Archive for the ‘of the whole’ Category


I have blathered before about the dual importance of pursuing transparency from companies and communicating any observations clearly and creatively. The people at Greenpeace, I said, seem to work with this principle at the top of their minds. Recently though, I have been learning about the murkiest, downright-dirtiest tactics used to influence opinion by so-called ‘special interests.’

One of the most stomach-turning practices has been dubbed ‘astroturfing’ and involves the artificial simulation of grass-roots support. This name, already too clever by half, feels particularly relevant to environmental concerns.

Typical examples are Shell and BP employees being told to secretly turn out for mass rallies in favour of big oil, and the deceitful use of stock-photos by the Federation for American Coal and Energy security. Yet astroturfing is not restricted to America or the oil industry: in the UK, the National Hydration Council is funded by three big bottled water companies and seeks to attack tap water through ‘unattributable briefings’ to the press.

And if all this didn’t seem murky enough already, consider this article by Ben Goldacre about the organic food industry, a darling of the middle-classes. Goldacre explicitly relates the communication policy of the Soil Association with that of other lobbying groups – they can twist facts and withold information as well as anybody. For him, chosing organic may make people feel good about themselves, but it is no solution: But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association.”

 Finally, not only are some organisations deliberately misrepresenting the origin of a message, but they are also consciously distorting the style and execution of their work in order to trick the public. Indeed, this is exactly what the (oil-funded) makers of this Al Gore’s Penguin Army’ clip did in order to give the impression that it was an amateur job – more astroturfing. As a point of interest, this is an entirely different phenomenon to that which seems to have affected both the BNP in their party political broadcasts and this truly tragic (oil-funded) campaign in the US. Here, the videos are presumably ugly because no one with any aesthetic sensitivity would go near them – a thought that could act as a handy rule of thumb.

Yet aside from judging content on its artistic credentials, ordinary folk can’t be expected to navigate through the fog; to see the difference between the good and the bad. Who can we believe? If some organisations are willing to go to such extraordinary lengths to fool people, we must ask the question: should traditional broadcast-style communication be deemed inherently untrustworthy? Is the only satisfactory goal complete openness,  traceability, accountability? Transparency, after all, is what you need when you don’t know who to trust.

I would certainly wager that the biggest plaudits, and opportunities, exist for those big companies that are willing to ‘grasp the nettle’ now. For example, in the US John Mackey, the CEO of Wholefoods, recently went into the lions den to address an audience of loyal supporters of Michael Pollan, an author who had criticised Wholefoods heavily in his book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Yet just by directly engaging in honest debate, the feeling was that ‘Mackey pulled off a brilliant PR move’, despite Pollan commenting ‘It was absolutely clear that no public-relations firm had a hand in your presentation’.

In the UK I have been fascinated by the ‘You ask, they answer’ column in The Guardian for a while. It seems to me to be ahead of its time: an early example of how companies may engage with consumers in the future. When a representative of a firm puts themselves forward, most readers’ questions are emotionally charged, barbed and leading, if they are questions at all. Yet I suspect the average, casual reader leaves with a similar impression to Charles Surface, who comments: ‘…you have a corporate here that has a detailed plan for improving its environmental impact, published it, and is implementing it. Moreover, they actively want you to hold it accountable and have sent someone to talk. You might stop puffing your own environmental credentials up for long enough to realise what a massively encouraging development this is.’

Of course, some companies will not be able to stand up to such scrutiny. Neal’s Yard Remedies, for example, fled the ‘You ask, they answer’ forum when the questions people wanted answering turned out to be about the efficacy claims of their homeopathic products, rather than their flash new environmental policy. But then perhaps Paul Sheldon of Natural Capitalism Solutions is right when he says ‘Hypocrisy is the first step towards meaningful change.’ All companies can talk the talk, but only a few will be able to walk the walk. To demonstrate consistent integrity. To be like  The Man With No Name.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from Pulp Sunday.


