Salesforce.com issues Dalai Lama poster recall

Tibetan community upset over use of image for commercial purposes

There may be no software on the path to enlightenment, but there's little room for shameless commercialism as well. That's what Web-based CRM (customer relationship management) software company Salesforce.com discovered this week when outrage over a poster that appeared to feature the Dalai Lama as a pitchman for its products forced the company to cancel its participation in an event hosted by the American Himalayan Foundation.

The poster, which was sent as an invitation to a September 5 Dalai Lama speaking engagement at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, featured a photograph of the Dalai Lama in meditation beneath the caption "There is no software on the path to enlightenment." Beneath the photograph ran Salesforce.com's "no software" logo and the line, "Salesforce.com celebrates 100,000 enlightened Salesforce.com subscribers."

The poster was mailed out to 500 customers, partners and members of the press during the week of August 11, according to company spokeswoman Karen Marooney.

Soon after, members of the Tibetan community including the American Himalayan Foundation, began to complain about the company's use of the Dalai Lama's image. "There were certain groups within the Tibet world that were unhappy with it," she said.

"People thought that they were trying to package his holiness. That was a mistake," said Rinchen Dharlo, the president of the Tibet Fund, a New York based non-profit organization which was listed as a co-recipient of a $100,000 Salesforce.com donation on the poster.

This Wednesday, Salesforce.com mailed out letters to the poster's recipients, asking them to return the posters and offering to pay any expenses that might be incurred. "We had no right to suggest that either the American Himalayan Foundation or His Holiness support us. We made a mistake," wrote Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff in the unsigned letter.

Salesforce.com has cancelled its participation in the September 5 event, and donated $100,000 to the American Himalayan Fund, as well as $25,000 to the Tibet Fund, according to Marooney. "We've decided to disassociate from the event so there's no further confusion about it," she said.

The company is now planning to celebrate its 100,000th subscriber in November and has not yet decided whether or not it will seek a celebrity endorsement for that event.

Next week's event was not Salesforce.com's first attempt to tie in Tibetan causes to the company's corporate image. In February, Salesforce.com hosted a New York benefit concert for Tibet House that featured posters showing Tibet's Potala Palace with the company's "no software" logo in the horizon.

Marooney said the company hadn't ruled out using Tibetan imagery in conjunction with the Salesforce.com logo in the future, but, she said, it planned to communicate better with the Tibetan community. "We just need to listen to the groups that we work with and make sure we're a good partner."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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