By now, you've probably seen Philip Morris' most recent television commercial explaining how the tobacco giant has made great strides to comply with the tobacco settlement.
One at a time, the announcer ticks off areas in which Philip Morris has taken action: youth smoking prevention, revamped cigarette marketing practices, health issues for smokers.
As proof, viewers are invited to obtain a free copy of the tobacco settlement by calling a toll-free phone number. Philip Morris' message: "We've changed our image."
A quick visit to the company's Web site (www.philipmorris.com) reveals the same thing. There you will discover how the company wants to be viewed -- as "makers of the world's finest consumer products."
Toward that goal, the company's corporate activities are highlighted and its new corporate message is relayed: "We are committed to acting responsibly as a company and to making a difference in the communities where we live and work." That's followed by the comment, "Working to make a difference. The people of Philip Morris."
Certainly, in this age of greater corporate responsibility -- and considering the public's view of Big Tobacco -- it's the right message for Philip Morris to project. But think back a few years. Remember those Big Tobacco execs standing before Congress? That image is still ingrained in many people's minds: Seemingly smug tobacco execs asserting their beliefs that cigarettes had no connection whatsoever to cancer, addiction or lung disease.
Such is the way of image campaigns. They're designed to convince the public that any controversial behavior in the past remains in the past and that the business has embarked on a new behavior pattern.
Consider another recent case -- that of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford.
There's been a lot of finger pointing going back and forth between the two companies as to which is at fault for those injuries and deaths. Even during the Congressional Committee hearings, neither side stood up and said, "It's my fault."
Image is one reason why.
Image is also the reason why, shortly after Bridgestone/Firestone's August recall announcement, that Ford CEO Jacques Nasser took to the airwaves to assure Ford customers that the automotive giant was going to do all it could to rectify the problem quickly. He wanted to maintain Ford's positive public image at all costs.
As you might imagine, image campaigns are some of the most difficult and comprehensive efforts any business owner undertakes. You could spend years building up a positive image, only to have it wiped away in a heartbeat because of one bad event.
When laying out an image campaign for your company, there is one main issue that must be addressed: How do you want the public to see you? As an advocate, champion of the people, do-gooder or corporate citizen?
Once you answer that question, however, there's another issue to consider: Does a new image actually change the company's mission, its goals or even its product line?
The answer must be yes, or else the change is only on the surface. And if the change isn't more than skin deep, one day, in the not-so-distant future, the past could rear its ugly head again.
When that happens, an image campaign won't do much at all. Dustin Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org)is editor of SBN.