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If charity shops (or thrift stores, as they are known over here) were to stock words as well as clothes, you might expect to find ‘sustainable development’ slumped alongside all the plaid shirts and Levi’s jeans. After all, words are like clothes: they can become tired and lose shape with over-use.

Indeed, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir Geoffrey Palmer has pointed out the economic oxymoron contained within ‘sustainable development’, one that we do not usually address in everyday use. In the recent Economist debate ‘This house believes sustainable development is unsustainable’, the fact that the phrase itself has lost its precision was central to the argument of David Victor, the proposer: ‘Sustainable development is a beautiful-sounding idea that has become intellectually bankrupt and should be abandoned’. In any event, while the debate itself was lively and the points were well made, you never got the impression the two sides were talking about the same thing.

It strikes me that, while ‘sustainable development’ is a concept we are becoming increasingly used to hearing, it is one that can be difficult to communicate effectively. Fortunately, the moderator of the debate, Geoff Carr, managed to look beyond this vagary in his closing remarks, getting to what he thought was the heart of the matter: ‘This argument is the one between those who think that development is an indefinite process in which people are constantly striving to get ahead, but which can, indeed, be sustained indefinitely, and those who see an end to it all, a nirvana of happiness in which people will perceive that they have enough, have had enough of striving and will be content with their lots. We shall see.’

Yet to my mind this raises another problem with ‘sustainable development’ as a masthead: it is too easily dismissed as the mantra of the dippy and the idealistic. Even Carr can’t resist a dig when he talks of ‘a nirvana of happiness’.

I think though, that in his book Enough, John Naish hits upon a more powerful and potentially unifying frame for the whole thing. His central argument is that our modern lives are being stretched in too many directions, that we would all do well to break free, to shout ‘Enough!’, ‘Basta!’, ‘Ca Suffit!’

Of course there is nothing new about any of this. Way back in 1848, J.S.Mill wroteI confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.’ And John Maynard Keynes, the economist du jour, predicted that such an escape was possible within three generations in his 1932 essay ‘On the economic possibilities for our grandchildren’: ‘We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who teach us to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well.’

I think it is fair to say that on this occasion, optimism got the better of Keynes. Intuition tells us that Naish is right: our predicament has only got worse. In fact, I suspect that most people today would subscribe to the general sentiment of his book, if not all the detail. Perhaps ‘breaking out’ is a more engaging way to talk about the pursuit of sustainability?

It certainly seems to be an idea that is generating its own momentum. For example, the economist Umair Haque believes there is a generational aspect to it all – that the maturing ‘generation M’ are set to reject many existing aspirations. He recently addressed ‘The Old People Who Run the World’ with a manifesto: ‘You wanted growth — faster. We want to slow down — so we can become better…  … You wanted to biggie size life: McMansions, Hummers, and McFood. We want to humanize life.’ Now this is all hyperbolic (and very, well, American), but it is a sign that such ‘enoughist’ ideas may be infiltrating new areas of society and popping up in unexpected places. Like cereals.

If one goal of sustainable development is to encourage people to ‘live within their means’, then I think the message might benefit from a shift in emphasis. Despite the fact that the house voted that ‘sustainable development’ was not unsustainable, I suspect most people would struggle to relate the term to their daily lives. ‘Enough’ on the other hand, well, that feels richer to me.

After all, when I pop into the neighbourhood thrift store, I think it is less about embracing sustainability and more about being intimidated and bored by the ‘traditional’ high street. It is more about opting-out than opting-in.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from Princess Valium on Flickr. These posters hung on most street corners when I arrived in New York two weeks ago.

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In his book Enough, John Naish begins the chapter on ‘stuff’ by quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’

The passage refers to hedonic adaptation: the process by which we constantly strive for the next shiny object, only to be immediately disappointed when we acquire it. Naish attempts to trace this reflex back, past Josiah Wedgwood and the advent of ‘instant obsolescence’, to Neolithic hand-axes. We have long been a ‘species that is uniquely wired, compelled, hormonally drugged and scared into wanting things’, he tells us, but in recent times our society has become much better at giving us what we want.

