TOMS & International AID:
How a popular shoe company is infleuncing public opinion on product donations
“What’s it like going from TV News to the dark side?” a friend of mine teasingly asked me recently.
Over the past three years, I’ve gotten used to getting asked that question, especially from my friends still in the news business who find it interesting that I left the news industry a few years ago to work in Public Relations.
They wonder if I miss being on TV or the news bug.
I laugh when answering the question.
“It’s not as challenging as going from TV News to humanitarian aid!”
While I’m teasing, it is true that I found Public Relations actually an easier jump from news than transitioning to the humanitarian aid industry. Much of PR is actually strangely similar to reporting. I still work with reporters, do interviews on TV and tell stories. But going from TV News to humanitarian aid? Now, that’s a learning curve I hadn’t anticipated.
While talking with a small nonprofit recently, I was asked another version of the question.
What had I learned through the transition process?
“Humanitarian aid is complex. News is black/white!” I quickly answered.
While I have countless examples from my first few years working for an international Christian aid organization, most really end becoming long, complex explanations that would make your eyes gloss over. Like I said, humanitarian aid is complex! Most aren’t news stories that can be boiled down into a minute and a half or a quick soundbyte.
Yet, I was recently challenged to articulate a few of those challenges I’d encountered as I drafted an in-depth research paper for my first Masters course. The course was on Public Opinion and the factors or players that shape how/what we think about specific issues. We were asked to examine a company/organization of our choice and how it influences Public Opinion on a specific topic.
I chose TOMS Shoes, a for-profit company, started in 2007. The shoe company promotes a “One for One” business model where for every pair of shoes bought, TOMS gives a pair away to a child in an impoverished international community.
If you’d asked me three years ago my opinion on TOMS, my normally skeptical reporter brain wouldn’t have even thought to click ON. I would have just known that the shoes are popular and I see many of my friends wearing them. I’d also probably think it was pretty cool idea for a shoe company to voluntarily donate a pair to a child for free. It may have ended up as a feature story in our newscast and TOMS would have gotten some free publicity out of us just because they are “revolutionizing” the corporate world with their good hearted, business model.
While I still support TOMS and applaud their good intentions and ingenious business model, I’m actually more aware now that I should actually be asking questions and not making assumptions. My research paper dove into the reasons why and how Public Opinion is shaped by examining how TOMS has managed to top more than 10 Million in sales.
At this point, I’m sure many of you may be responding as I initially would have, and questioning, “What? Is there something wrong with giving shoes away?”
While I don’t feel it’s my role to even attempt to tell you whether TOMS business model is good or bad, I do believe that, in general, being informed is healthy and wise....in all areas of our life.
But being more informed means knowing that TOMS’ critics argue product donations can actually hurt local economies and take away from local vendors struggling to make a living. Being informed means knowing the controversy surrounding the international aid community giving product donations, in general, and the concern that perhaps prices are inflated and make overhead ratios appear lower than they should be. If you google the issue, you’ll see the list of concerns goes on and on.
Yet, most of my paper wasn’t even about the controversial pros/cons, but rather how TOMS has shaped public opinion and has made one of the more touchy issues in humanitarian aid suddenly cool and stylish. I examined two dependent factors TOMS requires to maintain a positive public opinion: 1)TOMS product, or shoes, are seen as stylish, trendy, comfortable, etc.
2) TOMS' aid work is perceived as helpful in impoverished communities
At this point, public opinion is definitely in TOMS’ favor as we can’t even open a celebrity magazine without seeing our favorite stars sporting the shoes. We even see the shoes sold on many of the shelves of our favorite stores. Plus, I’ve intentionally followed the media reports lately and admit that many are telling the TOMS story as I would have as a reporter. Most news reports don't inform of the controversy of giving product donations as international aid. Instead, I've even seen some TV Anchors telling viewers on their newscast that they themselves wear TOMS shoes and their kids do too! Obviously, public opinion toward their product or shoes is strong.
When it comes to public opinion of TOMS' aid work, the company has brilliantly relied on many of its partners to work through the more complex issues. For example, many of TOMS' partners are tasked with identifying which communities should be helped without harming the local economy. TOMS can deflect some of the controversy to their “expert” partners, many of which are nonprofits that have been doing humanitarian aid for years.
Again, I’m not saying whether TOMS "One for One" model is good or bad. That’s left for you to decide. I don’t own a pair yet, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t. My paper more focused on the fact that TOMS is influencing Public Opinion AND changing the perceptions of product donations as international aid. We'll likely start seeing more companies follow suit as long as public opinion stays in favor of TOMS' business model.
However, I was tasked with providing advice for TOMS in my research paper. I submitted a number of recommendations including collaborating more closely with partners on external messaging of the "One for One" model, being more outspoken on issues that critics address and continuing to evolve their product line (as they are doing).
Yet, my number one recommendation was to invest in Brand Reporting. "Brand reporting" has become a more popular term in the PR industry in the last few years, but basically it's hiring reporters or multi-media journalists who can report the stories your company or organization wants told without going through traditional media outlets. The concept has become more widespread especially as new media tools have started tearing down the walls between traditional and new media, and we suddenly find ourselves getting our news or information from a variety of platforms. Plus, many traditional news outlets can't afford to invest in sending a reporter to Africa or Asia to report on TOMS' shoes being delivered. Yet, the company does regular shoe distributions, and there would be numerous stories TOMS could tell in real-time using basic tools. Of course, hiring a Brand Reporter with a traditional media background is extremely helpful because you not only get an experienced journalist working with your company, but you get someone who can really boil your company's stories down to relevant Content. Hiring a multi-media brand reporter means finding someone who understands how to use a variety of tools to gather news while integrating strategies to deliver messages through both traditional and new media outlets where your audiences get their information.
As for this blog, I hoped to raise the issue that humanitarian aid is much more complex than I ever gave it credit, and perhaps you did too. Of course, I’m still a fan of the humanitarian aid community! They are our heroes and deserve our support. But I’d also argue that we can’t assume issues are black and white. Is TOMS doing more harm than good? Or more good than harm? I doubt any TV reporter will be able to provide a real, contextual answer in a minute news package. Yet, it is an opportunity for companies and organizations like TOMS to tell the stories the way they want them told.
Am I glad I left the news industry for PR...and humanitarian aid? You bet! The opportunities are endless and today require creative storytellers and shrewd journalists more than ever. So don't look for me on your nightly news anymore. Instead, I would imagine you'll likely see me pop up on your mobile phone as you flip through your latest Facebook, Youtube or Twitter posts your friends are sharing. That's what I call relating to the public or ....PR!