Posts Tagged 'Rebranding Green'

What’s the big idea?

A broken bulb that illuminates via

My ongoing quest make nice between the worlds of green and brand usually involves finding places where these disparate disciplines can learn from each other.  But more and more, I find myself focusing on common problems instead of shared solutions.  There’s one conundrum that’s been nagging me for a while; it reared up again while debreifing Sustainable Brands ’09 with a co-worker who attended last week:

Do good ideas have to have ‘big ideas’ behind them?

Within both fields, this is almost a blasphemous question to ask.  The stalwarts of sustainability are deeply invested in a culture where any product not directly contributing to planetary salvation is to be publicly stoned with accusations of greenwash.  This separates the committed from the casual.  It gives rise to a plethora of standards organizations from the USDA to the USGBC who exist to put labels on legitimacy.  It justifies price premiums and creates superiority quotients.  It’s what keeps sustainability a movement.

Likewise, a global congregation of brand strategists and agency planners has invested four decades in building an industry around the ritualistic worship of the big idea; the doctrine that design is conceptual, that culture can be distilled to concepts, and that concepts can and must be mapped along abstract axes in cryptic PowerPoint slides. This is how work is sold.  It’s how creative is inspired. It is, ultimately, the justification for expensive answers that are rooted in common sense but can’t be empirically tested.

Certainly, organizations need a reason to exist.  Movements need a method of quality control.  Great brands need to make a promise beyond products.

But when you silence the rhetoric, shut down the projector, and step out into the front lines of both green and brand, cracks emerge in the omnipotence of the big idea.  It’s time we stopped ignoring them, and asked some introspective questions instead.  A few problems worth chewing on:

  1. Research is only one part science. The other ingredients are performance art and artful hogwash.  Social research isn’t about coldly-rational validation; live human subjects won’t ever just tell you exactly how your carefully-worded positioning statement or colorful stimulus board will impact their purchase behavior.  They don’t know yet.  Research — especially that of the qualitative variety — is about producing knowledge in the moment as much as measuring facts.  It’s about inspiration and ideas.  Similarly, the popular reporting of scientific discoveries, be they of the marketing or climate-science variety, is about politics and framing as much as collaborative learning.  Every answer is incomplete, loaded, and manipulated.  It’s just part of the game.
  2. Pop culture runs on a chaos of small ideas. Part of the fallacy behind the rationality of research is the fact that culture and nature can only be empirically measured in the past.  Big ideas are assembled by looking back and stitching together a retroactive narrative from a sea of micro observations.  All history is a story; all stories choose which details to include and leave behind; all histories fundamentally change the past.  Every forward-looking statement, strategy, and product based on that historical revisionism is a theory, not a proven fact.  An educated guess or a blind gamble, depending on how much homework you’ve done.  The big ideas we sell are guesses based on the pieces of the past we’ve stitched together.  Meanwhile, culture marches on as a disorganized mess of fads, trends, products, and people.
  3. The real world is messy. This chaos of small ideas is where the majority of people make purchase decisions and express their everyday identities.  It’s an environment that is inconsistent, unpredictable and only so controllable — an instability that will only be more pronounced as brands become more social, movements more decentralized, and customers more empowered.  The tendency toward metabrands mean that the big ideas are created from the decentralized sum of small ideas; the uncontrollable democracy of billions of decisions made by millions of actors.

Big ideas, in short, are chosen.  They build from the small ideas we offer and they evolve as the terms of those ideas are altered by the people who put them into action.

Why, then, do we invest so much time, money, and pomp into the big ideas?

Could we have a truly post-environmentalist ‘green’ movement?  Would it be a movement?  What would a small-idea brand strategy look like?   Could it build a brand?

Am I crazy?


