FLINT, Mich. — It’s the kind of “free” publicity that money can’t buy.
With the world’s attention riveted on the spectacle of this beleaguered city in America’s heartland coping with the discovery that its drinking water has contained poison for almost two years, Cher surfaced with a donation of 181,440 17-ounce bottles of Icelandic Glacial water.
On Wednesday, the pop star was on MSNBC extolling the company’s generosity as the first trucks of the largely obscure brand began off-loading at the unmarked warehouse commandeered by the Michigan State Police to manage supplies. Their alliance ensured blurbs on thousands of news and celebrity gossip sites and countless mentions and images of the product posted on social media.
“I think with the amount of press we’ve received just getting the brand out there, people will become more aware and familiar with the brand,” said Martine DePreez, an Icelandic Glacial spokeswoman who said the company covered the shipping expenses and split the $287,000 cost of the water with Cher. “We just wanted to do everything possible to get clean, fresh water over there.”
The next day, the water filtration company PUR told The Washington Post that it would be shipping 10,000 faucet-mounted water purifiers and 40,000 replacement cartridges to Flint, a donation the company said is worth $1 million. Another filtration company, ZeroWater, began a campaign in which it vowed to match donations of its products bought by the public through a special section for Flint on the company’s website.
Indeed, every crisis has its silver lining for someone. For all of the entities taking a reputational drubbing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), the Environmental Protection Agency, the already depopulating and perpetually depressed city of Flint — others are riding a wave of goodwill that could linger in the marketplace long afterward.
“If it’s a strong, credible brand and they’re doing something that’s responsible and they’re not overmarketing or overhyping it, it will help them from the social responsibility angle that you’re helping people out,” said Rajeev Batra, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan. It’s no different, he said, than Walmart’s donations of household goods or the mobile laundry facility that Tide deploys after natural disasters.
PUR, ZeroWater and their rival Brita all popped up first in October with donations of their products to Flint that were touted in news releases. At that time, the state was waking up to the realization that a switch in Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River had corroded pipes and since April 2014 had allowed lead contamination in the city’s drinking water. It was believed that a switch back to the lake water would resolve the problem, but the pipes had been so damaged that they continued to leech lead that might have exposed the city’s 100,000 residents to irreversible physical damage.
As it became clear over the past two weeks that the city and state would lack the ability to provide lead-free water — possibly for months — the state spent millions of dollars buying and taking donations of mostly generic bottled water as well as water filters. The Michigan State Police have overseen the distribution, which in this low-income city where many residents can’t afford cars has meant sending volunteers as well as deployees from the Michigan National Guard to visit all 30,000 residences — twice — to bring purifiers, replacement cartridges and cases of bottled water.
While the primary aim, the companies say, is to provide immediate relief for Flint, another motive is to show the broader public why using water filtration systems or bottled water is smart. Even if municipal water anywhere is safe when it leaves the treatment plants, they say, the Flint disaster has shown that it can be contaminated in transit and even through the pipes in one’s home.
“What’s happening in Flint, a lot of people think that it can never happen in their own community, but there’s no way for people to know what’s in their water,” said Deb Mudway, vice president of marketing for Kaz, the division of Marlborough, Mass.-based Helen of Troy that owns the PUR brand. “There’s a peace of mind element to this, too. The key is, we all can benefit as consumers by taking control of what comes into our homes. The journey of the water can affect the quality of the water.”
Jumping into the spotlight in these moments can also tarnish a brand.
Brita, whose spokesman did not reply to requests for comment, has not publicized any donations this month. That may be because the Clorox subsidiary was burned by negative media coverage the last time around when it emerged that only the company’s faucet-mounted filtration system removed lead from water. The more commonly used Brita product, the white pitchers, don’t, but that distinction was lost on some in Flint who bought the pitchers. A video of a Flint resident being told by Brita customer service via phone that the product does not remove lead racked up nearly 40,000 views on Facebook and aired on local TV newscasts.
“If it is perceived as not being an effective solution to that problem and people come to associate it in their minds that way, that’s a dangerous way getting involved in this situation can backfire for a brand,” said Jeff Stoltman, a marketing professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The accelerated way in which that can veer off course and come back to bite you is unique to where we find ourselves right now in this world of social media that we live in.”
Stoltman and Batra both said that although Brita is an established brand with an obvious and logical role in a situation such as this, a company such as ZeroWater comes across as over-eager. The less-known Bensalem, Pa.-based company bought promoted tweets on Twitter urging people to “Stand With Flint, MI Today,” with an image of the hand of a white woman giving a glass of water to a pair of small black hands. That felt to him to be far too exploitative of the fact that medical experts have said that Flint’s children, who are predominantly African American, are at the greatest risk of brain damage from possible lead exposure.
ZeroWater chief executive Doug Kellam disagrees. His product is different from the others — it is a pitcher filtration system certified to remove lead — and he sees the Flint crisis as a way to help both those who are affected and his company.
“It’s not like we’re going to make money on this right now,” Kellam said, “but in most cases if you do the right thing, in the end it’ll probably do you some good.”
Friess is a freelance writer in Michigan.