Activism for profit?

Cindy Gallop's new business venture seeks to bring together business and change for good.

Most of us are suspicious of any claim to the fusion of business with activism.

Historically, companies' interest in the social good has extended only so far as their PR departments deem necessary -- think Ronald McDonald House Charities or the more recent phenomenon of greenwashing, whereby corporate environmental offenders like TXU market questionable claims about their purportedly "green" initiatives. In any event, public interest projects have always functioned as a corollary to companies' "real" work.

But seasoned advertising whiz Cindy Gallop hopes to change all that with her latest venture, IfWeRanTheWorld.com- a for-profit enterprise which, she tells me, enables companies "to make money because they do good".

UK-born Gallop, a lauded TED.com speaker and former chairman of creative advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty, based her new project on the premise that "good intentions- of individuals and of corporations- are the single most untapped resource in the world", she says. And with denim giant Levis recently signing on as a corporate member, Gallop has lofty ambitions for the site; In fact, she declares, she intends it to transform the faces of advertising and business forever.

The project adopts a social media structure that invites users, upon entering the site, to summarise their vision for changing the world. The site then instantly displays a range of suggested "action platforms"- similar visions already instigated by other users- which are conveniently broken down into "micro-actions"- 132-character propositions reminiscent of Tweets- that would assist this vision. The user can elect to take on a micro-action and complete one, or alternatively can plug in his or her own micro-action and distribute it to other like-minded users for completion.

Thus, a user who submits a desire to "increase awareness of domestic violence" will be immediately presented with a range of related, existing user projects ("work with men and boys to end violence against women and girls"). The user can then click into one of those projects and view suggested micro-action tasks ("ask your city or town council to proclaim a White Ribbon Campaign day"). Once completed, each task appears on the user's profile, along with clickable information about the networks the user has been working on it with.

While the site's commercial viability may not be immediately clear, the magic lies in its ability to match corporations with causes- and, therefore, selected portions of the public. After paying an annual participation fee, companies can determine the action platforms supported by its target demographic, and can work with the site to craft action programs aimed specifically at these users. Companies may, for example, offer product giveaways as task completion incentives, thus ensuring product placement amongst its target market.

Corporate member Levi's has opted to spearhead two projects on the site aimed at revitalizing the crumbling manufacturing town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. These action platforms- focused on restoring the town's library and urban farms- at once confirm to other users the company's genuine, regular involvement in redevelopment projects - and harness a brilliant marketing opportunity, replete as they are with images of "real folks" gardening in Levi's jeans and links to their broader We Are All Workers campaign on Youtube.

In another context, these getting-back-to-our-roots images of "a new generation of real American workers... rolling up their sleeves to make real change happen" may come off as artificial and twee. Ultimately, however, the ability of users to view real-time progress on the company's fundraising tasks and other actions legitimises the campaign by validating that these are real workers and this is real change.

The effectiveness of this variety of brand promotion is no accident. In designing her new venture, Gallop has specifically employed a concept called "action branding" as a business tool. Action branding conceptualises brands as the sum of their actions, she tells me, and allows companies to demonstrate and thus authenticate the character and values they claim to have. In other words, by engaging with socially-minded actions on IfWeRanTheWorld.com, she explains, companies can interact with individuals in a transparent way and thus create their brand by doing- rather than merely by saying, as in traditional PR.

By instigating its interactive, trackable town redevelopment initiatives on the site, then, Levi's is telling its target demographic not to just take the company's word for what it stands for. Rather, Levi's is saying "I am my actions- and my actions are good, grounded, and 'American'."

It's an anti-greenwashing, or indeed anti-advertising advertising plan- and therein lies the key to its potential success.

While Gallop says it has received "a lot of positive responses, both from individuals and corporate members", the project is barely past the teething stage- so it's too early to tell whether IfWeRanTheWorld.com will grow to represent "the business and marketing platform of the future" as Gallop hopes. What is clear, however, is that Gallop's vision is as positive as it is compelling- doing business through change for good is not a bad way to run the world, after all.