5 Lessons on Building Iconic Brands at Any Scale
It is easy to get behind a winner, but by definition change-making innovation forges through uncharted territory that disrupts the status quo. Udaiyan Jatar and Josè d' Alessandro of Blue Earth Network hope to help changemakers build iconic brands, whether they are trying to innovate at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) or in one of the largest corporations in the world. We caught up at the recent Net Impact annual conference, a place of special significance for Blue Earth Network.
Two years ago, this is where Udaiyan (who goes by UJ) first met the executive director of economic development for the Red Lake Nation, an American Indian tribe in Minnesota. UJ, who is passionate and experienced and has over 20 years launching brands, described how the Red Lake Nation's heritage of protecting the land has led to the preservation of a lake so pristine that it produces superior fish, both in quality and quantity.
Today, Blue Earth is working with the Red Lake Nation to rebrand their fish into an iconic brand. "This is where our concept of turning the bottom of the pyramid upside down comes in." Their goal, UJ said, is to "help them in taking that [fish] to create significantly more jobs and share a larger part of the value chain, which currently goes to retailers and corporations instead of coming back to the tribe."
Josè elaborated. "So far the paradigm has been just a better redistribution of the same small amount of money -- and that's what we're trying to change. We're trying to say that there is more to that -- that the bottom of the pyramid can, with the right help, produce products and brands that can be sold to the top of the pyramid -- creating a virtuous circle of emancipation for these people."
The two complete and complement one another's thoughts fluidly, like the old friends they are. UJ continued, "We think Fair Trade has done a lot to bring attention to the BOP and the need to give just prices to people who are growing stuff at the bottom of the pyramid. But at the end of the day, it's an increment on a very low base."
What Blue Earth Network does differently, he explained, is "helping folks at the bottom of the pyramid to develop value-added products themselves, using their own ingredients. Then, selling it directly as a value-added product, not as a commodity, allows them to keep a much higher percentage of the value chain. We are talking about going from somewhere between zero to five, or maybe at best 10 percent, to potentially 40 to 50 percent. And that's a transformational change."
"The biggest value that an iconic brand has is that it can coalesce a lot of different people to work as part of a movement. Imagine that there is a global movement [of people] who are deep loyalists of Apple, or Coca-Cola, or Nike. Imagine if that same power was harnessed by a non-profit brand. They would be so much more well-orchestrated, well-integrated, and move in a common direction to solving real, deep human social problems. That's the real power of iconic branding. It is extremely efficient because an iconic brand needs less marketing; it needs less advertising."
UJ started Blue Earth Network in 2008, after 10 years of studying what makes iconic brands tick. UJ realized that the world's great transformational brands -- Coke, Nike, Apple, Harley-Davidson -- were all launched by entrepreneurs, not by major corporations. Coca-Cola didn't create an iconic brand; a pharmacist down the street invented Coke and the company has been leveraging that success ever since.
At the heart of Blue Earth's message is that entrepreneurs -- with no resources or industry expertise -- succeed where a corporation would fail. "The key is that they had no industry filters that prevented them from seeing opportunities," UJ explained. "Sometimes when you have a paradigm or a current mental model – you start thinking that people at the bottom of the pyramid can never create an iconic brand. But it's also true that people think that small entrepreneurs with no money and no industry expertise can ever create an iconic brand -- but they are the only ones who ever did."
UJ and Josè met at Coca-Cola, where they were both rocked the boat as changemakers in an organization built on proven success. In 2006, UJ launched the Far Coast brand at Coca-Cola, the company's first 100 percent certified fair trade and carbon neutral coffee and tea. "There is comfort that we are people who have been through this before and can help do this now," UJ said, reflecting on Blue Earth Network's current and potential customers.
Offering support to changemakers facing cynicism is an important component of what UJ and Josè offer through Blue Earth Network.
"Using our approach we've identified that one of the biggest barriers to changemakers is the fear of being alone," said Josè, who has over 20-years' experience in branding with companies like Coca-Cola and Piaggio. "You have to have a different mindset in a big organization and I think that's where sometimes people feel really alone. That's one area I think where we can really help. We have both been changemakers within the larger organization we've been in. It has been painful. We have learned the hard way that the first thing to do is really create a consensus and start small."
Today, Blue Earth is "working with changemakers in Fortune 500 companies, in non-profits, [and] at the government level. For a company that's really been doing this for the past 18 months, the fact that we have seven to nine such projects is wildly beyond our imagination of success," said UJ. "Our effort is really in identifying [changemakers] wherever they are and, sometimes surprisingly, they are even in big corporations. They are well hidden, sometimes they are strangled by big corporate logic but, there is a movement."
"The fundamental thing one has to remember about a large organization is that it is designed to perpetuate a great solution that it already has, more often than not. And what is needed are people who can expand it and scale it." The disruption necessary for innovation is stifled in this kind of environment, said UJ.
I gathered five lessons from my conversation with Blue Earth Network for changemakers who are facing inertia or gridlock.
Blue Earth Network's 5 Lessons for Changemakers
1. Start small
Josè: "You don't need the mega launch; you don't need to reach a 70 percent distribution in two months. You create small experiments about your idea and you bring consensus to a level. It takes a lot of time, and often fails. It is challenging the system so profoundly that companies are not ready to take it. But it's possible still."
2. Challenge doctrine
UJ - "All these iconic brands -- Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, even other beverage brands like Gatorade and Red Bull to some extent, they challenged industry paradigms. They did things which an industry expert would have hesitated to do."
3. Seize the moment
UJ: "Timing couldn't have been better. When you want to ask people to do transformational change, it is very hard for them to move if they are satisfied with where they are. Because people are now finally awakened to the idea that things need to change desperately, there is a little more openness to the idea that 'OK, these two crazy guys just might have an answer that's worth exploring -- something that's totally new.'"
4. Visit Net Impact
Josè: Net Impact is "an audience that is aligned but is also not ready to forgive anything. I've seen young people challenging even leaders that apparently have an immaculate green curriculum with a lot of honesty, but also without fear. When you can create an environment like this where people can raise criticism without fear, there is always something positive coming out of this."
UJ: "There are very few places where I think so many changemakers gather. We learn a lot from other changemakers and then we find changemakers that might want to collaborate with us and move forward with us."
5. Seek independent space
UJ: "It's not that big corporations don't have innovative people, or don't have intelligent people. It fact they have a lot of them -- in fact maybe all of them are like that. But they are incentivized and they are trained to not be anarchical. So that's the challenge: it's not individuals, it's the system. If an organization does want to do transformational change they need to figure out how to pull the people out who are creating something disruptive and give them independent space to work so they can have their own rules."
Photo CC-licensed by Tony Webster.