Award-Winning Whirlpool Campaign Showed How Clean Clothes Can Dramatically Affect Students’ Success

DigitasLBi work earns Adweek’s top honor for creative innovation

In the fall of 2015, Whirlpool launched a pilot program in Fairfield, Calif., and St. Louis that put a whole new spin on the concept of wearables. We’re not talking about internet-connected garments. Rather, the technology powering “Care Counts” consisted of conventional washing machines and dryers, donated by the client to initially 17 schools. The goal: provide students with clean clothes in order to boost their confidence, reduce truancy, and increase kids’ desire to connect with their peers and teachers in classrooms every day.

Research suggests that students are 20 percent more likely to skip classes when they don’t have clean clothes. “We discovered stories of teachers doing laundry for disadvantaged students,” says Kristine Kobe, vp, account director at DigitasLBi, which helped develop the initiative. “We knew we could provide a solution that could have an immediate impact.”

By the end of the academic year—and 2,000 loads of laundry later—attendance showed a marked improvement, with more than 90 percent of the pilot program’s participating kids spending about six more days in class compared to 2014-15. Their grades improved, too, as did peer interactions and involvement in extracurricular programs.

Last fall, the initiative expanded into schools across Baltimore; Benton Harbor, Mich.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Nashville, Tenn. Launches for 2017 include Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

“Care Counts” cleaned up at Cannes, scoring a Grand Prix in Creative Data and a gold Lion in PR Data & Measurement Research. It also earned trophies at The One Show, D&AD and Effies. Now, the initiative wins Isaac Awards for Research Invention and Data Invention, both in the Best Practices category, along with the Gravity Award, Adweek’s top honor for creative innovation.

Experts give “Care Counts” high marks for its seamless representation of Whirlpool’s brand proposition and impact on an often-overlooked problem. “Many brands have figured out that consumers, especially younger ones, are more likely to be loyal to products that ‘give back’ in some way,” says Michael Solomon, a marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University. “They are falling over each other trying to hitch their stars to some cause that will check the box. Too often, these efforts, while laudable, miss the mark because they are not authentic.”

In contrast, “Care Counts” provides a model for how brands can leverage social marketing in a meaningful way because it “directly ties Whirlpool’s core competency to the cause-related deliverable,” Solomon says. “The company illustrates how an imaginative use of its core products results in measurable good.”

From an image-building standpoint, the program tallied almost 340 million earned media impressions and more than 12 million video views across Facebook and YouTube. All this attention yielded a nearly 220 percent increase in social sentiment and a palpable lift in purchase intent.

In a broader sense, the campaign and its attendant media coverage highlight “a social issue that more privileged parents might be completely unaware of,” says Tom Megginson, an industry blogger for Osocio and creative director at social-issues agency Acart Communications. This will hopefully drive public and private support beyond the program itself, he says.

“We originally set out to impact attendance rates. But what we saw was that the program impacted so much more,” notes Whirlpool senior brand manager Chelsey Lindstrom. “The power of these simple acts—cooking, cleaning and washing—are bigger than us all. When we all care, every day, we believe we can change the world.”

Check all of Adweek’s 2017 Project Isaac winners.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.