Carrotmob, a seven-person digital cause-marketing startup, has pulled off a coup most young agencies only dream of - working on retail marketing campaigns with Unilever, one of the world's largest consumer goods companies. Unilever signed on as a Carrotmob partner at the end of September 2012 and conducted its first test campaign on October 6.
San Francisco-based Carrotmob, which was originally a non-profit activist organization, uses social media to organize groups of people, or "mobs," who agree to buy products within a set period of time only if the marketer or store agrees to invest in a social responsibility project the mob supports. "It's the idea of consumers using a carrot instead of a stick" to encourage responsible behavior by brands, said founder Brent Schulkin.
Using Facebook, Twitter, a dedicated site and email, Carrotmob has worked with volunteers to coordinate small, local sustainability campaigns in 20 countries. The organization is now functioning more like a marketing agency, directly executing campaigns for international brands that tap around the online community of self-identified Carrotmob consumers it has accumulated. Carrotmob currently has more than 17,000 likes on Facebook and about 4,700 Twitter followers.
To join the community, people are strongly encouraged- but not required -- to use their Facebook account. That way Carrotmob and its clients can track members' friends, interests and behavior patterns. The plan is to target a brand or retailers social campaign to the members who are most interested in that social cause, and to ask those members to help formulate the campaign, said Schulkin. The hope is that those members will then reach out to their friends to help support the campaign.
Unilever conducted its test campaign with Carrotmob at a Fresh & Easy stores in Pasadena, California. More than 250 Carrotmobbers showed up to shop in exchange for the retailer agreeing to install five non-ozone depleting freezers. At the event, Unilever promised a donation to the Arbor Day Foundation if mobbers bought at least three Unilever products, including Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Ragu sauce and Skippy peanut butter.
"Instead of boycotting products or businesses you don't like, this approach encourages people to buy products that make a positive difference," said Lou Paik, Unilever shopper marketing manager. "Our partnership with Carrotmob lets us explore new innovative and disruptive ways to achieve our sustainability goals."
Carrotmob's recent e-commerce campaign with Thanksgiving Coffee gives a glimpse of what the fledgling agency might do with major marketers. The coffee roaster and distributor in Fort Bragg, California, conducted a three-week online promotion on the Carrotmob site. It promised that for every dollar spent on coffee beans, 15 cents would go to buying environmentally clean cookstoves for Uganda farmers. If sales hit $150,000 the donation would instead be spent to study wind-powered shipping. Carrotmob's fee was based on the revenues generated by the campaign, said Schulkin.
And the results? More than $31,000 in sales was generated via Carrotmob's site, mainly from new rather than existing customers, said Janet L Aguilar, Thanksgiving chief executive. The campaign aligned well with the company's "social and environmental values and the investment of resources was nominal" for the profits generated, she said. "We would definitely do it again."
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.
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