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December 18, 2006
Volume 84, Number 51
pp. 36-37

Dow's Emotional Pitch

Eschewing facts and figures, a new ad campaign shoots for the heart

Rick Mullin

Duke Ellington once said, "You've got to find some way of saying it without saying it." It's not an easy thing for jazz composers or instrumentalists to get their heads around. And it would seem to be antithetical to a major chemical company trying to communicate with the public. Dow Chemical, however, is taking a swing at it with Human Element, a high-profile, highly stylized print and television advertising campaign designed to communicate on the level of human emotion.

Dow Chemical

The Human Element has run in about 20 magazines ranging from Chemical & Engineering News to Time. It has aired during Sunday news talk shows and during the World Series. Dow has positioned the campaign to reach a much larger audience than the "opinion leader" demographic traditionally targeted by chemical industry advertising. Indeed, over the past five months, a version of the TV spot has logged more than 10,000 views on YouTube, the Internet barometer of public interest in all things video.

Dominated by images of people, Dow's ads describe what is called a crucial but overlooked "human element" to chemistry—an interconnection of chemicals, nature, and the human spirit. It says nothing about Dow itself, other than to display the company's red diamond logo at the very end.

The ads describe chemical reactions in an abstract fashion—"hydrogen and oxygen form desire"—and suggest a new symbol for the periodic table: Hu, for human. The ads do not depict chemical plants or products. There are no performance statistics, facts, or figures of any kind other than a number in the upper right corner of the Hu symbol, evoking the periodic table, and the notation 7E+09, meant to approximate the 7 billion people on Earth.

At no point do the ads state that Dow intends to be the largest, most profitable, and most respected chemical company in the world. But that, according to Patti Temple Rocks, the firm's vice president of global communications and reputation, is the message Dow hopes comes across over time in a campaign that is intended to run "well into the future."

Created for Dow by Chicago-based DraftFCB, the campaign was voted the best television advertisement of the year by B to B, a trade publication that covers business-to-business marketing. According to the magazine's editor, Ellis Booker, the Dow ads are part of a trend in business advertising in which firms such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems are opting for an emotional response. "Business-to-business advertisers are starting to recognize that you have to be more human in your approach," he says.

According to Booker, the idea is that connecting a company in the consumer's mind with advancement of the human condition will create positive brand recognition that eventually registers in customers' procurement departments. This "ripple effect" is ultimately intended to boost shareholder confidence, he says. "The question is whether this is the new Hula Hoop or whether it's an actual sea change in advertising."

A chemical company such as Dow faces distinct challenges as it takes what Booker describes as "a softer, gentler" approach to advertising. For one thing, the approach is counter to the instincts of an industry populated by chemists and engineers who live by measurements.

But communicating measurements, an approach taken by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in the mid-1990s with its Responsible Care advertising and public outreach programs, has had little impact. Despite its good news of reduced pollution in the face of increased chemical output, that ACC campaign left the public largely unmoved.

Today, the chemical industry is held in much lower public esteem than information technology, telecommunications, and other industries where advertisers are opting for the human touch. Dow itself has been particularly challenged since its 2001 acquisition of Union Carbide, owner of the plant in Bhopal, India, where a 1984 chemical discharge killed thousands. All in all, the chemical industry is seen as having lost its 20th-century position at the cutting edge of life-improving technology.

Jamie Shuttleworth, director of account planning at DraftFCB, says Dow is out to change people's minds about all of this—at least in regard to Dow. "The general intent of the ad is to force some reconsideration," he says. "The story of Dow is that it is a company that does tremendous things for which it has not been recognized by many people outside the industry or even inside the industry."

Shuttleworth recounts his first meeting with the company. "I counted the number of times they said 'respect.' The discussion revolved around people wanting to gain the respect they very much felt they deserved."

Temple Rocks agrees that gaining respect is a key component of the campaign. "It's right smack in the center of our vision statement," she says. "We are not saying that we want people to like us or give us something that we haven't earned."