On this subject, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides the meatiest snippets: ‘Our ancestors lived with far greater external constraints and had far fewer opportunities. The paramount importance of self-restraint has only now arisen in its pressing entirety before mankind.’ And so on the cover of Enough, Naish goes on to cry, somewhat less eloquently, ‘It’s time to evolve again: for our sake and the Earth’s.’ To his credit though, Naish does not put all his eggs in the evolution of a greater, nu-puritan consciousness (it is a slow process, I heard), but acknowledges that there are other levers to pull. I will focus on two which are relevant to marketing.

Things that last

In the self-help, five-step-style section of his book, Naish urges us ‘to be more materialistic’, to ‘care for our material things, rather than just using and discarding them,’ to appreciate their value. In fact, it is quite common advice these days: ‘if you must buy something, buy something slightly more expensive than you are comfortable with, and cherish it for longer’, we are told.

In marketing terms, while this message used to always come with a dollop of smug exclusivity (‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’), it is now the domain of humble, almost-highstreet Howies.  If such promises are ever going to win over the Primani army though, it is important that they are able to continue to provide and justify their worth. Perhaps this is what Rory Sutherland meant when he said ‘intangible value is probably the most sustainable form you can create’.

Things we use, but don’t own

When you stretch this concept further though, it is clear that you need a completely different form of transaction in order to break the old hedonic cycle of ‘want, buy, be disappointed’. One possible solution is a shift towards a rental, or membership based model. Think Lovefilm rather than Zavvi, and Zipcar rather than a dealership. Generally speaking, the advantage of these models is twofold: firstly, goods can be shared, so fewer have to be made in the first place (each Zipcar takes 15-20 household cars off the road); and secondly,  it becomes in the interest of the manufacturer to make stuff that doesn’t need to be replaced (no more ‘built-in obsolescence’, Arthur).

These ideas are very much in vogue, but they are not new: in 1999 Electolux piloted a pay-per-use rental scheme for washing machines in Sweden, but it failed due to lack of interest. According to Worldchanging ‘The program was met with a decisive yawn by consumers, who apparently didn’t want to change the way they paid for doing the laundry. The company… hopes to reintroduce it someday with better success.’ It seems that there is a need to familiarise people with these ideas and to stimulate demand, to beat a path to their door.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from *_*_*_*_*_* on flickr.

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//Following on from the previous post.//

To many people the very idea of a marketer calling for transparency may seem a little strange, but consider the following:

One of the first things you learn in an agency is the benefit of a tight brief, of clearly defining the problem on which you work. I imagine the same is true for any form of ‘witty problem-solving’ (a Bullmorism), from design to cruciverbalism: it is the very parameters and boundaries that actually create the best solutions.

In practice, marketers are mercenary bastards, to be sure. But you can also be sure that few (decent ones) would derive much satisfaction from helping EDF ape Ecotricity so shamelessly as this.

Parameters can come in many forms, from budget to scope to regulation (of which there should be more) to personal standards to just-knowing-you-would-be-found-out. Most marketers I know hope that the net tightens quickly on Greenwashing: it might make them work harder, but it would also make their work better.

The environmental marketing firm Terrachoice produce a guide to the ‘seven sins of greenwashing’ here. It is well worth reading. The picture at the top is one of theirs too.

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There is an interesting article in the recent RSA journal called Bringing values back to the boardroom by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School. Kanter is a prolific business writer and, according to her profile, the article serves as a preview of her upcoming (and 18th) book, The Vanguard: How Principle-Led Companies are Changing the World of Business (and Maybe the World).

It sounds like a page-turner: new business models “arise from the ashes of a failed capitalist model” while the titular vanguard of corporations is “putting social value at the heart of its operations – and is gaining the competitive edge.” I don’t want to judge a book by its coverage, but when reading her article I can’t help but be a bit nervous about the energy she gives the companies and the bit-part she gives to ordinary people, to consumers: “Enlightened self-interest makes efforts sustainable, because employees, customers, and shareholders reward good conduct with their loyalty.”

