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book

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.‘ //

duckhouse

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.

AA

Environmentalism used to be all hair shirts and hippies, sitting on the edge of society.

In the playground, it was the well-meaning boy who smelt a bit. Or worse, the bossy up-tight girl who talked at you, not to you. In fact, even as it encroaches further and further on the mainstream, most people still think of environmentalism in these terms. And it is a big problem: there is nothing more off-putting than droning, one-dimensional worthiness.

To truly be welcomed into our lives, the green movement needs to develop a diversity of styles. Luckily, some more complex and challenging voices are starting to emerge: The Nag, fuelled in part by “hatred of pessimistic environmental activism”, tries to find new ways to change the world while “letting people be people”; Good magazine (“for people who give a damn”), aware of the perils of worthiness, balances in-depth coverage of serious issues with award-winning design.

This balancing act can be pushed further though, to the point where it creates a powerful ‘internal tension’ at the heart of a campaign or a brand. American Apparel have done just this, off-setting a pioneering welfare policy for their workers with their trademark sexually charged adverts and legal controversy. It is, I am convinced, what gives the clothier its unique cool.

And there are hints of AmAppy in the videos that Do The Green Thing produce, presenting their own sexed-up take on environmentalism:

These videos, more than anything else I have seen, recognise that if environmental organisations don’t want to sit on the fringes, some of them will have to learn how to live on the edge.

For those who are interested, the people at Do The Green Thing also recently wrote an impassioned plea for change within the advertising industry.

spades not ships

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Lord Woolton launched the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign to reduce Britain’s dependence on imports. The operation was a huge success and in the space of six years this dependence was halved, with allotments providing 10% of the nation’s food by 1945 (The Times, March 29, 2009).

Nowadays we are seeing a resurgence of ‘grow your own’ gardening, and it is no surprise to see schemes popping up that are named after Woolton’s war effort. The circumstances today, though, are clearly very different. In 1939 the motive for participation was clear and urgent, and the social pressure huge. In contrast, today our motives are diverse and less tangible. Reducing personal environmental impact and saving money in these (yawn) recessionary times surely feature, but mostly, this time around, it is a backlash. In particular, it is interesting that 1939’s was a top-down, above-the-line, authority-lead campaign, whereas today’s movement often asks us to put two green fingers up to the system: this is guerrilla gardening, after all.

Growing your own is not about conforming any more, it is about finding respite from our time-starved, energy-sapping society. It is about slowing down. It is the opposite of 24 hour Tesco’s. It is about relationships; with other people and with the food we eat. As one resident of my borough, Southwark, explains here at the 13 minute mark, it is an “antidote to urban living”.

The thing is though, that in practice we are a bit addicted to our modern existence. We often find ourselves tied to routines, stuck in a rut as we rush back and forth. It is going to take more than posters to make most of us step back and hoe, so the campaigns of today must work harder. They have to make it easy for us.

And gosh, do they try. They act at once nationally, regionally and locally, enlisting and negotiating with a host of private companies and public bodies, all in order to facilitate our ‘escape.’ Celebrity chefs are at the forefront, of course: we need poster boys, if not posters. Yet perhaps the biggest development, and most hope, lies in the way these campaigns actively foster connections between us. From the way Oliver Rowe stocks his Michelin-starred kitchen with produce from a local high school, to the way Channel Four partners land-owners and aspiring veg growers. Perhaps these connections are what will make the whole thing last, perhaps they are what should be celebrated.

The poster at the top is by Abram Games, a graphic artist famous for his motto: ‘maximum meaning, minimum means.’

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.

treadmill 2

To many people these days, marketing is inseparable from society’s ills: it powers the big hedonic treadmill upon which we trot, exhausted, unable to get off. Marketing (and marketers) do nothing but prey on our worst, most basic urges and propel us, ever onward, toward a materially-bloated, spiritually-starved oblivion.

This view is understandable (and not, actually, entirely underserved), though it does taste a little bit of the self-righteous. Jeremy Bullmore knows where it comes from, but points out that it is not a pragmatic outlook: “The human ingenuity that inadvertently created the mess we’re in will have to get us out of it. And proper marketing will be essential both in creating the demand and spreading the word.” He adds, “It may seem perverse; but despite the fact that the great gods of growth and consumption are about to be challenged as never before, we’re also going to need marketing as never before. It will just demand a greatly improved understanding of what marketing is and what marketing can do.”

For a new and naive (green?) student of these dark arts, Jeremy’s are soothing words. They ring true, but they also speak of problems of incredible scale and of much to be done, much to be learnt. They insist on more digging. This blog is intended to be my way of getting stuck in, of learning. It is my way of taking on this knotty, tough subject honestly, from any-which-way I can.

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//A note on the scope of this self-serving endeavour:

When George Washington and friends sat down to write the constitution of America they made four committees: that of the whole, that of detail; that on style and that on postponed matters. I feel entirely justified and not at all ludicrous in thinking of this poky online project in the same terms.

And so:

I hope to write wordily ‘of the whole’, asking ‘what role can communications and marketing play in tackling these biggest of problems?’and ‘what are their limitations?’. Yet I don’t want to descend entirely into wankery, so I will also try to roll up my sleeves and obsess ‘of detail’, getting beneath the surface of individual topics and issues and trends in the real world. Then, when writing ‘on style’, I will try to plumb techniques and methods and tricks of the trade; looking for best practice, if you like.

And of course, there will be more. Back in 1787, the committee ‘on postponed matters’ tackled all the most meaty, important stuff when it overflowed from the other categories. It will also surely be the best bits that I have overlooked: the unknown unknowns.//

The photo in the masthead is a cropped version of a piece by Andreas Gursky, the German artist.