Authenticity. (Get it Free with Your Commitment to Preserve the Earth!)
[This is the third in a series of five guest posts looking at the importance of brand strategy and effective marketing for green and ethical businesses. For post one, click here, for post two, click here.]
People crave authenticity − but it's hard to offer when the only reason you exist is to raise the price of your shares. Companies with a higher purpose than just making money are intrinsically more credible and worthwhile of support. No one believes any corporate entity at face value -- all of us consciously and subconsciously make a host of calculations about whether or not to grant credibility to any group or individual who is asking us to part with our money.
People seek authenticity because no one wants to be a means to someone else's end. Yet marketing is all about a means to an end. And in a world where manipulation is omnipresent — on our cell phones, our email in-boxes, our shopping carts, our kids' schools and so forth— the immutable law of supply and demand makes authenticity increasingly precious. However, if your enterprise is part of the culture of social responsibility, then authenticity is something you get free with the price of admission (i.e., your commitment). If a core reason you're in business is to reduce carbon emissions, conserve water or help the poor, then you have more credibility than your competitors who are in it for the cash. And this isn't just because you have a socially responsible purpose in business/life. It's because the simple fact of having any overriding purpose at all indicates integrity. That's why most of us are more likely to believe the words of a Trappist monk than a car salesman.Consider this counter-example. Shell Oil is running a groovy planet-friendly campaign right now, and I sincerely doubt that anyone believes a word of it — because Shell's mission is obviously not to benefit the planet. The ads contradict rather than affirm the institutional reality of the company. However, the very fact that a publicly owned transnational corporation like Shell is investing in an ad campaign that relies on the trappings of authenticity (handcrafted looking hippy lettering, grassrootsy art direction, and a socially responsible message) shows that even carbon-committed business folk understand the value of having a purpose beyond quarterly profits. (If only they actually invested in the reality rather than the perception.)
For those of us with businesses devoted to ecological sensibility and/or human rights, authenticity is a key asset that our larger conventional competitors most likely lack. Companies like Levis and Scion spend millions upon millions to cultivate it. Yet I find most businesses that actually have authenticity, neglect it. In our zeal to put forth our worldchanging proposition, it's easy to forget that our zeal itself is one of our marketplace advantages. One reference I use to convince businesspeople about the importance of being a brand on a mission is to cite Hollywood as an example; because no one is more clued in to the power of narrative than the American entertainment industry. Studio executives are not stupid enough to sink 100's of millions of dollars into movies about corporations seeking wealth. Instead, Hollywood loves to make movies about people putting their lives on the line for a greater good (e.g., James Bond, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Terminator, Erin Brockovich). And if the ultimate Hollywood hero is someone on a mission, the typical Hollywood villain is a corporate "suit" who will do anything for profit. There is a struggle between good and evil in the world (or at least between good and amorality), and if you're on the right side of the struggle, then you sure as hell should use it to your advantage.
When you're a company on a mission, people don't just have a reason to believe you— they have a reason to love you. Being on a mission gives you cause to be exuberant and excited. Patagonia can talk with a sense of purpose that Adidas cannot. Ben & Jerry's has a buzz about it that Haagen Daaz lacks. (All Haagen-Daaz has to be happy about is ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s has renewable energy, animal rights, organic agriculture, fair trade… and Chunky Money). Having a mission over and above profits also enables you to be inclusive. Exxon can't invite you to join their mission of making a profit, but anyone can join Stoneyfield Farm's crusade to lower greenhouse emissions.
So, here are some quick suggestions to leverage your corporate conscience to the advantage of your business. One is to tell your story. If you've started an enterprise that's as concerned with goodness as it is with profit, then you're cutting against the cultural grain and putting your investment at risk. This is usually interesting and, at times, heroic. That's a story worth telling, especially since your competitor probably doesn't have a better one. Another recommendation is to explain the quality of your product and service in the context of your mission. If you've started an eco-conscious company to make less toxic surfboards, then your ability to create amazing surfboards is directly related to your desire to have a cleaner, healthier ocean to surf in. A third is to find opportunities to use emotion in your brand. Emotion can be a quiet expression of commitment, an informed sense of outrage, or a raucous celebration of common purpose. As we say at my company, "the truth is your best tool," so what you feel is what you should communicate.
***A note on the shadow side of being a business with a mission. If your devotion to organic agriculture, fair trade, veganism, or indeed any conviction feels as though it precedes your devotion to quality and service -- then you risk being a green version of a manipulative marketer by allowing people to feel as though they are a means to the end of your own personal mission to save the world. There's a natural tendency to assume companies that care about causes are less concerned with serving customers. This will be the topic of next week's post.
This post is the third of five focusing on the marketing advantages of businesses that care as much about the planet as profits. The first post addressed the need for sustainable businesses to differentiate themselves from their competitors and the second post addressed the need to align sustainability with people’s existing values. Following posts will address Being More Than Green; and Theory and Practice.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic.
[Disclosure: This guest post was arranged through TreeHugger writer Sami Grover, who also works for The Change as the company's Director of Sustainability and Media Liaison]