Look cool and do good – expert breaks down authentic branding

The space of cause-related business is maturing into a movement for which, like digital, success will only be realised by those who are constantly innovating, Afdhel Aziz tells Marketing.

This article originally appeared in The Trust Issue, our June/July 2018 issue of Marketing magazine.

After an extensive career in marketing on the client side at brands such as P&G, Nokia, Heineken and Absolut Vodka, Afdhel Aziz turned his attention to the world of purpose, aiming to replace tired notions of advertising-first marketing and business with a purpose driven one where brands think of people as citizens, not consumers, and try to fix everyday problems.

Co-author of Good is the New Cool: market like you give a damn with Bobby Jones, he’s now an international keynote speaker and co-founder and ‘chief purpose officer’ at his consultancy Conspiracy of Love. There he works with big brands and start-ups alike to help them make money and do good.

Marketing spoke with Aziz prior to his appearance at IAB and UnLtd’s Positive Change series event, where we discussed trust, good, cool and how, just like digital, it’s a space where brands can’t afford to ever stop innovating.

 

Marketing: Trust for businesses among consumers and the general public – particularly in younger generations – is on the decline. Why do you think this is?

Afdhel Aziz 150 BWAfdhel Aziz: People have seen companies do horrible things for a long time! When people are treated as consumers by a company, and treated as commodities, it breeds a certain disrespect.

People have had a long history of not believing what companies say, especially through advertising. We are growing up with a generation of people who’ve been exposed to advertising since they were kids and can smell bullshit from a mile off. Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice has a great quote: “Young people have amazing bullshit detectors, and the only way to reach them is to not bullshit.”

You’re seeing this generation of consumers grow up hyper-aware of the tricks that advertising has played on them. They’re completely knowledgeable about how to use tools like social media – in some ways, better than brands. Kids, by the way, are brands themselves, they know how to position themselves on Instagram or Snapchat and shoot their lifestyles in beautiful ways. All of this has led to consumers distrusting brands for all the smoke and mirrors that they put out there. That’s where the title of the book comes back into play.

When we say ‘good is the new cool’, one of the ways to read it is by saying: it’s no longer enough to be cool, because everybody can do cool, and people don’t believe it any more – you have to be good, and being good, with a dash of cool, is really the kind of new game for brands, where they actually show the real impact of what they do. It’s not enough to just do some storytelling. These consumers hold them to a higher account, to a higher order of behaviour. We are in an age of radical transparency, where it doesn’t matter what message you put out on social media or in advertising, you can log onto Glass Door and find out what your employees really think about you. You can get on social media and see right through the claims of making ethical, sustainable products and call bullshit on brands.

Companies really need to embrace a new mentality where they’re no longer relying on the tricks of advertising, but by really revealing themselves at a core level to show people who they are. There’s a great quote that sums it up from a friend of mine, Russ Stoddard, who says that the goal of a purpose driven company today is not to tell a story, but to become the story. When you look at companies like Tesla, Patagonia, Airbnb, where people really believe in the mission of those companies and become their fierce advocates, you can see how that’s really the new bar for companies to set.

 

Is that the only way you differentiate between good and cool brand practice? Are there other differences?

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It can be read a couple of different ways, one is saying ‘today, to succeed as a brand you cannot just be cool, you have to be good’. You have to really show how your values drive you and how you manifest in the world, and show how you actually make the world better through your actions, through your products, through your marketing in some cases.

The flipside of that, is that it is still important to do that in a cool way. Cool matters. When you look at Tesla, for example, the fact that it has a super cool design is a huge part of why it was able to have this amazing adoption curve and growth rate of people embracing it and embracing electric vehicles in general. Tesla uses the power of cool to kick-start this moment in a way that previous car designs, like the Toyota Prius or the Chevy Volt did not.

They just weren’t cool.

That’s the other part of what we say – you need to lead with the cool, but bake the good in, in order to make sure that you attract consumers who are very savvy, very design literate, and who are very choosy about where they put their dollars.

 

A lot of brands are trying to work meaning and cause into their business. Do you really believe that all brands can make this work? Are there businesses out there that can’t, or for which there is no need?

I think the only companies that I haven’t been able to figure out how the ‘good is the new cool’ model works for are guns and tobacco. Not that you have the former here in Australia, but they certainly have it in the US. I think that any product, any company with any product or service, can always find a way to add some social good into the mix.

I get asked this question a lot; for example, ‘What if I’m a sodapop manufacturer who makes sugary drinks? Do I have the right to try and do some social impact?’ The answer is yes. Absolutely, as long as you do it authentically and meaningfully. The example I always hold up is Ben and Jerry’s, the ice-cream company. It has a tremendous track record of doing social good for the last 30 years. It is probably the nutritional equivalent of drinking soft drink.

If a company like that can find ways to actually do good around the products – as long as the product itself is harmless when it comes to responsible consumption – then, yes, I think that every company should and can do it. How they do it is a different story. You have to do it in a way that aligns with your business model, your values, what your employees believe in. Otherwise it just comes across as brandwashing, or virtue signalling, or something that you’re doing to jump on the bandwagon, rather than it being an indication of your core values and who you really are.