Institutionalizing the (Social) Enterprise

Unintentionally-ironic paper dolls borrowed from the consultants at

I’ll be honest: the idea of social enterprise has always intrigued but perplexed me.  On paper, of course, it sounds great.  We’ll apply the principles of entrepreneurship to solve social problems; we’ll be far more efficient than governments or NGOs and maybe we’ll make some money in the process.  It’s an idea that gives a whole throng of bright, young, business-savvy but corporate-skeptical people a reason to rally.

But there are at least two problems that have kept me lingering on the wary rim of the social enterprise punch bowl.  The first is a logistics issue: it just doesn’t seem like altruistic capitalism is at all scalable, and it’s hard to find an example that proves me wrong.  The second is more of a meta-cynicism problem: even for a guy like me who relishes in contradictions, altruistic capitalism is a big oxymoron to get over.  The firmly acculturated bulkhead that stands between the social roles of charities and corporations marks any attempt at a mashup with a distinct smell of skepticism.

Two discoveries this week have me rethinking this response.  Specifically, I’m learning to live with the first problem and am excited to see someone working on the second… in the mucky thick of tax law, no less.  Grant tipped me off to an interesting development: over the last few years, states like Vermont and Montana have been quietly introducing legislation that defines a new type of tax status for business: the Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporation, or L3C.  This is a purely tactical play that makes it easier for foundations to legally invest (with hopes of a small return) in social causes instead of just donating.  But it’s also a soft step toward institutionalizing the idea of a corporation driven by more than market cap.  An official marker that legitimates an idea which has previously had so much trouble fitting into oppositional categories.  A badge for the metabrand.

I’m still skeptical about scalability.  But case studies like the White Dog Cafe have me toying with the hope that scale can happen at the systemic level if not the organizational level; that the long tail decorporatization that works so well on the internet can spill over into the world of brick, mortar, and better paychecks.  Here’s to hoping.

The Problem with Justice

pirateScreengrab from

Short thought for a late night: 16 year old kid takes the fall for a failed state and desperate measures.  Smalltime traffickers on the border get busted for an insatiable national drug habit written into the DNA of pop culture.  Parking tickets are left on the windshield of an auto-obsessed city choked with inefficient cars.

Cap and trade policy turns heroes into victimizers and gives rebels the right to be cool.

It’s not that justice isn’t deserved.  But enacting it often means radically distilling complex problems; purposely foregoing the forest you can’t save for the tree you can burn while you have the chance.  It sets up asymmetrical power structures that are counterintuitive and confusing to people on the outside.  And at some point, it goes from momentum to monotony.

Justice can be a terribly hard thing to brand.

Living on the Fringes

Sunward Cohousing Common Room, Photo via

Grant has been prompting me to think about cohousing for some time now.  His compelling question this week: there’s a lot of evidence of pent up demand for stronger communities and a real need to cut basic living costs, so why aren’t more people building and flocking to high-density, semi-shared-space housing developments? Does cohousing have a brand problem?

I think it’s a question whose answer depends heavily on vantage point. From the perspective of a mainstream US suburban housing market that has lived for more than 50 years — and is now dying — on the idea of single-family homes surrounded by private space, the notion of weekly shared meals and common governance can sound like the radical whim of flower children.  But seen in the arc of a social movement that’s rooted in farm communes and architecture-obsessed personality cults, the concept of a common rec room, walkable lawns, and occasional monthly chores built into a modern condo complex hardly rings of revolution.

From where I sit, cohousing’s brand problem is also its brand strength: it lives on the fringes between a convicted niche and an chaotic mass market.  It draws on the energy and inspiration of an outsider, but is stuck with the symbolism of discomfort when viewed from the comfortable middle.  Being an approachable fringe is as much a matter of building an appealing brand for yourself as it is a challenge of overcoming latent apprehensions and preconceived prejudices that people have built for you.

This could mean that cohousing just has to wait for the slow-changing tides of social preferences to tip in its favor (as they certainly seem to be doing). But it raises an interesting question:

How do you un-brand yourself?

