This is not a story about a bunch of granola-loving, tree-hugging, goody two-shoes. Timberland, the company, is in business to sell shoes and other outdoor apparel. As Chief Brand Officer Mike Harrison put it in my interview with him last week, “We’re not advocating for good causes just for the sake of it, there is an element of enlightened self-interest in this,” adding, “we’re an outdoors brand, if winter goes away its not a good thing for us financially either.”
That said, Timberland’s approach to corporate social responsibility could be a model for any likeminded company around the world. Timberland is considered one of the most socially responsible brands in the US and was recently recognized by Ceres-ACCA as having the best sustainability reports. Timberland’s commitment to fighting climate change permeates the global organization, from the CEO to the sales staff in Japan, and serves as the starting point for this 7-point guide on how to do well by doing good.
1. Create a Culture of Doers
Timberland has long believed in empowering its employees to give back. Harrison reported that, “back in the early 1990’s, we started giving employees paid time off to volunteer in the community.” So when a bunch of employees in Japan linked their concern about air quality with deforestation in Northeast China, the next thing you knew Timberland was planting trees in Inner Mongolia. Noted Harrison, “It started out as a pretty low-key community service project in 2000,” and culminated in April 2010 with the planting of the millionth tree!
2. Walk the Walk First Especially in China
One of the more remarkable aspects of Timberland’s tree planting program in China is that they didn’t even sell boots there until 2006 (6 years after the first tree was planted). According to Harrison, “We were planting trees but we hadn’t gotten around to figuring out how to do business there.” Not famous for welcoming foreign brands, Timberland benefited from six years of good will generation. Describing the launch in China, Harrison noted that, “we told them about the Timberland brand and what we stood for and why we’d been planting trees and that definitely got a lot of interest.” Four years later, China is one of Timberland’s fastest growing markets.
3. Make it Green But Don’t Lead with Green
In 2007, Timberland launched the Earthkeepers boot, which, Harrison noted, “was the greenest boot that we knew how to make.” Since that boot was well received, they turned Earthkeepers into a “collection of environmentally responsible footwear and apparel,” that has become Timberland’s fastest growing collection. But Harrison recognized that, “consumers are not going out shopping for brands in our space wondering about how they can save the planet, so you need to look at environmental values as the gift with purchase.” Harrison considers this one of the biggest lessons, noting that his consumer won’t buy it if it doesn’t look good and perform like its less green counterparts.
4. Don’t Underestimate Online Engagement Among the Green Inclined
No good marketing story would be complete without a few bumps in the road. Timberland’s bump came after launching a virtual tree planting application on Facebook in late 2008. “We had all these grandiose plans to engage consumers and create a movement online,” noted Harrison, whose group was taken by surprise when the demand for virtual tree planting exceeded the speed at which they could plant corresponding real trees. When Timberland then took down the application there was a huge backlash and Harrison discovered, “Just how engaged our consumers were.” How Timberland responded to this crisis is as instructive as the rest of their actions.
5. Fess Up To Your Mistakes
After the Facebook application was shut down, Timberland’s “engaged consumers” created online petitions to bring back the application and then started to question the veracity of Timberland’s tree planting programs. This was potential PR disaster requiring an immediate and honest response. Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz held a chat session with the petition’s organizers and posted the conversation for all to see. This approach helped to diffuse the protestors and offered Timberland a valuable dose of humility. Offered Harrison, “it’s much better to openly engage with critics, be transparent, be open about your failings—we never say we’re perfect and we never will be.”
6. Don’t Be Too Earnest
Understandably proud of their green track record, Harrison noted that one of the biggest marketing mistakes they’ve made is “to come across as preachy” when advertising their Earthkeepers products. “We’re trying to be more humorous in our ads now—it’s a serious issue but we shouldn’t claim we’re curing cancer—we’re just planting trees and doing the best we can.” “We seem to engage better if we’re reasonably light,” offered Harrison while lamenting consumer’s general disinterest in reading longer and more serious eco-stories. Advised Harrison, “pick your message, be positive, upbeat, reasonably light hearted about it and don’t come across as overly earnest.”
7. Think Global, Act Social
Offering a glimpse into their future marketing plans, Harrison noted that “half of our business and half our consumers are outside the US, so the next big step is moving to a more global Timberland.com and moving to a more global social networking strategy.” This coincides with new tree planting initiatives in Haiti and Nepal along with continuing efforts in China. In fact, CEO Jeff Swartz has set the audacious goal of planting 5 million trees in the next five years. Timberland is also updating its virtual tree planting initiative with the introduction of a new Facebook application, which will be integrated with its soon to be launched “Nature Needs Heroes” marketing campaign.
Final Note: In its Q1 2010 earnings report, Timberland’s revenue was up 7% overall and 17% in Asia. Seems like Timberland is doing pretty darn well by doing good. (This article first appeared on FastCompany.com)