Authentic CSR: Should Dawn publicize its involvement in Oiled Bird Rescue?

by cv harquail on June 10, 2010

Procter & Gamble and its Dawn Dishwashing Liquid are the targets of criticism and cynicism for their efforts to help the International Bird Rescue Research Center save birds who have been wounded by BP’s Oil Spill.

While I’m quick to criticize any organization that promotes its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts when all they care about is pumping up their public image and thus their bottom line, the link between Dawn and Bird Rescue deserves a more considered look.

“Businesses should keep quiet about their good works.”


We expect organizations to be relatively modest and self-effacing when they talk about Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. Modesty makes sense because stakeholders often assume that for-profit organizations are “committed” to these causes only because the business can see a link between these commitments and the bottom line. The less a business says, the more it seems like their CSR actions are as important as their claims.

Thus, when businesses themselves publicize their CSR efforts, folks are quick to assume that these CSR efforts “inauthentic”.

Pink ribbons and endorsement badges can sully the perceived authenticity of many CSR efforts. Even worse than ‘everyday’ self-promotions are efforts that literally capitalize on current crises to get  more publicity for their efforts. We resent businesses that try to profit from someone else’s pain.

In this light, Dawn’s current sales campaign, advertisements and other efforts to publicize its link to oiled bird rescue look pretty slimy. Their promotion of Oiled Bird Rescue efforts seems opportunistic, not authentic.

However, before we question the authenticity of Dawn’s efforts, we need to consider the whole range of reasons why Dawn is involved in bird rescue.

Profit, Purpose and Product Motivations for CSR

  • Profit Motivations: Many CSR efforts begin when the business wants to improve its public image. The business expects that CSR efforts will be noticed, that being noticed will create good reputation and goodwill, and that good reputation will contribute to the business’s financial success. Many CSR efforts are evaluated specifically for their ROI, as businesses treat these initiatives as just another marketing expense.
  • Purpose Motivations: It’s also often true that a business’s social commitments are prompted by someone’s desire to make a difference, or the organization’s collective concern about an issue. Businesses and their members actually do care about social issues. They find meaning and inspiration in their corporate efforts to contribute to social causes beyond their business.
  • Product Motivations: Less frequently, but often enough to matter, there can be a direct link between what the organization does or makes, and what a social problem needs. This link invites the organization to get involved and make a commitment, because they uniquely can contribute. They either have the product that’s needed or the process skills that will make a difference.

Profit, Purpose and Product motivations can exist separately, with only one or two active in a business’s commitments. However, in practice, different employees are motivated by different elements of the rationale for the business’s involvement. Some employees of an organization might care more about the purpose while other employees care more about the profit. This mixing of motives makes the question of whether the commitment is authentic (that is, linked to the organization’s purpose and identity) more problematic.

Product Motivation: Authentic link between Dawn Dishwashing Liquid and Bird Rescue

201006092057.jpg Dawn Dishwashing Liquid, a Procter & Gamble product (see disclaimer), has been connected to wild bird rescue for over 30 years. Their relationship began through a Product Motivation.

It turns out that Dawn Dishwashing Liquid is the mildest and most effective cleanser to use when treating avian victims of oil spills. The International Bird Rescue Research Center discovered Dawn’s effectiveness after several years of trial, error and experimentation with other solvents. Using Dawn is now part of bird rescue ‘best practice’.

Dawn’s Wildlife Rescue Promotion

Because of this long-standing commitment to Oiled Bird Rescue, Dawn launched a special sales promotion to support their CSR efforts. The promotion began in June 2009 (as in, 12 months ago). The promotion included specially labeled Dawn bottles, a website, and some television advertising to promote Dawn’s program for donating $1 for every bottle code activated on line.

If you’ve bought Dawn in the last several months, you may have noticed the labels with picture of some cute, charismatic birds and animals.

[There is a reason that wildlife organizations use pictures of adorable baby seals, penguins and baby cranes on their marketing materials. These charismatic fauna and fowls draw out our emotionsand help us care about the animals’ welfare.]

Dawn’s store based promotion is supported by a television spot showing Dawn being used to clean oiled birds. This campaign was nearing its end when the BP oil well blew.