 

What are your suggestions for brands looking to find meaning, an authentic angle, that will work for them?

Advice that we give our clients is: always start from the inside out. Start by really getting your own house in order first. Make sure your employees are fairly paid and live off what you pay them. Make sure the products you’re making are made in a sustainable, ethical manner, in a way that doesn’t poison the planet. Make sure that you’re paying women the same as men in your companies, and you’re not discriminating on the grounds of gender or any other differentiating factor. Do all that first before you start going external, before you start thinking about trumpeting your virtues to the world outside. Because if you don’t you will always be subject to criticism, and people saying, ‘It’s hypocritical of you to tell me how to live my life or preach a certain viewpoint when you don’t have your own house in order.’

Rule number one is making sure that you go inside out and do it in a really authentic, meaningful way as well.

 

What other brands getting it right in this space?

The really interesting new frontier is how you can make money by doing good. The example I always hold up is Adidas, which is doing the Ocean plastic shoe, I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but this is a shoe made out of ocean plastic waste. Every pair has the equivalent of 12 plastic bottles in it. Adidas sold a million pairs of those shoes last year and has gone on record saying it will sell five million in 2018. Now, the average retail price of these shoes is $220, which means Adidas is going to make more than a billion dollars of revenue in creating a product that solves a social issue, which is marine plastic. To me, that’s the new frontier where if you can show that doing good can affect your bottom line, and there’s a line in the P&L (profit and loss) that shows revenue generated, suddenly you’re integrating it into your business model.

Doing good isn’t some sort of ancillary thing that’s happening over on the side, it becomes part and parcel of what the company stands for. To me, that’s the real exciting new frontier. As Peter Diamandis says, the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest gold mines for companies. I’d like to see more companies thinking about how – like Adidas – they can find ways to integrate doing good into their core business, as opposed to it just being something off to the side.

 

Right now it’s a competitive differentiator, too, when it comes to engaging with socially conscious consumers. Once a majority of brands are on the bandwagon, can you see this angle start to lose meaning, where…

It no longer becomes a differentiator, yes. First of all, I would love that Utopia to happen!

I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. The way that we think about it is: companies have to adopt social impact purpose much like the way they adopted digital. There is the same curve happening where, just like they went from having a website, to adding social media, to digital being part and parcel of every single aspect of the company, so it goes with this space. Ten years ago it would have been called CSR (corporate social responsibility). Five years ago, it would have been something to do with sustainability or cause marketing.

Now it’s maturing into this thing that affects everything that you do, from how you to recruit and retain talent, to what products and services you make and how you go to market. The thing is, just like digital, there’s never a point where a company will go, ‘Oh, we’re digital enough’. There’s always a next frontier, and a next frontier, and a next frontier. Similarly, there’s never a point where a company goes, ‘Oh, we’re good enough’.

Even those companies like Airbnb and Patagonia as examples – they’re constantly innovating, to find ways to do more good. There’s always another ceiling to break, another boundary to breach. I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point where every single company on the planet is A, doing good and B, saying, ‘This is it, we’ve stopped’. I think the principle of ‘innovate or die’ applies to this space as much as it does to something like digital.

 

Is there any work out there that excites you?

As a follow-up to the book, we’re now working on a Good is the New Cool TV show.

We’re now in active conversation to figure out how to tell stories of these inspiring people out there, the world changers we call them – the innovators and provocateurs who want to use business and culture for good. I think that’s what’s going to be really exciting – going and finding more inspiring stories of social entrepreneurs and activists, who are finding these new models and getting it out there. There’s going to be a tonne in Australia, I can feel it, I can see it already, and I’m really looking forward to coming back here and finding out more stories of people doing this and starting to see the bigger picture of this movement that we’re creating.

 

How is Australia stacking up against the rest of the world in this space?

There are some really impressive brands here. I think we’re seeing heaps of it appearing across multiple categories and multiple industries. I think the thing that’s different to the US is that there isn’t a sense of urgency. In the US, there is a feeling that corporate activism, as you call it, is white hot in terms of businesses telling other people their values and innovating products. That’s what I’d love to find a way of doing – accelerating what is already a growing movement here in Australia, which has so much potential to do good for this country as well.

 

Do you think that has anything to do with consumers here? Are we more complacent? More trusting?

In this country you’ve been lucky enough not to have what we call a ‘triggering incident’. So, in the UK you have Brexit, in the US you have the Trump election. Those were massive catalysts for people to really wake up and go, ‘OK, I need to get involved, I can’t just sit on the sidelines. The work I do and the impact and how I show up in the world matters.’ I don’t think you’ve had that here.

Also, there’s a really great government and state welfare approach, where a lot of the social issues are tackled by the government. There isn’t that same sense of urgency that companies need to step into the breach. I think the bigger opportunity is actually seeing how doing this kind of meaningful work makes companies more productive. Employees want to show up and work in companies that do a lot of good. You can unlock a serious amount of potential and talent and resource if Australian companies are able to really show people how their work ladders up to something much bigger than just making the next quarterly profit goal, but really can change the world for the better.

 

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Image credit:Jose A.Thompson

Ben Ice
BY Ben Ice ON 2 July 2018