by Joel Walsh, AP Writer
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — BP's brand may be tarnished with each week that oil spills into the Gulf of Mexico.
But a brand manufactured in Kansas City, Kan., is enjoying the kind of publicity that can't be bought or planned.
Just about any article or newscast about wildlife coated with oil in the gulf region mentions Dawn — the only detergent recommended for cleaning the hundreds of afflicted pelicans, gulls and gannets.
"It's kind of something that fell into our laps," said Susan Baba, a spokeswoman for the dishwashing liquid.
Marketing experts agree that it's hard to beat the product placement that Dawn has achieved.
"They're getting great publicity," said Larry Gresham, a marketing professor from Texas A&M University. "I don't see anything but an upside for Dawn on this."
A 2003 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called Dawn "the only bird-cleaning agent that is recommended because it removes oil from feathers; is non-toxic; and does not leave a residue. Other methods or products are not recommended for use or testing during an oil spill."
Indeed, the International Bird Rescue Research Center began using Dawn in the late 1970s because it was economical and did not irritate a live bird's skin like other cleaners did.
The California nonprofit used the dishwashing liquid to treat wildlife in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound and to clean roughly 20,000 African penguins when the MV Treasure tanker sank in 2000 off the coast of South Africa.
The organization, one of two certified in the gulf spill to rehab oil-affected animals, said Dawn is being used to clean the nearly 500 birds collected alive since the cleanup effort began.
Parent company Procter & Gamble has donated at least 7,000 bottles of Dawn from the Kansas City, Kan., plant to rehabilitation centers in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.
The plant, which opened in 1905, employs more than 300 workers.
So what's the secret ingredient in Dawn? Good luck getting an answer.
Baba would not say what if anything makes Dawn ideal for cleaning animals covered with oil, only that "the product was designed with a specific surfactant ratio that allows it to quickly get the oil and grease and tough food off of pots and pans while still being mild on the hands."
A surfactant helps oil and water mix for quick removal.
For birds, oil exposure poses several risks. By matting a bird's feathers, oil causes a bird to lose buoyancy and insulation, both of which can be life-threatening.
Because an affected bird will constantly preen its feathers, experts say it also is in danger of ingesting the oil, forgetting to eat or failing to avoid predators.
When an affected bird is taken to a rehabilitation center, its health has to be stabilized before it is ready to withstand the stress of a cleaning.
The bird is then washed up to 15 times with a solution of one part Dawn dishwashing liquid and 99 parts warm water. It is rinsed thoroughly, allowed to dry and evaluated by veterinarians before it is ready for release in an oil-free area.
Baba said Dawn's relationship with the center began long before the Deepwater Horizon spill. She said Procter & Gamble has regularly donated Dawn to the nonprofit for years.
The brand's contributions to the research center and Marine Mammal Center were publicized last July when Dawn launched its "Save the Wildlife" campaign. Along with television advertisements that show three soiled animals a duck, otter and penguin being cleaned with Dawn, consumers who buy the product can activate a $1 online donation from their purchase to the brand's two wildlife partners.
Baba said the campaign is nearing the $500,000 cap it set for the donations Dawn will give to its wildlife partners.
Some animal rights proponents say the brand's charitable giving is hypocritical because Procter & Gamble tests some products on animals, outweighing the good that may come from the campaign.
"They can't green-wash the fact that they experiment on animals," said Doris Lin, an animal-rights attorney and blogger.
Baba said that the Dawn brand is not tested on animals. She said the only Procter & Gamble products that are tested using animals are required to do so by law.
Jon Stephens, a brand strategist for Kansas City-based Rockhill Strategic, said Dawn's marketing campaign has been "incredibly successful."
"As I look at it, there really isn't a better position for a company to be in than where Dawn is," Stephens said, "because, one, they're doing good directly, two, they're reinforcing their brand promise and, three, they're getting a lot of third-party endorsement and third-party confirmation for what they've done."
Baba would not discuss how the campaign has affected Dawn's sales directly, but she said, "All of the metrics that we set for ourselves, we have met and exceeded."
She also noted that the cleanup effort doesn't hurt Dawn's brand even when there isn't an oil spill.
If consumers remember the wildlife effort, she said, they might think: "OK, if this can get crude oil off of a duck, it can probably help me clean my lasagna pan."