Reimagining the Why

NPR reports on a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which suggests that CO2 levels in the atmosphere won’t decrease for at least 1,000 years even if we stop producing it tomorrow.  Unlike methane and other GHGs, carbon dioxide just doesn’t like to die.  At minimum we’re stuck with the global warming we’ve already caused.

In other words, there’s no turning back.  No more hope of returning to some distorted past/future mashup of a preindustrial Jeffersonian fantasy land where hemp-clad vegans frolic among wind turbines on green pastures.  We’re stuck with now.

And I’m thrilled.

I believe a difficult but urgent transition needs to take place in the way we imagine the ‘why’ behind living sustainably, efficiently, differently.  My problem with conventional global warming rhetoric is rooted in the same discomfort I experience in the face of religious fundamentalism, neoconservative extremism, and economic doomsday diatribes.  There is no discernible ‘why’–only a ‘why not’ predicated on a distant and abstract threat of utter destruction balanced by an unhealthy obsession with an imaginary idyllic past that is just fundamentally unrealistic.   In any iteration, ‘why not’ always stinks of delusions and ulterior motives.

Ulrich Beck believes this type of  distorted retrospection has nothing to do with genuine concern for the environment, but is a gut reaction to power structures that have stripped people of control of their own lives.  He argues that the ”environment’ is invented in our collective imagination as a way to express how frustrated we are with the fact that we’re peons to the (post) industrial age; a sort of subliminally codified language of futile resistance.

I’m no psycho-social conspiracy theorist.  But I’ll say this: ‘the environment’ is an abstract concept that we imagine it to be.  Too often, we conceive of it as external, foreign to ourselves and our current surroundings, isolated in both time and space — some wild field or forest outside of our daily life.  The ‘why’ attached to protecting and preserving this fantasy becomes an unrealistic obsession for some, and a fleeting daydream for the rest of us.

The greatest challenge in re-branding green is orientation.  Helping people locate themselves within a tangible environment, providing concrete goals with ownable justifications behind them.  Reimagining the ‘why’ is a matter of ditching the elysian past and embracing now.  There is only here to be.  There is only forward to go.

© Ryan Cunningham 2009

1 in 45,000: The Clutter of Urgency

A BBC article caught my eye the other day: a group highly reputable scientists and astronauts are lobbying the UN to lead a major international effort against the threat of asteroids striking the planet.  They calculate a 1 in 45,000 chance that such an impact will occur when a particular asteroid passes close to the earth in less than 20 years.  No doubt such an ‘event’ would be catastrophic, and if there really are viable defense measures (aside from sending Bruce Willis into space) we should certainly pursue them.

But I won’t hold my breath for sweeping action.  Add this to the mile-long list of distant impending catastrophes that play out in imaginations and compete for resources.  The sky has been falling for centuries; doomsday narratives only play well with a certain niche and end up inspiring more skepticism than useful preparation in the mass audience.  Every new danger only adds to the broader cacophony of ambiguous threats made and consequences undelivered.

How do you brand the off chance of utter tragedy?

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

Caring > Understanding

Stumbled across a report (pdf) released earlier this year by brand research firm Cone and Boston College exploring the gap between consumers’ response to green marketing claims and actual comprehension of their significance.  The paradox, as argued by one observer: people care about green and feel they have a grasp on the big picture, and yet they don’t understand commonly used phrases.  30% of consumers are still confused by the phrase ‘Fair Trade Certified,’ 36% want more information than the badge and another 15% think it’s a misleading label.

So much for the power of ingredient brands.  This is the essential problem with meta-brand green — too many cooks and too many ingredients.  Too many labels.  Sustainable.  Eco-friendly.  Conservation.  Light green.  Dark green.  LOHAS.  LEED-Certified.  Organic.  Certified Organic.  CFL.  PZEV.  Ecomagination.  Environmentality.  I’ll save you the next five dozen.

Let’s stop coming up with the next great American sub-brand and start creating stories that communicate effectively.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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