Here’s the Dawn advert, made in May 2009:

Now, many weeks later, BP’s toxic oil is reaching the shorelines, spoiling habitats. It is also threatening the lives of the same endangered species that are rescued by the IBRRC. While Dawn could not have predicted the surge in attention to soiled animals, nor the spike in their number, nor the ongoing severity of the problem, Dawn was in position to help.

Criticizing Dawn’s Efforts as InAuthentic

Some folks have begun to criticize Dawn for taking advantage of the Oil Spill to promote their commitment to bird rescue and thus to pump up the brand’s public image (overall, to influence the bottom line). These critics are focusing on the Profit Motivation for CSR.

Should Dawn expand its efforts in spite of criticism about its Profit Motivation?

Marketing experts don’t agree whether Dawn should pump up its advertising and expand its promotional campaign. Some suggest that being any more public would be, well, vulgar. Others say that Dawn should be using this situation to promote its CSR involvement more aggressively.

It is an exquisitely fine line between being public and transparent about your contributions to help in a crisis, and tooting your own horn. From what I see online at least, Dawn is still on the appropriate side of this line.

  • The IBRRC facebook page isn’t all about Dawn, but instead covers the full range of topics, concerns and news related to the endangered wildlife
  • P& G’s website does announce Dawn’s involvement, on a page that is already over a month old (so it’s not like they’re working that angle).
  • P&G is not shipping Dawn bottles with last-minute hang tags announcing their role in wildlife rescue.
  • Similarly, we haven’t seen full page ads in the New York Times, touting how Dawn is making a difference.

However, evaluating the situation on the bases of Profit Motivation alone is not enough.

Is Dawn’s Authenticity Saved by the Product Motivation?

The Product Motivation for Dawn’s involvement continues. The IBRRC has not found anything more effective and more mild than dawn for removing the oil from birdfeathers. Dawn, used with increasingly sensitive handling strategies, is helping to improve the recovery rates of birds that have been brought to the Rescue Centers.

The product motivation, coupled with the long-standing history of Dawn’s relationship to the IBRRC, ought to be enough to demonstrate Dawn’s authentic commitment to the cause.

Why Dawn should emphasize its Purpose Motivation

If Dawn and P&G could find ways to limit (or ignore) accusations of having only a profit motivation, it might make sense to promote their efforts to help rescue oil soaked birds. Why? Because these promotions will help to fulfill the underlying purpose of Dawn’s commitment– rescuing and protecting wildlife.

Dawn’s Purpose Motivation would suggest that

(1) more advertising,
(2) an extension of the fund raising, and
(3) even additional initiatives

make sense.

Each of these might raise people’s awareness of the effects of the oil spill and the possibilities for some recovery.

Raising the public pr9ofile of their involvement might serve Dawn’s larger purpose more broadly. Being public about Dawn’s involvement might help to draw attention to the plight of the birds, get more people contributing to bird rescue, and encourage citizens to advocate for environmental protections and alternative energy.

Frankly, showing more images of damaged and dead birds, as well as damaged and rescued birds, can bring home the gravity of the spill in a way that aerial photos of the oil plume or piles of sludge on the beaches can’t.

Purpose appeals to us as people, not as “customers”

Something odd and important happens when businesses move past their profit motivation and even past the logical product motivation and instead emphasize the purpose of their CSR commitments.

When businesses emphasize their purpose motivations, and when we also care about the purpose, a different “we” is activated. We think of ourselves not as customers who want clean dishes, but as people who want clean waters. We see Dawn not as a product we might buy, but instead as a partner in getting something better to happen.

Authentic Concern and Authentic Action


The ecological crisis of the Oil Spill is real. The damage to these waterfowl and wildlife is serious and it is extensive. This cause wasn’t invented by a marketing department, and our interest in it is neither borrowed nor manufactured. Our concern is authentic.

Nobody at Dawn or at P&G is glad that this spill has given them an opportunity to shine. Maybe it’s fortuitous that Dawn’s current wildlife marketing campaign has not yet ended. And maybe it’s providential that Dawn has an advertisement already made that is a perfect fit for the new situation. But using their tools and this situation to promote Oiled Bird Rescue and wildlife welfare is not  exploitative, and it is authentic.

