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Battery-makers seek an emotional connection

The images are lush and inviting, colourful pictures and videos of the American West - of the Grand Canyon, of Yosemite National Park, of the Badlands, of Joshua Tree National Park. On a computer at full screen, they can lull viewers into a feeling of calm and refreshed optimism, of deep respect for nature and the environment.

In fact, the images are brought to you by a company that manufactures what the Canadian government has declared might be a threat to the environment and public health: disposable batteries.

After 21 years, the Energizer battery brand is disposing of its own valuable energy source, the famous bunny-powered tagline "Keep Going." In its place, this month it is rolling out a new banner, or marketing platform, that it hopes will appeal to consumers who are increasingly looking to brands to help them change the world: "Now That's Positive Energy." The company believes the new positioning, which in the U.S. includes a charitable program supporting the national parks system, will help it appeal to consumers through cause marketing efforts that include tree-planting and science education programs.

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But it's not the only battery-maker reaching for an unlikely emotional connection: Energizer's chief competition, Duracell, is in the midst of a program celebrating what it calls "the unsung heroes in our communities," donating up to 200,000 batteries to volunteer firefighting services across Canada.

And as both confront the hard reality of being branded commodities in a tough economy, where consumers are looking warily at premium-priced brands, the companies are hoping that a better bottom line can be found by helping to create a better world.

"It's bringing a real spirit of positive energy to the world at a time when we need it, coming out of a global recession, and there's a real need for optimism," suggested Kent Hatton, the brand group director of Energizer Canada, based in Mississauga, Ont. "We believe that everyone has the power to make a positive impact on the world around them." The battery company is trying to position itself as being in the sweet spot between performance and responsibility: A new TV commercial touts its new lithium battery, which it claims lasts up to eight times longer in digital cameras than its regular alkaline cell, thus creating significantly less landfill waste.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Hatton appeared at Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works to announce a $100,000 fundraising initiative for the ecological non-profit organization, with a backdrop of local public school students in attendance for the Kids World of Energy Festival. The Energizer program, housed at, is calling on Canadians to "do something little, help something big," such as taking shorter showers, planting a tree, recycling and turning off lights.

"All of that is what we mean by spreading the positive energy, and it's all part of this infectious campaign that ties very nicely to where consumers are going in terms of social media," Mr. Hatton said.

Many pledges currently on the website have a loose interpretation of the better-world goal: While some people say they'll start collecting rainwater in barrels, or picking up garbage, others are pledging to sing songs with their family or share their umbrella with a stranger.

All of which is fine with Energizer. "Consumers use portable power for both rational reasons - they're looking for quality, features and benefits - and the emotional side of the category," Mr. Hatton noted. "We want to appeal to that. There's definitely a trend toward more social responsibility and brand reputation and environmental stewardship of products."

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Roughly 700 million disposable batteries are sold in Canada each year. In 2009, Environment Canada estimated that only five per cent of batteries sold in Ontario were recycled, with much lower reclamation rates in other provinces, where similar programs do not exist. And while most batteries no longer contain mercury, their metal composition is still best kept out of landfills.

But even without the environmental overhang, portable battery manufacturers are facing some heavy headwinds, as consumers turn to electronic toys more often powered by built-in rechargeable power supplies. (Indeed, in Energizer's 10-K filing with the U.S. SEC last year, the company acknowledged the likelihood of being negatively affected "by declines in the proliferation or consumption of primary battery-powered devices.") In branding what are effectively commodities, both companies "have done a fantastic job," says Alfred DuPuy, the managing director of Interbrand Canada. Still, he notes, last year Duracell fell off the brand consultancy's list of Top 100 Global Brands for the first time since 2001, in part because of consumers' move to generic brands and value brands such as Rayovac. "A brand position in a commodity category may be tougher and tougher to maintain."

Which may be one reason Energizer is shifting its slogan now, allowing the company to move into other areas of energy supply as it sees fit.

Over at Procter & Gamble, the Duracell brand is also reaching for an emotional connection with consumers. It is calling on Canadians to " Power Those Who Protect Us" by buying large packs of disposable batteries: A purchase of 20 will lead to a donation of two batteries to one of the more than 3,000 volunteer fire-fighting services across Canada.

"It's just trying to tap into the natural trust that people have in fire safety," says Victoria Maybee, a Procter & Gamble spokesperson, "and also the desire for people to contribute back to their community in a way that's easy. It's one thing to canvass people for donations, but it's another to say, 'If you purchase our product - which you'll likely purchase anyway - you can contribute to this wonderful cause, which goes back to the community.' It's just an easy way for consumers to feel good about their purchase, and to make that contribution."

Both Energizer and Duracell capitalize on the fire safety cause each spring and fall, with reminders for people to change the batteries in their household smoke detectors at the same time as they change their clocks. Ms. Maybee said the decision to build a large-scale cause marketing program around the issue came in part from observing the consumer cheer that greeted its P&G cousin, Dawn dishwashing liquid, after oil spills like BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster last year.

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"The reason Dawn Wildlife was so successful," she said, "is because the inherent message, or benefit of the cause we're supporting, ties in very naturally to our brand's message."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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