A Sweeter Alternative: Ending the Import Tariff on Sugarcane Ethanol
"The extraordinary team at Stratacomm understands the power of a good story. You were able to get all the information we fed you and transform it all into powerful messages. Every single piece you have created for us has been nothing less than remarkable. Thank you for your hard work, your counsel, and for all the thought and effort you put behind everything you created for us. It was a privilege and an honor to work with you."
– Leticia Phillips, North American Representative, Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association
A cost-prohibitive tariff blocked Brazil from sharing sugarcane ethanol in the United States for more than 30 years. With the import tax on ethanol slated to expire again after being extended consistently since 1980, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association enlisted Stratacomm to lead an aggressive advocacy program that would educate Americans about the many benefits of this unfamiliar renewable fuel and persuade lawmakers to end the unfair tariff. The two-year Sweeter Alternative campaign built significant grassroots support, generated widespread positive media coverage, and helped influence a bipartisan 73-27 vote in the U.S. Senate that sealed the tariff’s fate. The trade barrier expired on December 31, 2011.
Our team began by commissioning public opinion research that yielded three benefits: messaging, audience targeting, and confidence that the campaign was winnable. We also engaged the leading agricultural economists at Iowa State University whose research found that Americans would actually benefit from ending the tax credit and trade protection.
Armed with this information, Stratacomm developed and continually refined a robust communications plan with a singular objective – to persuade lawmakers to end the ethanol import tariff as soon as possible. A day-long brainstorming session with UNICA in February 2010 helped solidify our strategy and identify many of the campaign’s tactics, including our overall theme that sugarcane ethanol is a “Sweeter Alternative.”
-Educate policymakers, media and key opinion leaders
-Mobilize grassroots advocates
-Position UNICA as a trusted source for credible information and insight
-Members of Congress
Throughout 2010 and 2011, Stratacomm looked for every relevant opportunity to communicate UNICA’s messages through a comprehensive suite of paid, earned, shared and owned media channels. Major elements of the program included the following:
Launching the campaign. We unveiled UNICA’s new website (www.SweeterAlternative.com), blog and print advertisement – with a call to action that “it’s time to raise a little cane” – on the same day a corn-ethanol group debuted its $2.5 million TV ad campaign. The timing and aggressive media outreach generated extensive coverage and rightly positioned UNICA as the scrappy underdog.
Enlisting unlikely allies. We coordinated closely with a coalition of reform-minded allies that included environmental groups, food producers, agricultural interests, anti-hunger advocates, taxpayer organizations and free-market proponents. The team orchestrated wide-spread media coverage for the new Iowa State study and made the counterintuitive findings from these corn-state researchers a centerpiece of the campaign.
Building grassroots support. Stratacomm worked with Change.org, a progressive platform with more than a million members, to deploy a petition promoting the superior environmental performance of sugarcane ethanol and collect contact information for thousands of advocates on an opt-in basis. Through regular communication, our team created a sense of urgency that inspired repeat visits to the campaign’s advocacy portal and additional followers on Facebook and Twitter.
Making it easy to get involved. Stratacomm optimized online interactions at every stage. Communications began with a compelling and easy-to-find call to action so recipients knew immediately why and how they should act. Landing pages were designed to quickly orient the user with an obvious path toward the desired response. We offered a range of options to lend support, from quick and easy (following our social media activity) to more involved (contacting Congress directly).
Maintaining a War Room. Through constant news and social media monitoring plus close coordination with our lobbying partners, the team stayed one step ahead of most legislative developments and rapidly responded to the unforeseen. This real-time intelligence allowed us to correct misperceptions and misinformation quickly, but more importantly, to capitalize on new opportunities.
Keeping it fun. From the conversational and engaging tone of our blog to fuel discount events before certain Indy car races that ran on sugarcane ethanol to throwing World Cup watch parties at a popular DC spot during Brazil games, Stratacomm also kept it light to remind Americans that “cane in the tank means money in the bank.”
Promoting fresh and integrated angles. Stratacomm developed more than 70 blog posts that served as the intellectual and emotional heartbeat of the two-year campaign. We kept relevant traditional and online media updated with the latest information and legislative insight. A brief animated video summarizing the issue augmented our written communications and lent visual appeal. When newspaper editorials supporting UNICA’s position reached critical mass, we developed an online map to track the coverage and a print ad excerpting the best quotations from top publications.
Stratacomm and UNICA accomplished their singular objective. An overwhelming bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate voted 73 to 27 to end the import tax immediately in June 2011. The House of Representatives never acted on the companion legislation, but the Senate vote sealed the tariff’s fate. For the first time in 30 years, the ethanol import tax expired without extension on December 31, 2011. The Sweeter Alternative advocacy campaign helped make tariff elimination possible, and each of our strategies yielded significant, positive results:
- Educate policymakers, media and key opinion leaders. Results include: and others from more than 40 states; nearly 75 supportive op-eds including 15 by-lined by our clients.
- Mobilize grassroots advocates. Results include: 115,000 emails and letters sent to federal lawmakers; more than 26,000 signatures on a petition calling for an end to the ethanol tariff and subsidies; 26,000 new contacts added to UNICA’s grassroots database; 1,235 letters to the editor submitted through SweeterAlternative.com; and 1,200 Facebook fans and nearly 1,100 followers on Twitter built from scratch.
- Position UNICA as a trusted source. Results include: more than 165 news stories quoting UNICA spokespeople reached an estimated audience of 75 million; the new website established itself as a highly trafficked, valuable resource for influencing members of Congress and shaping the debate with average monthly traffic during the campaign’s peak (May 1, 2010 – November 30, 2010) hitting 10,127 visits per month; average pages viewed reached 24,535; visitors stayed more than two minutes per visit; and YouTube videos on the Sweeter Alternative channel were viewed more than 20,000 times.