Kanter describes her ‘vanguard’ as those companies where “values, principles and attention to society have moved from the sidelines to the centre of business strategy” and strong leadership results in them “being guided by standards and principles that are not reducible only to economics.” It strikes me that what Kanter neglects to mention is that, while many companies are going through a period of great change and some are being more progressive and extensive than others in their reform (and should be applauded), this is all happening against the backdrop of rapidly increasing expectations.

In recent times, the emergence of the internet has given activists the means to better organise and share information, while also enabling them to easily disseminate it among the wider population. During the same period, the man in the street has become a more critical and sophisticated consumer and environmental concerns have risen up the political and social agenda. It is amid this change that CEOs are waking up and looking ahead. They are looking ahead to a world of increasing transparency in which the inner workings of their business will be submitted to ever greater scrutiny and top talent will be drawn toward the most socially-acceptable competitor.

‘Transparency’, ‘scrutiny’ and even ‘fear’ are all words notable by their absence from Kanter’s piece, but ones that must be part of any truly honest analysis of corporate reform today. Surely there is a perception of necessity, rather than just aspiration, driving the “enlightened self-interest” that Kanter talks of?

Compare for example, the way in which she and Greenpeace evaluate IBM. Both rate the company highest in its category and remark on the importance of its leadership, but in their style of analysis, they diverge. Greenpeace’s ranking is transparent and relative whereas, for the moment at least, Kanter’s ‘vanguard’ has the air of a gentlemen’s club with mysterious entry requirements: you are either in or you are out.

Her last paragraph reads: “Values and principles, including respect for people and concern for the environment, contribute to numerous business capabilities: sensing opportunities and stimulating innovation; enhancing customer success and value for end users; attracting and motivating top talent; working collaboratively to react or change quickly; and tapping the extended family of business partners for new ideas or market reach. All of this creates sustainable institutions capable of survival and renewal in the interests of social good.”

I do not believe that these sustainable institutions are an impossibility, but am convinced that transparency and a great deal of scrutiny are vital in order to maintain them in the face of other strong market pressures. With such a long way to go, it is you and I, Greenpeace, William Shatner and initiatives like this that will help keep ‘the vanguard’ from resting on their laurels.

Now, one thing is for certain after that diatribe: I had better go and read that book.

// It is clear from flicking through Rosabeth Kanters’ profile that I am about as far out of my depth here as it is possible to be: 18 books versus 5 blog posts, to say the least. I do however, think it is relevant and in the interests of transparency to point out that Kanter works with IBM on their ‘Global Citizenship portfolio’ and that after writing the piece for RSA, a charity, it seems she renamed her book from ‘The Vanguard: How Principle-Led Companies are Changing the World of Business (and Maybe the World)‘ to the slightly more commercial ‘SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good.‘ //

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The incoming president of the IPA, Rory Sutherland, recently laid out his vision for the future of the advertising industry. He said a lot of positive things (more on this bit another time, so hold on to your cynicism for the moment):

“In promoting what we do, we should never underestimate the value our thinking can bring to wider society. Indeed part of the answer to the world’s environmental problems may lie in our hands. ‘Making people happy with less stuff’ is one of the fundamental challenges of the next 20 years, and it is, at its heart, a problem we are rather well placed to help solve. Intangible value is probably the most sustainable form you can create.”

Other tit-bits, however, would have been harder for the hardened ad-man to swallow:

“It concerns me how limited is the current understanding of how advertising changes behaviour – assuming it acts through conscious, rational persuasion and not much else… it alarms me that I can now learn more about the fundamentals of human nature from buying a £15 book than I seem to learn from the millions spent on conventional market research.”

But fear not, Don Draper, for Rory has a plan:

“…expect to see the IPA more deeply involved in related areas of consumer psychology, behavioural economics, herd theory, social theory and so on.”