Considering the profit, the product and the purpose motivations involved in Dawn’s CSR effort, I think that Dawn should amp up its advertising. Dawn should make these adjustments:

  • Keep the product placement discreet. Put the bottle of Dawn more n the background of the bird washing video.
  • Publicize ways that people can get involved in oiled bird rescue and habitat rescue.
  • Work to educate people about bird rescue efforts in the Gulf using transparent communication tools like their Facebook page.
  • Expand your support for Oiled Bird Rescue. Donate more money, not only to cleaning but also to research on what happens to the birds, how to protect the birds, what more we can do.
  • Examine your own product production, marketing, distribution, and disposal — and work to make all of these less dependent on petroleum and overall more sustainable.

People are concerned about the birds and other wildlife, yet they are unclear about the actual procedures, outcomes, effectiveness and even the ethics of Bird Rescue. Any additional information that Dawn can offer to help people learn more about what is being done and can be done will get people intellectually and emotionally involved. All of these efforts should focus on the larger purpose behind the International Bird Rescue Research Center: rescuing and also proactively protecting wildlife.

Practical vs. Symbolic Influence

As a practical response to an environmental and social tragedy the size of the BP Oil Spill, efforts to rescue Oiled Birds are a drop in a bucket. They will make only a small reduction in the overall damage.

Symbolically, however, the commitment to retrieve, wash, and try to rehabilitate injured birds is very significant.

Washing these oiled, injured birds is an act of contrition, a demonstration of concern, and an expression of hope.

Given the many layers of motivation and meaning behind Dawn’s involvement in Oiled Bird Rescue, I’m willing to look beyond my own cynicism to view any increase in Dawns’ efforts to promote their cause in a more generous and hopeful way.

Do you think other consumers will cut Dawn some slack? How about you?

See Also:

GrrlScientist, on ScienceBlogs, “Oiled SeaBirds: To Kill Or Not To Kill? What Is Ethical?”
Megan Strand, on InCouraged, “Dawn’s Wildlife Rescue: Totally Slick or Too Slippery?”
Jonathan Salem Baskin’s “Do Everything, Say Nothing”
Jack Neff, in Ad Age, “Dawn’s Wildlife Rescue Efforts Shine in Gulf Coast Oil Spill”

Disclaimer: I worked at Procter & Gamble for 6 years, in the Hard Surface Cleaners and Bar Soap Divisions.

Dawn Bottle by JudyHefland on Twitpic
Oiled Pelican by Greg Saulmon, The Republican
Others from Dawn & IBRRC websites


emily axelrod June 11, 2010 at 3:38 am

I am glad Dawn is letting us know what they are doing. If they did not I would not know of the good work with wildlife. I don’t see this as inauthentic. If it was advertised over the top i would not believe it. I would be a harsh critic. I agree with you that it is appropriate at this time.

cv harquail June 11, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Emily, thanks for your comment. I think there are a lot of folks who would be happy to be told — just once– about Dawn’s involvement. Then, I think we’d like to learn more & know more about how the wildlife are faring. The more I think about it, the more I want to see Dawn *deepen* their commitment.
I also wonder how P&G employees who work on Dawn feel about this commitment….

Also, glad to discover the Axelrod Group’s Employee Engagement work!

Tim Malone June 14, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for a great article. I always enjoy seeing how others are doing it right. I think that corporate commitment, like seen with Dawn, is very motivating. I think that intent comes into play in these situations. I personally have no problem with a company doing well due to their commitment to great issues. It has to be a fruit of the commitment and not a goal. If Dawn does better because they truly commit to helping in this area, then that is the kind of company that I would like to see do better. We need more companies that do the right thing.
You have a point though, if the company is not really committed to the cause and just wants to boost its bottom line, that is being abusive with its policies.
It seems like a real balancing act. Thanks for letting me post my comment here.

Tim Malone

cv harquail June 15, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Hi Tim, Thanks so much for your comment… it has me wondering, again, how we know whether the commitment is “real”. My neighbor Leslie Kaufman, a journalist at the NYT, noted that Dawn didn’t start donating product until 1989, despite being asked to earlier. This tidbit made me wonder what got them to start, and on which dimension (product, profit, purpose) they were motivated.
But then again, if I were an oiled bird, I’d stop asking quesitons and just be glad that somebody cared. Period. cv

John Ford July 5, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Really people, give J&J a break…. People need to know that by purchasing Dawn that they are donating $1.00 per bottle to avian rescue. I live in Louisana, and I applaud their efforts.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }