MTP Intro

More Than Promote

 
 

REVISITED

It was only a few years ago that More Than Promote was first paper-published. It came out at a time when Cause Marketing was the darling of Madison Avenue, and professional marketers were either struggling to find solid footing in a rapidly developing genre of new agency services or were frustrated by the dizzying spinning off of “green groups” by the Mad Men pantheon.[1]

Personally [and professionally, there is no real difference anymore], I was struggling with the very concept of [capital m] Marketing as a player/coach in the social change space. I knew – and still know – that marketing has a role in movements and motivations [social, political, personal] and is important in the changing of ideas and behaviors. It didn’t feel right and wasn’t enough fast enough. I wanted to monkeywrench the system, but that’s a poor business strategy and can’t scale for shit.

My company, The SOAP Group [SOAP stands for Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners] has always been a hybrid shop geared to bridge environmental sciences, culture change and business strategy. But honestly, mostly, this bridge manifested itself as just more marketing. It’s what the market demanded. We obliged.

Many amazing marketers and communicators translated this same sense of frustration into [capital D] Design. “Design” was something broad enough to change the world [at that was the goal, full of a hubris best known by marketers]. Better product designs, better business designs, social innovation [whatever that is], etc. etc. And then I saw Frank Chimero’s anthemicly-designed poster:

“Design Won’t Save The World. Go volunteer at a soup kitchen you pretentious fuck.”

Yes, that seemed to just about sum up my feelings toward the whole marketing to save the planet movement. It all had a sense of doing good for business not with business. This is changing. But at the time, I was struggling to articulate new solutions using old tools.

I should note that More Than Promote-ing is still a new idea, but already outdated in my mind. I am a doomed Hungry Ghost of a business strategist; not pretentious enough to call myself a “Futurist” but certainly not comfortable enough with our progress to stop poking into the Not-Known for new ideas.

But before writing the book, my response to this irritation with the business movement toward sustainability [one that my company was built to be a part of remember] was to poison the well. SOAP collected a staff of amazingly talented marketing and designers each with a passion for sustainability - enough passion to fuel a thousand companies. I started talking out of school.

In bars around the shop in Portland, Maine we sat like beatniks talking philosophy, scheming. Honestly, I think we were all frustrated, but I was visibly angry.

This book was cathartic – a self-indulgent, often rambling, maybe even caustic exercise in making change by watching change. For me, it was an examination of a fever revealing a more systemic disease that business has – Authenticity. Not, it should be very clear, a lack of authenticity in marketing – that’s a known side effect of capitalism.

The book revealed for me a root problem with business in general[2]. A whole lot of it is just inauthentic. I need to make a distinction here: “Authentic” is not a moral judgment like so much of the dialogue around green marketing and even social innovation has become [the entire “Do Well by Doing Good” business meme is built on a disingenuous set of rules]. Moral Capitalism is not an Authenticity issue. Instead, Authenticity needs to become a business strategy. Every solution to a problem creates a problem for someone or something or some indigenous people somewhere. This is not to say the less bad is good enough, though perhaps it is in most cases. It is to say that authentically aligned sustainability trumps everything else in terms of effectiveness for environment, culture and business performance. Growth and scale, as a concept for example, may or may not be Authentic. This is a painful realization for the suits.[3]

As we started to research and model it, we realized that Authentic companies were better places to work [more engaged and productive employees], had less internal struggle for resources [a.k.a. budgets and time], had greater customer loyalty [higher price points and share value], stronger reputations [better brands with lower marketing costs], a sincere respect of their competitors [true collaboration], fewer external distractions [NGO and shareholder roadblocks] had shorter approval process for large projects [municipal permitting and state tax preferences], and so on and so on and so on.   All of these are as important for sustainability as they are for business performance.  The trick is in the alignment.

Writing More Than Promote had an odd result – it revealed that companies built on a foundation of Authenticity enjoyed playing on a surface with less friction. In some aspect More Than Promote may be the first draft of another book – an exploration.  But through it we learned that Authenticity becomes a kind of lubricant for capitalism and social innovation from within. In turn, it can be used to nudge culture in the right direction.

Normally, Business changes Culture for the worse. It creates trends [like Convenience – the most environmentally and culturally destructive construct to come out Madison Avenue] that are not so good for the planet. Many of these manufactured cultural trends developed under the guise of green marketing create social dilemmas where people willingly act in their own self-interest rather than for the great community for which they are a part of. Business, in America specifically, is our culture. Shopping is our therapy. This is changing. But while it may be too much to ask Business to kill itself or eat its young, we can expect it to nudge culture in the right direction.

More Than Promote is just part of the on-going dialogue in the sustainability and social justice space. But for me it kicked off the next wave of sustainability – authenticity as a business tool. Any fool can see it now.

At SOAP, we’ve taken all this in and built a suite of services around performing Authenticity Audits. The audits normally reveal areas where risk needs to be mitigated, but more importantly, they shine a light on opportunities to innovate policies, procedures, employee engagement, marketing [yes] and corporate culture that improve business and sustainability performance.

Maybe reading this book is like pawing through a time capsule buried only a short time ago.  It’s not old enough to have any nostalgia value or the kinds of curious perspective historians uncover.  But things change rapidly, and maybe quick glances back every once and a while has more value than we think.

So that’s the new context with which to read this thing.

Or maybe you can skip it.

Thanks.

John Rooks

Portland, Maine

April 2012

Comments: jrooks@thesoapgroup.com

[1] I’m still a bit baffled that “sustainability consulting” as a conversation was and still is mostly dominated by branding companies, and was not capitalized on more by the environmental consulting community.  How did marketing become the defacto voice?  By doing what it does best, owning and then burning outtrends too quickly.

[2] Writing it also revealed that we had drifted from the IDEA of SOAP while scaling to chase the industry. The sad truth is that when you have a company full of designers, you go out and get more design work to feed the machine. We clearly, needed to start hiring more scientists and anthropologists and social critics - and then feed that machine.

[3] This isn’t to say that growth cannot be done authentically, but in general, not with the old tools of scale.