Posts Tagged 'Sustainable Profit'

What’s the big idea?

A broken bulb that illuminates via theletter.co.uk

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 Akashi.us

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.

Keeping Things Green

jiffylubePacing around the endearingly dingy lobby of a Glendale Jiffy Lube this weekend, I encountered this message among outdated corporate ad campaigns and framed photos of hot rods.

Jiffy Lube wants you to know that it “wants to protect the environment” so much that it “incurs a variety of expenses” related to environmental compliance, including equipment for cleaning up spills, spill prevention training, and proper uniform and rag cleaning techniques.

I’m not in the business of environmental auditing and I won’t knock JL’s corporate policies; for all I know they do manage to keep oil out of the storm drains and chemicals out of the washing machines.  But they sound far from enthusiastic about it.

Here’s the problem: Jiffy Lube — and almost every other company feeling pressure to green their image — faces a tough brand paradox.  “Keeping Things Green” means publicly trumpeting the fact that you’re in the business of harming the planet.  And that you’re willing to meet the minimum standard, or maybe just a bit more, for how much harm you’ll do.  It’s admitting you’re evil and icing it with marginal mediocrity…  hardly something to get excited about.

What’s an oil change franchise to do?  They fundamentally survive on a planet-wasting car culture, and they make the most money on the worst offenders.  Thanks to empowered activists with fingers to point, the cost of doing and saying nothing is high and rising.  But the payoff to doing and saying something is in many ways still elusive, and the risks in doing and saying the wrong thing are enough to make any copy approver paranoid.

Too many firms are stuck with a myopic perspective and few good choices — ‘Going against our core business model to do less harm than we normally would’ is why most CSR strategies have always rung hollow to me.

It’s time we started finding better alternatives.  What about ‘leveraging our core brand and business strengths to contribute to a proactive solution?’

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

Recession Loyalty and Brands that Do Good

Edelman released their second annual GoodPurpose study this week, relying on survey data from 10 developed countries to argue that consumers overwhelmingly think it’s important for firms to continue supporting social causes during tough times (via GreenBiz via Environmental Leader).  It’s worth a read (pdf).  Edelman would of course be thrilled to help your firm extoll good vibes as a strategy to get by in a pinch.

Indeed, there are many reasons to be skeptical of this work.  No shock that most people answer ‘yes’ to questions phrased ‘is it still important to you…’   The fact that 68% of people ‘globally’ pledge allegeance to any brand that ‘supports a good cause’ regardless of economic hardship is just another way of saying that premium brands whose prices subsidize a CSR strategy can expect a 32% cut in their consumer base this year.  Not exactly a motivational speech for the boardroom.  In a world where the volume of peanut butter jars is silently shrinking, brand managers seem far more likely to ride on past virtues while cutting costs behind the scenes.

And yet.  Economic recessions are built on irrationality both personal and corporate.  The cost-cutting calculations made in response — in living rooms and conference rooms alike — are no less subject to emotion and whim.  I have to believe that the core value of Doing Good in the World is far more recession proof than superfluous, cut-rate instant gratification.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

Hot Topic

Tom Friedman posted this question (related to his new book) on LinkedIn two weeks ago:

Will the financial crisis be the end of green, or could green be the way to end the economic crisis?

The question is part of a strategy to tap user-gen content in a web-only book update that has to be at least partly marketing-motivated… the asking itself is interesting, but not terribly remarkable.

What’s compelling is that at least 655 business-minded networkers want to talk about it.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

Profitable renewable rural power in India

Husk Power is getting attention for setting up ‘meso-power’ gasification plants in small rural villages in India.  They turn rice husks (otherwise a waste biproduct of rice harvesting) into electricity by converting cellulose to gas and then to power, which they sell to off-grid villagers at rates competitive to other conventional power sources.

Most crucial tidbit: they make a profit along the way.  It’s far cheaper than wind or solar, and the primary ingredient is already onsite.  As pointed out in an interview with NextBillion:

If you took a map of the world’s energy poor areas and compare it to a map of rice producing areas, these two maps would look nearly identical.

There are five pilot sites up and running already which, the company claims, have all reached profitability within six months.

If it’s all true, this is a great example of the profit potential of clean tech, as well as a for-profit development initiative that finally moves beyond microcredit.  In a perfect world, Husk Power will stimulate local economies all over the developing world by providing infrastructure that small businesses need to survive but couldn’t otherwise afford–without depleting resources or emitting greenhouse gasses.

There are some questions worth asking, though.  Is Husk Power a US-based company, and thus are profits essentially extracted from villages?  If so, regardless of ethical implications, how much does that deplete a community’s ability to invest in further industry and resources to take advantage of the power?  Also, how compatible will the infrastructures that Husk Power delivers (gasification stations, power lines, etc) be with each other and other technologies in the future?

Again, an interesting one to watch.

© 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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