In speaking up for itself, Dow is not trying to distinguish itself from other chemical companies, Temple Rocks maintains. In fact, she notes that Dow's ads have things in common with the ACC's new essential2 campaign.

Shuttleworth adds that the Human Element message is about leadership. Andrew N. Liveris, Dow's chief executive officer, "is a leader at heart, and he wants his company to be seen as a leader and visionary," he says. "The voice of leadership isn't as much about fixing things and reacting to things as it is about trying to set the stage for the possibilities of the future." The chemical industry, Shuttleworth contends, has spent too much time justifying its past and not enough communicating how it can help enable a sustainable future. "And I think our lens for opportunity is humanity."

Liveris tells C&EN that while the campaign attempts to portray sustainability as a guiding principle going forward, it is also intended to reconnect Dow, and the industry as a whole, to its roots in the late-19th century, when it was poised to become the great engine of innovation for the 20th century.

"We are connecting the emotionalism of being a human being, the emotionalism of intertwining with our environment, with the notion that chemistry enables everything," Liveris says. "It is such an understated value proposition today, especially in developed societies." Industrialized countries have "evolved" beyond recognizing their dependence on chemistry, he says. Chemical products are taken for granted.

Temple Rocks Dow Chemical
Temple Rocks
Burke DraftFCB

This is not the case, he adds, in developing countries such as Namibia, the locale of an orphanage featured in Dow's television ads. "When we are on the ground locally in poor countries, emerging countries that truly have not developed their manufacturing sector, we notice that the respect people have for obtaining essential products based on chemistry is an order of magnitude higher than in a mature society," he says.

The risk of portraying people in developing countries, however, is that the images suggest those often employed by industry critics. In fact, a parody of the Human Element campaign was uploaded to YouTube this month by someone in Germany with the user name "Forbhopal." It superimposes the voice-over and music of the Dow ad on graphic images of Bhopal victims, chemical pollution, and agent orange. Dow's name appears throughout the video, which directs viewers to a website critical of the company. It logged nearly 600 viewings in its first week.

Liveris views such critics as a persistent "vocal minority" whose message is not as compelling as the industry's message about delivering essential products and world-class operating standards to developing nations. The problem, Liveris argues, is that the industry has not effectively conveyed its message. Doing so, he says, will require it to employ the kind of emotional appeal that scientists naturally resist.

"This is a 100-year-old industry," Liveris acknowledges. "It is old world, old school, and very conservative. So the campaign was a bold step—a leap of faith."

In the Human Element campaign, Liveris sees a distinct message that humanity, the environment, and chemistry are inextricably linked. "We're saying that the value proposition of what enables our way of life is really chemistry and science," he says. "Marrying that and humanity and our right to operate on the planet, you can see a complex series of messages evolve. But the headline remains humanity and chemistry."

Temple Rocks notes that the campaign is still in its early days and will later convey more detailed information about the company. Much of that information, including the company's goals for the year 2015, is already on Dow's website. She adds that Dow executives are increasingly willing to engage with the media. "The campaign makes people want to know more, and the media part of our work is where we're telling them more."

Jack N. Gerard, ACC's CEO, says his association's essential2 campaign mirrors Dow's in shifting to a more emotional appeal. "The ads are a reflection of a leading, cutting-edge industry," he says. "The way we portray ourselves to the public and educate consumers and public policy officials should be consistent with the industry itself."

Gerard says the industry is figuring out that successful advertising employs a distinctive language. "As communicators, the engineers need to do what they need to do, the lawyers need to do what they need to do, but most important, when the industry communicates with the public, we need to communicate in a way that is understood by all," he says. "We are connecting the dots, filling knowledge gaps to help people understand the chemistry that allows us to operate and live the way that we do."

Liveris says the industry's persistent inability to do just this is largely to blame for a fall from grace dating back to 1967, when the word "plastics" was whispered into actor Dustin Hoffman's ear in the movie "The Graduate." "Our company was not willing to tolerate that anymore," he says.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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