As you’ve all figured out by now, impact is our main focus here at Flying Saucer for some pretty big reasons - and we’ve been talking to some amazing Impact Brands. So it should come as no surprise that we were pretty thrilled to come across what we see as a pioneer in the social and positive impact space.

Meet Susan Pinkwater - a strategic thinker and branding aficionado who’s been bringing major brands like VISA, General Electric, and Kahlua into the digital frontier for almost 20 years. She founded the agency we all know as Atmosphere (which is now BBDO’s Global Digital Network called Atmosphere Proximity — just FYI) at a time when brands were feeling a need to branch out onto digital platforms, but agencies didn’t understand how to effectively do  this kind of work.

“At the time, this kind of work was not popular - agencies thought this was a fad, or a phase. They thought you could ‘ put commercials up there,’ but the idea that you could extend your business online and that it had to be consistent with your brand and part of your marketing efforts was completely foreign. We had really different ideas about that.”

The right ones, as it turned out! 

“Most brands had an online presence, but were doing things completely by the seat of their pants. We taught them how to do these things strategically and on-purpose. There were new and emerging ways of engaging with consumers which could be powerful if executed strategically and knowledgeably. In this digital age, you needed to be anticipating thinking, ‘what’s next?’ because what you’re doing is already old.”

But this media maven wasn’t satisfied - yet. “I don’t want to sell any more stuff. We have enough stuff! What we do need is to have a better Earth and much better ways for brands to engage with us. I knew that corporations can have a huge impact on the world and can work intimately with individuals and non-profits to help solve many of our biggest issues.”

As someone who started as a Masters of Social Work (MSW) - the idea of fixing the world one person at a time was too slow! So, naturally, she went right for the main players - big brands.
Susan was starting to shift her focus to what she thought of as “cause marketing” - but there was no defined term for it yet. Little did she know she was on the forefront of social impact marketing. When she ended up, again, marketing for ‘more stuff’ as she says, she called up a good friend and started the discussion that changed everything.

Enter Amy Putman. Together, Susan and Amy created Pinkwater and Putman — and promptly landed their first major client: The Fair Food Program. Working to protect the human rights of farm workers — mostly illegal immigrants, Amy and Susan had found an important organization that was doing more than talking. They were making for real and measurable change in the lives of human beings.

“We did their logo identity, and marketing strategy and worked with their legal department for their partnership contracts - and we had a really good time doing it.”

Basically, The Fair Food Program successfully picketed in front of farms that were not adhering to their standards of living and ethical working requirements. So successfully, in fact, that major brands like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wholefoods, WalMart  and other fast food chains demanded that the farms they bought from adhered to the fair Food Code of Ethics — which then caused the farmers to change their business practices. How could logo work and brand positioning help with that?



Glad you asked - because so did we! “We went very deep with The Fair Food Program. We pitched their story to CBS News Sunday Morning and they got the lead story. On the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert pointed to our project poster and called us a bunch of Socialists, which only thrilled us! We then took all of the work we did for them and started submitting it to the big advertising competitions. The effects on that were twofold; we got The Fair Food Program the awareness that they needed to continue doing their amazing work, and we raised awareness that doing good can work - and not just for small businesses and nonprofits.”.

They won a bunch of awards -  D&AD’s first Social Impact White Pencil Award, a Cynopsis Media Award for best non-profit/corporate partnership, as well as an honorable mention for best awareness campaign or initiative. They also bagged a finalist spot in the 2017 World Changing Ideas Awards in the advertising category. “It was important to us because we felt like this was the only way to get the attention of the brands. They didn’t necessarily care yet about ‘doing good,’ but everyone loves to win awards.”

Unfortunately, the market was in a fairly terrible place at the time, and the focus on social impact was always a difficult sell — until the introduction of the UN Sustainable Development Goals which now makes doing good, or at least not doing bad, mandatory.  Major brands have started to realize that in order to stay relevant and keep their customers happy - they have to create positive social impact. But there was — and is still a division.

Companies began creating Corporate Social Responsibility departments which in most cases were human resources based with a focus on sustainability and environmental impact. More often than not they have a really small budget with which to create their impact and are completely divorced from the marketing department which usually had a much bigger budget.

“The marketing department was never that focused on ‘doing good’ - but when they did, that’s when we started running into them at the advertising awards shows. They’d come up with an incredible initiative - but it was a short-term, one-off campaign. It wasn’t a systemic, sustainable, initiative that engaged all stakeholders and made the company a mission-driven organization that can retain employees. It was instead a marketing campaign that often got the company in trouble.

I mean, so what? They were doing good, right?


Photo Credit: George Becker:

“Because they were simply marketing claims and not a real program or initiative, and due to the rise of social media, brands are getting called out, in real time by consumers.”

That’s right - the rise of social media turns out to have done something good —  shocking, right!? Social media created the opportunity for brands to have a relationship with their clients that they’ve never had before and to stand for more than just the products they sell. But it has also enabled consumers to hold brands accountable for their actions. Think about Audi’s commercial they ran at the Super Bowl. They were advocating for “equal pay for equal work” in reference to the gender wage gap — sounds great, right?

Not quite.

“In real-time, consumers were saying, ‘Yeah, you can be anything you want… except be a female member of the board at Audi,’ which highlighted the lack of gender equality within the upper echelons of power at Audi,” Susan recalls. “It was a great example of what happens when you turn impact into a marketing campaign instead of a mission or belief that your brand stands for.”

In short — the second that consumers think that what you’re doing is a gimmick instead of an ethos? You’re done. And honestly? That’s how it should be! We need more companies doing good because that’s what they stand for — not more performative half measures to appease a public that is clamouring for more from brands they’re going to support with their hard earned money.

This is what we’re all about here at Flying Saucer Studio — and we were so happy to rub shoulders with Susan Pinkwater, now of Pinkwater Group, who’s taking their extensive work with big and new brands on social impact marketing and strategy to use with all kinds of clients. The sky’s the limit — and we’re excited to see where it goes.

January 29, 2021

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