Finding marketing meaning in Big Society rhetoric

August 5, 2010

What exactly does David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society amount to? The cynical, but evidence-based, conclusion is: spontaneous acts of unrewarded generosity by almost every segment of society except the state itself.

While ‘mad axeman’ George Osborne frenziedly appeases the rapacious dictates of international capital markets, the rest of us  – it appears – must supply the deficit with sundry forms of “volunteer” work. At the local community level, Cameron seems to be proposing a boy-scout initiative with a bit of unpaid crowdsourcing thrown in. Similarly, business is expected to dig deep into its pockets to subsidise national policy initiatives – such as Change4Life – left destitute by the annihilation of the public funding formerly underpinning them.

Nowhere, right now, is the fallout more visible than in the marketing communications community, which is tasting the bleak disparity between political rhetoric and reality encapsulated in permanently truncated public sector budgets and a crippled COI.

What can be done to reverse this dreary cycle of perpetual cuts and reignite some top line growth? The glimmerings of an answer has been provided by Cameron’s friend Sir John Rose, who happens to be the chief executive of aerospace engineering company Rolls-Royce. Rose is trying to persuade Cameron to engage in a long-term industrial innovation strategy. That may seem a far cry from the immediate needs of the cash-starved marcoms community but, believe me, there is a marketing angle in all of this for those with the skill to exploit it.

Rolls-Royce has recently produced an audit, based around an analysis by the Oxford Economics consultancy, which seems to demonstrate that its activities contribute a quite extraordinary amount of added value to the UK economy. The figure quoted is 0.56% of UK GDP: £7.8bn of £1,400bn. All the more extraordinary, as the FT points out, when we remember that Rolls-Royce employees account for only 1 in 3,000 of the UK population.

Even allowing for exaggeration, there is clearly an important multiplier effect here. The calculus is apparently based on such things as former workers leaving to start their own ventures (one cited example used the skills he had acquired to set up a coffee-machine factory); through to suppliers who assimilate new engineering techniques by working with the company.

The detail is less significant than the power of the idea behind it. Rolls-Royce is embarking on a new form of corporate social responsibility – dubbed in some quarters corporate social activism. Part educational and part public policy oriented, it is designed to help transition Britain from being a vulnerable service economy to a high-value engineering one.

Rolls-Royce is not unique in this endeavour. Only last month BAE Systems, our biggest aerospace and defence contractor, announced a £50m investment in its Skills 2020 programme, which aims to supply the UK with a continuous stream of high-level engineering talent. Crucially, BAE has managed to persuade the government to actively support its initiative.

Corporate social activism need not be restricted to prominent aerospace corporations. Look to the United States and you will see that Geoff Imelt, chief executive of GE, recently launched the Ecomagination Challenge. It offers $200m of venture capital money to anyone enterprising enough to find a winning solution to revolutionising the US power grid.

Nor is the consumer goods sector excluded from such activism. Pepsi has recently announced a ‘Refresh Everything’ project, which is funding social enterprise at the local level with hundreds of millions of advertising dollars diverted from supporting the Super Bowl earlier this year.

Here, then, are a few ideas that appear to chime readily with Cameron’s Big Society rhetoric. It’s up to marketers to provide the small print, according to Alan Bell, chairman of Bell Design & Communications – whose company recently pitched for the Rolls-Royce account:

“There needs to be a debate about what the Big Society actually means in terms of industry participation. One of the problems with this country is its ‘quick, quick, quick’ City mentality. We don’t look enough to the long term. And now, as this recession is demonstrating, we’ve  been caught out – with devastating consequences for our service-driven economy. In a funny sort of way, the age of austerity may prove a catalyst for new thinking. If we don’t – for example – train our engineers of the future they, too, will be lost to China and India. That new thinking also applies to marketing. It takes time to understand the longer view; branding is not all about identity makeovers.”

Bell speaks from an unusual standpoint. His was the only agency to be selected by UKTI – the government-sponsored body that promotes British businesses internationally – to represent Britain at the Shanghai Expo this year. Bell Design, which now has an office in China, has been conducting a series of branding workshops that brought its team into contact with some of the country’s most powerful regional bosses.

One thing the Chinese certainly understand, Bell says, is the longer view. He is fond of quoting the late Chinese leader Zhou Enlai. When asked what he thought about the impact of the 1789 French Revolution, Zhou – the architect of China’s industrial take-off – replied: “It’s too early to tell.”

The message is: take a leaf out of China’s book, or get left behind.

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