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Drones or Babies? Amazon and Unilever Offer Competing Future Narratives

| Friday December 20th, 2013 | 0 Comments

babyA couple of weeks ago two major companies presented us with their vision for the future. Unilever launched Project Sunlight, “a new initiative to motivate millions of people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles,” while Jeff Bezos revealed that Amazon is experimenting with drones that will deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes.

The visions are very similar and very different at the same time. They aim to disrupt ‘business as usual,’ are customer-focused and innovative, yet while one’s desired future is a world “where everyone lives well and within the natural limits of the planet,” the other’s desired world is one utilizing advanced technology to provide customers with lower prices and faster delivery.

In a way, Unilever’s new campaign and Amazon’s plans are clear reflections of the choices we have ahead of us: a more sustainable path that is about making better choices or a less sustainable path where innovation is limited to the context of the consumption culture. The first can lead to systematic changes while the second can generate incremental improvements at best.

So which of these paths will we take – the one with skies filled with drones getting packages in no time to your doorstep or the one filled with people adopting more sustainable behaviors for the sake of their children?

I definitely hope it will be the latter, but I’m worried it might be the former. Here’s why:

The simplicity factor – while we might not understand the technology behind the drones or how exactly drone delivery service Prime Air will work, the future Amazon describes is very simple in terms of the changes it will bring with it (unmanned aerial vehicles will replace delivery trucks), how these changes will benefit us (faster delivery) and what we need to do to make it happen (basically nothing other than signing to the service when it will be available).

Unilever, on the other hand, needs to deal with the complexities of sustainable future, one that is still quite hard to describe. Its YouTube film - already watched by more than 8 million viewers – tries to simplify the message, but even after watching it you might not clearly understand what the future will look like in Unilever’s version. What, for example, does the company’s call “to ACT by doing small things which, added together, contribute to a better society and environment” mean exactly? What are you expected to do? How whatever you’ll do will benefit you? Can it make a real difference?

The excitement factor – Unilever’s new campaign is a good example for creating an exciting story. If you look at its YouTube video and the campaign you will find many of the components that as Jonah Sachs, Free Range Studios CEO/co-founder  explain are required for creating a powerful storytelling – from addressing people as citizens rather than just consumers to making people the heroes rather than the brands.

Still, I believe Unilever will lose to Amazon in what I call ‘the bar test,’ which assumes you’re getting into a bar and see two tables with friendly people, one talking about the drones and their business applications and the other about creating a better future for our children. Which table would you join?

While there’s no doubt that the conversation about the future of our children is more important, I have a feeling that most people will find drones a much more exciting issue to talk about and will join the drones table. This is the difference between what you know you should be doing and what you really want to do because it’s fun and exciting.

Given these two reasons as well as few others I think there’s a better chance most of us will choose the Amazon’s path over Unilever’s path. But is this actually a competition? You might wonder why couldn’t we have Amazon’s drones providing us with better delivery service (and who knows, maybe even reducing the carbon footprint of this service) and act responsibly for the sake of our children at the same time.

Theoretically we can, but make no mistake – these are competing narratives and the one that will win will shape our future. If the majority of the best and the brightest will keep occupy themselves, just like Bezos, with innovating business in ways that have nothing to do with sustainability and will manage to generate exciting, simple and valuable narratives, the chances to create sustainable solutions in time get slimmer and slimmer. What we’ll be left with is what Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO described as “incremental change [that] won’t get us where we need to go fast enough or at a scale that makes a difference.”

So the bottom line is that this is a competition and the sustainability narrative needs to win in order to increase the chances that we’ll actually have a more sustainable future. How we do it? It’s not clear yet, but if we can learn something from Amazon (and we definitely should) it is that the sustainability narrative needs to draw a clear line between values and value, be simple to understand and of course super exciting. If we’ll get it right, we still have a chance. If not, at least we’ll still have packages delivered in 30 minutes.

[Image credit: Kitt Walker, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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