Can Branding Save Your Corporate Soul?

April 9, 2008

Mention the brand Dow Chemical and the associations might conjure up some of the worst industrial nightmares against humanity: Napalm, Agent Orange, Dioxin. But branding and its avatar, advertising, can be the most transformative of communications, transmuting negative perceptions into shiny new visions of a corporation.

Since June, 2006, Dow Chemical has been running its "The Human Element" advertising campaign to shine a brighter, more flattering light on the company’s altruistic goals for the next decade.  The campaign, created by Draftfcb, features glorious images of nature’s majesty and a global gallery of humanity. What ties it together is the use of a fictional Periodic table of Elements, which includes a new element, Dow’s Human element,” labeled "Hu" with the number 8 in the box, (actually the number of Oxygen on the real Periodic table).

The copy is some of the best corporate image advertising I’ve heard in years. It is as if Dow Chemical, through the alchemy of language, was attempting to transform itself into a corporation more in touch with its humanity. So the gently voiced narration contains language that alludes to the spirit of 19th Century American Transcendentalism. Organic chemistry takes on the form of classical anthropomorphism. And some of the fundamental beliefs of Buddhist thinking, especially the idea of Kenshō, the Japanese concept for enlightened experiences, find their way into the copy. The script juxtaposes spiritual language with the chemical industry to move people’s perceptions of Dow to a higher plane. Which is what appears to have happened as one viewer recently blogged she was “moved to feel the gravity” of the message.

According to Patti Temple Rocks, Dow vice president of global communications and reputation, it’s more than an ad campaign…it’s a statement to the world… and, more importantly, to ourselves about the future direction of our business.” She sees the campaign as “a calling card” to inform people around the world that the company intends to make it a priority “to advance innovation and focus the people and resources of Dow on solving human problems.”

So is this a promise of Dow’s reformed, newly enlightened behavior? Has one of the world’s major chemical companies, as they say in their script, seen the light in a “flash of a synapse,” and “the dazzling brilliance of knowledge” that they must take responsibility for the past and look to their humanity for the future?

If Dow is using the campaign to demonstrate its Buddha-like transformation into a company that recognizes the value of humanity, that it is pledging itself to work towards reducing suffering and solving human problems, then perhaps branding truly can save a corporation’s soul. Or at least offer a prayer.

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