Attention please!

Colette Henry



 Social media has changed how our attention is directed… and it has a big impact on sustainability

‘Grab attention’, ‘pay attention’, ‘attention-seeking’, ‘fighting for attention’, ‘lapping up the attention’ – these everyday phrases make it really clear that attention is a very valuable resource worth fighting for.

Our need for attention is pretty basic.  We are born unable to survive without another human helping us, feeding us, caring for us, so we need to be able to get and maintain attention. Throughout our lives, we are programmed to seek attention for survival, for status, for success. It is the beginning of every social interaction and every relationship.

From a business point of view, attention is also critical. It is the beginning of an opinion, a transaction and a sale.  Businesses thrive when they get and maintain attention and turn it into profitable relationships.

But what is it? What is attention? Going back to the Father of Psychology, William James who first described it in 1890, “[Attention is] taking possession of the mind in clear and vivid form, one out of several simultaneous objects or trains of thought”.  Essentially attention is about focusing on one part out of many, so what you filter out is critical to allow something to hold your attention.

In the past, brands were, for the most part, able to control the attention they received.  They could focus our attention on their USP (unique selling point) – how safe the car is; how tasty the biscuits are; how clean the dishes are.  They could also focus our attention on the more emotional benefits of the brand to us, like how using their product showed that we are ‘worth it’ (L’Oreal) or that drinking their drink means ‘life tastes good’ (Coca Cola 2000).  For the longest time, the brand was in charge of where the consumers’ spotlight of attention was directed.

Then social media happened.

The increasing impact of a vastly more connected social media means that the ‘attention spotlight’ can be hijacked.

Attention can be shifted towards the darker areas that a brand would prefer to keep out of the spotlight. The attention hijacker didn’t want to focus on the brand’s USP; they wanted to shine a light on their dirty laundry and hold the brand accountable for their mistakes.  A small groups of people can have a big impact (think of it like getting into bed with a mosquito!).

Nespresso has an initiative called the Positive Cup which has invested about 700,000 Swiss francs (about $800,000) in coffee farming, and it plans to spend another 2.5m CHF ($2.7m) in South Sudan. Their website expounds their desire to ‘restore, replenish and revive environmental and human resources.’ On coffee sourcing, the company seems to be an industry leader, training coffee farmers and paying premium prices.  However, journalists shone the spotlight on the single-serve coffee maker creation of a lot of unnecessary waste and challenge the company on being transparent about how many of its pods get recycled. The story illustrates the power and limitations of corporate sustainability programmes if the dots are not completely joined up across the business.


KFC – Buckets for the Cure

Susan G Komen is the name of a huge breast cancer awareness foundation that was set up in 1982 and it has spent $1.5 billion on education, advocacy, healthy services and support programmes.  They have done a great deal of good over more than 30 years.  Then they joined with KFC to create the ‘buckets for the cure’ campaign, which had pink buckets full of fried chicken.  KFC had guaranteed a minimum donation of $1 million to Susan G Komen, and the goal was to raise a massive $8.5 million for the charity.  However, people couldn’t ignore the fact that high-fat fast foods lead to obesity, and obesity is a known risk factor for all cancers, not just breast cancer. It was criticised by Breast Cancer Action (BCA) which is the watch dog for breast cancer charities. Journalists went onto the official website at the time and found that “customer purchases of KFC buckets will not directly increase contribution” which increased the skepticism that this was just a way to improve their brand and drive up sales of their products.

Beyonce launched her ‘Ivy Park’ collaboration with TopShop in May 2016.  They aimed the ‘attention spotlight’ on the idea that this was a brand that empowered and celebrated women exercising outdoors.  However, this was hijacked with reports that the women who actually made the clothes were working in Sri Lanka for just 64 cents an hour, living in cramped conditions without the ability to form a union and stand up for themselves. Even big celebrities cannot control our attention. 

Ivy Park Advertising


Ivy Park Illustration Vini.o

How much can bad attention cost? It is hard to put a figure on it, but one big example was from United Airlines.  Musician, David Carroll witnessed United Airlines baggage handlers manhandling his $3,500 guitar.  He tried, in vain, for nine months to get the claim processed and the firm’s response was a solid and consistent ‘no’, even when he asked for $1,200 in airline vouchers to cover the cost of repairing it.  So David Carroll wrote a song, ‘United Break Guitars’.  It was a runaway hit with more than 16 million views and David did over 200 interviews during the following months. United Airlines’ stocks fell by 10% in the three to four weeks following the video’s release equating to a massive $180 million off the balance sheet. In the past, an airline could brush an unhappy customer out of the spotlight, but in the age of social media, they don’t have the same control.

One brand that practices what they preach is Patagonia.  They brought out their famous ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ print ad on Black Friday 2011 where they told customers not to buy a new jacket.  This year, they donated 100% of sales to grassroots environmental groups on Black Friday.  That’s 100% of SALES, not 10% of profits like other brands might offer.  They have a 45-person repair staff who mend the clothes for customers (30,000 items per year) and they celebrate their customers who have worn, repaired and re-worn their clothes.  When you buy individual products online, you’ll see ‘The Footprint Chronicles’ of where their fabrics and clothes are made. And yet, they see themselves at the beginning of the journey with much work still to do. They invite others to join them and share the story; share the control of the attention spotlight.

Wanting to get attention is natural for all of us.  Businesses in particular must be respectful of how attention works and how it is different – less controllable and more shared – in this digital era.  We are not going back to the way it was, if anything we are speeding forward at an increasingly rapid rate. Several global studies show that younger people are looking for more evidence of social responsibility in brands and it is becoming a factor in their purchasing decisions.

Brands need to make their sustainability strategy solid and a top priority throughout the business, not just in one little corner that they’d like to shine a spotlight on.

Expect sustainability to get more attention. Be ready.

Posted by Colette Henry

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