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The Quick & Dirty: From Snake Oil Sellers to Activists Brands

Henk Campher headshotWords by Henk Campher
Leadership & Transparency
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I keep on reading that companies are doing great work on the climate change and general sustainability front. Renewable energy commitments, zero emissions, forests being hugged - all the good stuff that should make us feel warm and fuzzy. So why are we still in so much trouble?

Why is climate change running hot? (Pun absolutely intended). Why are we still losing forests left, right and center? Why are we still fighting for basic worker rights? Why is the gap between the rich and poor expanding faster than our economy? Why are people dying of diseases that have a known cure? Why are we going to miss so many of the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs]? Why did Wilson throw that ball? (Go Pats!)

The simple truth is that a majority of companies are still simply not doing their part. For every forward looking one out there, we have a thousand bad ones. How do we make sense of this? As per my usual habit, I drew a picture on a white board under our "Soapbox Issue(s) of the Week" to try and make sense of it all.


Let's start at the bottom...

Too many companies are simply snake oil sellers. Of course, they won't tell you they are selling you snake oil. They will promise you the world - this will satisfy your thirst, look good on you, drive like a dream, fuel the heat you need, protect you from the bad guys, keep your money safe, etc. They will whisper sweet things in your ear but like a bad date leave you feeling pretty awful in the morning. Heck, they might even publish a sustainability report and share some big goals with you. You will listen to them on the conference circuit and read their insights on Twitter. But scratch the surface a bit and you will realize that they are nothing but snake oil sellers. The truth: They are the reason we are in so much trouble.

The Blah brands are those who are mostly harmless but with little meaning in them. They might flirt and promise you beautiful things but underneath it they are shallow and useless. They don't bring anything of real value to the world apart from putting some lipstick on a pig. They are typically the fashion brands, alcohol companies and other products that don't harm the world much. They tend to advertise a lot and seek celebrity endorsements. They photoshop real life and sell you an empty dream.

The Offset brands aren't too bad. They offset all the bad stuff they do. They don't naturally make the world a better place but they try to find meaning by offsetting their negative impact. They tend to be large companies who have a mix of good and bad products. Someone else will sell you the bad stuff so why not them? At least they offset the bad stuff. Obesity? Here is a nice salad and we will sponsor some activity app. Plastic bags? No problem - we will find a new way to recycle them into carpets. They try hard but know that these activities aren't really the solution to the problems we face.

Moving up the pyramid we get to the brands I love... The Purpose brands and the Activist brands.

So far I have left out naming any specific company because it is too easy to slam the usual targets. Not my style. But this is the uplifting bit and now I can name a few. The usual suspects. Let's start with the Purpose brands.

Purpose brands are brands that have a clear purpose in making the world a better place. They typically started because they wanted to address a specific social or environmental problem and their business model is focused on making the world a better place. Who doesn't like Toms? And I know you want to drive a Tesla. But purpose brands need not originate from a purpose space - it can become part of the brand over time. Timberland turned from a boot company to a boot company who wants to make the world a better place. Simply put - these brands have purpose. And we love them for that.

Activist brands want to change the world and are very vocal about their views. They are similar to purpose brands in many ways but they deliver it with an edge. They have a strong view of the world and not only clearly state what they stand for but also what they are against. They don't think of themselves as companies first but rather as agents of change. They are activists who just happen to be a business as well. They are not here to make friends with other businesses or "play nice. You know who they are - Patagonia, Ben & Jerry's, Chipotle etc.

So how are they different from Purpose brands? It's pretty easy to know where Activist brands stand on any specific issue without having to read a policy or public statement. And those issues need not have anything to do with their business impact. You know what Greenpeace thinks of gay marriages or poverty without them having to tell you their stand on it. The same goes for any of the activist brands. They are bold and out there.

The last two - purpose and activist brands - are who we in the sustainability/purpose/CSV/CSR/whateveryoucallit space love working with.

But I also love working with companies who want to move from Blah or Offset to Purpose or Activist. And, of course, none of us want to work with Snake Oil brands. The problem is that too many companies fall in the bottom, and bigger, part of the pyramid. Those are the companies who drag us down. Question is - where does your company, organization or client fall? And what’s your plan to get out of the snake pit?

A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher. Senior Vice President, Business + Social Purpose and Managing Director of Sustainability at Edelman (www.edelman.com) out in the Wild West of San Francisco.  Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie – @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary. His book, Creating a Sustainable Brand is available here.

Follow Henk Campher on Twitter.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Henk Campher headshotHenk Campher

A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher out in the Wild West of San Francisco. Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie - @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary. He wrote a book once.

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