Reinvention, Part II

This is the seventh in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.

"There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile" is a nursery rhyme but could well be the leitmotif of the last several operatic years in America. Now the question is: As millions of regular Americans set about reinventing themselves and refocusing on what will be their second, or fifth, acts, will they let high-profile corporations and celebrities gone astray do the same? Is redemption fever rising for brands and their spokespeople who have disappointed public expectations, even defrauded public trust?

I think it is. Even though today Americans feel more resentful and angrier than at arguably any time in our history since the Civil War, the ability for brands to cool the orneriness and give themselves second chances with the public will depend on what notes these errant companies and their warts-and-all spokespeople strike. For even though fire can be destructive, it is often regenerative too, stripping the understory and leaving it ripe for new growth, after leveling the tallest trees flat.

It's highly unlikely, for example, that anybody is ready to pardon Bernie Madoff, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence in North Carolina for his $65 billion Ponzi scheme, but Madoff hasn't asked anybody's forgiveness, either. Does it bear asking what would happen if he did?

An auction of Madoff family belongings held at New York's Sheraton Hotel and Towers in November arguably displayed Americans' fascination with the abyss -- but the rubbernecker-bidders were also doing some good. The $2 million they paid for such things as Madoff's New York Mets baseball jacket (with his name on the back), 17 Rolexes and dog bowl redound to (albeit minutely, in percentage terms) the victims of the fraud.

It's the American way, after all, to stay glued to stories of the fall, from Marilyn Monroe to Michael Jackson to the fictional Tony Soprano, whose run in Americans' Sunday night living rooms garnered James Gandolfini three Emmys and eventually $1 million per show. Compared with people in other countries, Americans are especially lenient toward bankruptcy, which, despite double-digit growth in 2010, raised advice from financial professionals that these days bankruptcy is not only not a road to hell, but also, for many, the best route out of it.

Okay, we have to pause here to take stock that one of the reasons for the supersize anger against superstar endorsers--Tiger Woods and his loss of $22 million in celebrity endorsements in 2010, which took him from $92 million to $70 million--has found many slack-jawed about the discrepancies. But even Woods' winter-of-discontented-sponsors fueled by his infidelity found one fan pardoning him on a New York Times comment thread: "Sometimes I feel you still need your Dad, I can relate...OK you binged.... In my opinion you are a great man that needs a second chance. Don't Quit!!"

Hear that? In 2011, Americans, despite the bitter aftertastes of the recession, will be offering redos to possibly even the most egregious corporate and celebrity wrongdoers. Even Lindsay Lohan got some kudos earlier this year when, after her release from jail, she comically appeared at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards with her skewerer, Chelsea Handler. The fictive role reversal saw Lohan tough-loving Handler, asking, "Do you think anyone wants to work with a drunk? Take it from me, they don't." The skit ended with Handler's calling Lohan "Freckles." Clearly, Americans have a soft spot for those who've fallen low, and we even root hard for them not to become Anna Nicole Smiths. So for spokespeople playing on their experience vintage to regain trust, their "we'll make good" declamations had better feel -- and be -- real. As Lohan has learned, recycling learned experience is a variant on rehab: Come out wiser, and win hearts.

As for companies themselves winning hearts, corporate social responsibility has been all over the international news recently. On the opening day of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, the host, joined with multinational CEOs and nonprofits to discuss accelerating the pace of a global low-carbon economy. CEOs from Coca-Cola Co., Dow Chemical Co. and FEMSA were there, and they and peers from PepsiCo, Unilever and Wal-Mart Stores, among 400 corporations, announced that they would stop using hydrofluorocarbons in new equipment by 2015, indicating the mission-driven marketing in store for multinational corporations reinventing their responses to polluting.

This brings us to BP and, yes, the egregious "Toxic Tony" Hayward, whose "I would like my life back" response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill catastrophe cost him his CEO job and made the petroleum behemoth look anything but responsible. I criticized not only BP's oil spill response but also Hayward's self-inflicted branding debacle back in June. But half a year later, even though the company's rehabilitation task remains steep, the oil spill compensation fund has paid out $2 billion in three months. It could actually be that a rebooted BP will be the learner in this equation, becoming wiser and more responsible. Though one might still wonder how much they have learned, based on their challenge just last week that the oil spill estimates may have been overstated by 50 percent, prompting William Reilly, co-chairman of the presidential oil spill commission to say, "Wow."

So maybe BP isn't the best example yet, but clearly businesses that embrace principles of social entrepreneurship -- discovering how to "unstick" society when it has gotten stuck, by changing the system -- are having widespread impact in making the new buzzphrase "social value" the litmus test for success for not only social entrepreneurs but profit-oriented businesses, too.

Traditional businesses might even see that a hybrid of profit and social values can have huge reinvention benefits, modeled possibly on innovators in developing countries -- such as Hindustan Unilever, which has used microfinance principles to nurture a sales force in some of the poorest parts of India. No question about it: More and more, social mission redounds to image. Especially when reinventions need wings for their second chances to get off the ground.

"Separated at Worth"