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Moving from Mindless Consumption to 'We First'

I was in Austin last week for a Sustainable Life Media (SLM) double-header. First a meeting of the Sustainable Brands Advisory Board, then the SLM Corporate Members meeting.

Hosted with aplomb by Dell, sessions included a tour of the Dell Social Media Command Center (a fascinating, real-time window into what everyone, everywhere is saying about their Dell experience), and an inspiring visit to the new LEED Gold certified offices of Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG Foundation, with both proving there is more going on in Austin than music, football and great Tex-Mex like Guero's (though those are fine too, with Guero's servings proving again that everything is bigger in Texas).

For everything packed into the two days, I left thinking about a presentation by Simon Mainwaring, the best-selling author of We First and founder of the social branding consultancy of the same name. We First is "committed to helping brands build communities, profit and positive impact." This is, of course, hard to oppose, but I am interested in what We First might accomplish because Simon brings unique chops to the task.

He was an absolute advertising insider -- the former Nike creative writer at Wieden and Kennedy, and previously the worldwide creative director for Motorola at Ogilvy. His work has been honored at the Cannes Advertising Festival and elsewhere. Is he poised to use We First and the media platforms he's seized at The Huffington Post, Fast Company and like to take social or sustainability branding to new heights?

From Cause-Related Marketing...

Simon's clear on one thing -- he is not about expanding or extending historic cause-related marketing practices, which he sees having been plagued by shortcomings including: limited fund generation for the organizations associated with the causes; weak executive support; and impure motives (more greenwash than actual commitment to cause).

... to Contributory Consumption

In Austin and in writing like this blog here, Simon argues consumers are now equipped, by connecting their values and the ability to link them to campaigns and behavior change using social media, to force companies to "accept a far greater degree of responsibility" and to "recognize that they have a moral and ethical duty of social responsibility." If future corporate profit will be linked to a higher purpose than shareholder return, and companies are at risk if they do not do this, can they get ahead of the curve?

Simon Says

According to Mainwaring, corporations will thrive when they: better account (and pay) for externalities; actively help build societies where prosperity is broadly shared; adequately serve poor as well as rich markets, and; accept and embrace the fact that narrow capitalist self-interest is incompatible with the "complex, global, interconnected world" in which we now live.

Contributory consumption marries the best of cause-related marketing with growing consumer desire to align their values with their purchases and the new ability of social media to build community. Simon believes it will help corporations demonstrate goodwill and engage stakeholders more powerfully than ever before, and that corporations plus consumers can become a force for good via this model.

Too Good To Be True?

To my ears, contributory consumption first sounded likely to be a cause-related marketing redux in spite of intentions and far-fetched. But Simon's been gathering evidence that this new archetype is already flourishing, which convinced me to take a closer look.

Contributory consumption prototypes include: The Nike-LIVESTRONG partnership -- who'd have believed what a yellow wristband might mean to people living with cancer, survivors and the people who love them, or the power of democratizing philanthropy given the $1 price point. Almost anyone can afford to participate and visibly support -- and connect to both Nike and LIVESTRONG in the process.

Howard Schultz and Starbucks are making waves now with the Starbucks founder's Upward Spiral platform asking people to withhold campaign contributions until elected officials "face our nation's long-term fiscal challenges with civility, honesty and a willingness to sacrifice" and the corporation's Create Jobs for USA, which steals a page from the LIVESTRONG handbook by fundraising on the back of wristband sales in Starbucks stores, and then using the money for capital grants to Community Development Financial Institutions.

And there are experiments emerging which are unaffiliated with any particular brand -- until the consumer makes the connection. Using socialvest, as consumers shop at any one of 600+ plus retailers, they accrue a percentage of their expenditure in a giving account from which they can make donations to any of more than 1.5 million different causes. There might be a choice editing issue here (!), but it beats just shopping.

The examples don't end with the list above. Consider 1% for the Planet and its pledge to 'Keep Earth In Business' and (RED)'s 'Designed to Help Eliminate AIDS' mantra. Imperfect, but learning and evolving as they go, these models are quietly helping lead a revolution exploring if and how we can make base consumption meaningful.

'Tis The Season; Will 2012 Be The Year?

The holidays are upon us, for many meaning some degree of consumer frenzy. If Simon's theory is right, this will be a breakout season for contributory consumption, and there will be a growing expectation that a portion of your spend -- every spend -- have purpose.

Simon believes that consumers and brands together can create campaigns capable of addressing the world's greatest challenges. He predicts ongoing transformational growth in social media, crowdsourcing and collaboration tools will underpin this.

Whether you believe and hope he's right, or fear he might be and want to mitigate risk, if the language of contributory consumption is foreign to your organization, 2012 is the year to build fluency.

Shopping carts photo via Shutterstock.

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