Messaging that does no good, is no good. The argument for alinging incentives instead of telling white lies.

We have all seen the little signs in our hotel rooms – “Save the Planet – Reuse Your Towels,” or something to that effect (similar messages are delivered regarding making of the bed linens).  And, if you are a savvy business traveler you immediately see through the sustainability rouse to what this is really about – the bottom line.  Which is not to say that is bad.  Heck, if they can save money and we can feel good about doing a good deed for the environment maybe it’s a win-win.

The problem, of course, is that the little white lie that we can all see easily through is not completely harmless.  At it’s heart, we know that the message is a bit dishonest.  And, as Jonathan Salem Baskin eloquently spoke to us about at Brand ManageCamp 2012, honesty from brands today is more important than it ever has been before.  According to Jonathan’s research, brand honesty is even profitable!

While the hotel towels/linens farce is the most easily recognizable example of these white lies told by businesses to push a not-so-hidden monetary objective, these types of situations are creeping up more and more each day.

For quite a while, Sprint has been cajoling me to switch to paperless billing so as to help save the environment.  Of course, on the receipt page when I pay online they also urge me to print out a copy for my records… So, not only are they being mildly dishonest, they are also being hypocritical.

Just today, I received an email from American Express.  Their stance is that it would be safer for me to switch to paperless billing since it would prevent my sensitive information from being stolen while in transit via the mail.  I’m not sure the financially strapped US Postal Service would appreciate this argument.

Some businesses are more upfront about the money saving aspect of all this.  Costco informs via parking lot signs that its patrons returning the carts helps them keep prices low. True, I am sure, but we also know that competitive forces and their brand positioning (and their relentless pressure on manufacturers to compress their margins) ensure their prices will be lower than my grocery store.

I can’t help but wonder, then, if the correct path for most of these businesses perhaps should go a bit further.  Obviously, the hotels know how much money they can save by room when towels and/or linens don’t need to be washed.  Other businesses have, no doubt, carefully measured the savings they can achieve by eliminating 12 costly physical mailings to a customer for monthly bills.

So, instead of creating a thinly veiled message to customers that try to guilt us into ‘doing the right thing,’ why not invite us along for the real ride – give us a piece of the financial action?  Align our incentives.

For a hotel – maybe you could earn $2 off your room rate each day you bypass servicing of your room?  Keep a tag on your door that allows the housekeeping to just breeze on by and the hotel not only saves laundry costs (while saving the environment) but can also save on housekeeper costs.  This way, the messaging could remind me that not only would I show environmental sensitivity, but I can also participate in the financial savings.

Instead of trying to convince me that I’m saving trees by opting for electronic billing, why not offer me a $5 credit per year?

Or, even better, perhaps these businesses can provide more ‘value-added’ services that have higher perceived value to me than actual cost to them?  For example, a free newspaper or fountain soft drink at a hotel (which has $$ value to me, but costs them pennies).  Or, for Sprint, some bonus minutes or a free ringtone – again, achieving value with little to no cost.  American Express could offer some bonus Membership Rewards points (which likely will never be used)…

The reality is, while the current messaging strategies these businesses are utilizing may not create a great deal of harm (I am certainly not going to stop staying at a hotel because I can see through their little white towel lie), they also do no good.  And in this age of marketing, messages that do no good ARE no good.


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