It is a tough time right now for global consumer brands.
On one hand they need to produce more environmentally responsible products to satisfy their investors, their brand legacy and the general public and on the other they still need to drive financial performance.
… and by far and away the biggest challenge is how to communicate your ‘purpose’ (everyone has one these days, don’t you know) and your latest sustainability drive without being accused of greenwashing or falling into the ‘hero trap’.
Are they damned if they do and damned if they do not… or am I being soft on these multi billion dollar giants?
Here, Bio Market Insight’s Chief Community Officer, Paul MacDonald catches up with Founder of the Goodvertising Movement and author of The Hero Trap, Thomas Kolster.
On your Linkedin profile you call yourself a sustainability normaliser. What does this mean?
It’s one of many titles. What gets me up in the morning is to inspire other people towards positive change. That said, most sustainability communication ends up being incredibly divisive. Many leaders and brands have turned into these howling climate missionaries on a climate crusade that most of all reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition. Instead, I aim to include everyone and make sustainable living easy and the normal thing to do. If you were good at math in school, you shouldn’t point fingers at those sitting in the back row – I feel that’s what most do in the climate space.
You are the force behind the goodvertising movement. What is goodvertising and what does the movement hope to achieve?
Goodvertising is a movement I kickstarted over a decade ago, before doing good was even the cool thing to do. Basically, I wanted to achieve two things. I’m an advertising guy and I thought, how can I contribute positively to the change? Brands are incredibly powerful and touch millions of people’s lives daily, what if that could be used for something better? So Goodvertising is meant to inspire others in the industry to use their voice and work for change – plus make brands understand that doing good for people and the planet is good for brands and the bottom line.
What sort of change have you seen through your work and are there any examples you can share?
Tremendous change over the last decade. The whole sustainability conversation has moved from being niche to being mainstream. Today, every company and CEO talks about sustainability like spreadsheets and golf.
I am intrigued by the title of your latest book, ‘The Hero Trap’. What is it about and who should read it?
The book was provoked by my own inability to create the change I wanted in my life. So I asked myself the question: What leader, brand or organization has in fact created positive change in my life? It was barely a handful, which is shocking as now every brand pitches itself as Mother Teresa, Mandela and Jesus. In the book, I take a hatchet to my earlier beliefs and warn brands about purpose: “Try to fly like a superman, and you will come down like a tin of soup.” This is what I call a “hero trap” and I’m witnessing the beginning of a new post-purpose era, where brands will be seen as villains if they don’t put people’s dreams, aspirations and creativity first. It’s not about your values, your why or mission, if you want to truly prove to people you care, you have to ask a fundamentally different question: WHO can you help people become?
I guess there are two types of people who fall into the ‘hero trap’. Those who purposely deceive or greenwash and those that passionately believe in the ‘people and planet’ mantra but have lost sight as to what the corporation they work for actually does… ie, you make shoes and stop pretending otherwise.
How should a business start to identify a greater societal or environmental purpose and how important is this for future commercial performance?
If we are to create change, we have to put people first. I’ll argue that brands have to chart a different course, where they instead help people to follow through on their needs and their ambitions in life. It’s a move from “why” your brand matters in the world to understanding how you as a brand can help me to achieve “who” I want to be: making me matter. It’s a move from being a self-obsessed evangelist to a real leader. We’re at a tipping point, and although a sustainable narrative is becoming more commonplace, there is still far to go in pushing people to live better, more sustainable lives. This can only happen if brands truly motivate people to act. I call these transformative brands, because they put the much needed change in people’s hands. In a study I commissioned, I compared purposeful commercials with transformative commercials and the transformative commercials were on average 29.4% better at motivating people, and people were, on average, 29.6% more willing to pay a premium price. In the book, I share a tool called the Arrow to get your leadership focused, the primary question in the model is: WHO can you help people become?
What are the common challenges facing your customers? What keeps them awake at night and how do you help them sleep better?
Anxiety. I feel many of my customers want to do the right thing, but are scared they aren’t getting it right. Or that they aren’t moving fast enough as challenger brands are knocking on their door and eating away market share, because they’re faster at answering people’s call for more sustainable options. I always begin by fixing the leadership challenge and getting the mindset right. Secondly, I often use a model called the Wheel to help them understand how they can empower and inspire their customers to play a bigger part across the whole marketing mix.
You have spoken on some of the biggest business stages in the world. Which one was the most fun and why?
I love the culture aspect of my work. I’m incredibly thankful for being able to meet and connect with people from Nigeria to Ecuador. I do witness a truly fascinating global shift and that makes me positive. I’m not too keen on 99% of events as they’re all very similar. The space lacks innovation.
What’s your current favourite environmentally responsible product or project – what makes you smile?
One of my favorite projects is a Swedish start-up called Doconomy, that makes it possible for people to see an estimated carbon footprint of all their purchases. How are we going to live more carbon friendly or for that sake lose weight, if we don’t have a scale?
Who inspires you?
I’m constantly chasing a better version of myself.
If you want to learn more you can download the one-hour summary of my new book at a discounted price https://thomaskolster.com/product/audio-book-the-hero-trap-60-mins/ with CODE “biomarket” to receive 25% off the audio and written versions