To someone who may end up investing his career in this business, this is a good, honest, reassuring assessment. There is clearly a lot of progress to be made though, and perhaps the best I can hope for is to get a head start. In that spirit I spent much of this afternoon flinging myself from one blog to another, trying to approach behaviour change from angles other than ads. The most promising lead I found was when I took a run and a jump into the world of ‘Design with Intent’ by Dan Lockton:

“The variety of approaches to designing behaviour change, from different fields and disciplines, might loosely be described as Design with Intent, that is, strategic design intended to result in certain user behaviour.

While applied in very different contexts – choice architecture of supermarket shelves, default cycles on washing machines, avoiding assembly errors in manufacturing, making it safer for pedestrians to cross the street – the DwI techniques can be abstracted to a set of possible ‘tools’ (both physical and psychological) which can then be applied to other situations where a certain target behaviour is desired on the part of the user.”

For the last couple of years Dan has been working on a P.H.D at Brunel University, where he is developing a toolkit – a taxonomy – of ‘DwI’. He intends this toolkit to be employed in the design of sustainable behaviour and his website is bursting at the seams with case-studies that slot into the model. It will take me a good while to familiarise myself with the outline of the thing (v.0.9.), but I am convinced it will be time well spent.

And to help ensure that I do invest the time, I engineered the first dose of ‘design with intent’ into the blog this afternoon. By telling friends of its existence, I have now made my future commitment, or lack of commitment, visible. Like an exercise routine on Nike+ or the publishing of MPs expenses, failure is now failure for everyone to see.

Dan Lockton would file this kind of cheap trick along with CCTV in ‘surveillance’: “If people think others can see what they’re doing, they often change their behaviour in response, through guilt, fear of censure, embarrassment or another mechanism.” So, keep your eyes peeled.

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street sign

The company I work for have a tool to help illustrate how people think about their lives and prioritise decisions. It is very simple.

There are three layers:

circles one

My world: Things which happen to you and your family, directly, right now. Day-to-day frustrations. Moments of pleasure, of fear.

Our world: Things which happen to the people and places you know. Mates’ lives. Your town. The guy down the road.

The world: Things which happen to people you have never met or in places you have never been. Things that may affect anyone or everyone, but that seem so far away.

The theory is that many of our biggest problems (global warming, waste, diabesity...) occur in ‘The world’ for most people. However, the best way to change behaviour is to make them more intimate, to bring them in as close as possible – into ‘My world’. You see this logic in action all the time and it makes intuitive sense: I wear a helmet when cycling, not because I hear that six cyclists have died in collisions with lorries in London this year, but because I worry my mum would kill me if I were to crash without one.

Recently though, I have been wondering whether the growth of social networking should affect how we think of this communication model. It strikes me that, since we are all at it now, Facebook, Twitter and the rest might have made ‘Our world’ more powerful. Padded it out, if you like:

circles two

The organisational benefits of social networking are obvious, and are being exploited in countless interesting ways, from carrot mobs to tangible, traceable donations. Here however, I am interested in how these networks are changing our underlying behaviour.

A while back, The New York Times wrote about how social networking has boosted our ‘ambient awareness’ –the knowledge we passively pick up about the people around us. They dubbed ours ‘a brave new world of digital intimacy’ which “brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business” and where our identities are constrained. Speaking at TEDGlobal, the anthropologist Sandra Broadbent took a different angle, though she also spoke of increased intimacy. According to Broadbent, “these technologies are not networking us with more people, but reinforcing our communication with our inner circle.” Facebook is strengthening our core relationships.

This second claim in particular resonates with me: one shared thread between a small group of my school friends has accumulated more than 200 messages in just a few months, and I find it hard to imagine the same kind of interaction happening by any other means. It seems to me that social networking is unique in the way it can foster and sustain group conversations.

And so I want to know the answer to this question: ‘how can you leverage these group conversations and this ‘ambient awareness’ to make big issues seem more relevant and immediate?’ How can you move them, not just to ‘My World’, but to ‘Our World’?

The photo at the top was borrowed from imafungi1 on flickr.

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