."
Reward trumps risk
Giampa and Morey-Reunner admit it can be scary for companies to engage so broadly online, but the benefit outweighs the risk.
"We're treading new territory by throwing ourselves out there the way we are," Morey-Reunner says. "There is some sense of vulnerability - people [can] tell us things we may not want to hear. It's OK. [It] will lead to making things better in the way we approach business and the environment. We're learning as we go. It's incredibly rewarding."
Timberland's CSR efforts
1989: Partners with Boston-based youth group City Year to support community service
1992: Develops "The Path of Service" program, which now offers employees 40 hours of paid leave per year to do community service
1998: Hosts first-annual "Serv-A-Palooza," a companywide day of community service
2003: Introduces a Web site, timberlandserve.com, to help consumers connect with local community service opportunities
2004: Launches a hybrid incentive program, which gives staff $3,000 toward the purchase of a hybrid vehicle
2006: Unveils a solar panel installation at a distribution center