“This train is no longer running.”
It's rush hour and I am stuck on a Brooklyn-bound F train at a station with no transfer options. I run up the steps and peek my head above ground. No bus stop in sight and no taxis circling. Only me and a sea of commuters looking for alternatives home.
I pull out my phone, tap open Uber, and within a few minutes my new best friend picks me up in a Honda Accord. He offers me a bottle of water as we zip past the crowd and within a few minutes, we pull in front of my house.
That is the joy of Uber.
They have a great brand too; they bring cats to your office and pickup your old stuff and deliver it to Goodwill. During the summer, you can call on them for an ice cream cone.
Here’s what else they do. They reportedly ordered and cancelled over 5,000 trips to irritate their rival, Lyft. They tracked their users’ locations without permission. And they threatened to run a smear campaign aimed at journalists who write about them in a negative light (i).
Uber has a wonderful interface to their product and a great brand presence, and they have created positive disruption within an industry. All of these are good things but, at their core, the way they operate their business seems misaligned with how they express their business.
When your business is doing good and having fun for marketing purposes but those efforts don’t translate back to the business itself or, better yet, aren’t an extension of the business model, then you have problems. And this is what is happening to Uber. Don’t let all the ice cream fool you.
And this narrative isn’t just an “Uber thing.” We have all experienced an inauthentic brand. American Apparel, the made-in-America, sweatshop-free clothing company that promotes its ethical manufacturing while exploiting young girls to sell their goods. Or the “buy-one, give-one” model that feels more like marketing than it does an altruistic approach to solve a social ill. Or the store that promotes their family values yet sells cheap crap that is designed to break. How does that model benefit my family? Or what about me, the owner of a design agency who promotes design integrity yet bought knock-off Eames chairs for the office? What’s that all about?
The idea of good (think: CSR or ethically sourced and other things like that) has become a must for organizations. In a healthy way, a consumer backlash is pushing companies toward triple-bottom-lines and other ways of making sure greed isn’t the driving motivator of the business. Oftentimes, however, good looks more like something done to tap into that Millennial desire to make purchases matter or to have a relationship with a brand—not something seeping from the very core of the organization.
Said another way, if you want a brand that talks about good then you need to evaluate every aspect of your organization, not just the expression. So how do we move past good as a brand expression and bake it into the actions of our model?
1. Reject the current assumptions
Often, our imaginations are held hostage by the way things “have to work.” The world around us dictates how we think, operate, and act. We buy into solutions and constructs without giving them much thought. But, as artist Ai Weiwei claims, “If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening.”
If we want our businesses to move past talking good to doing good, then we have to start pushing against the prevailing institutional assumptions. To do this, we must start asking more “what if?” types of questions designed to push past the standard operating procedures. If you are a fast-food chain then it makes total sense to open up on Sunday—especially in the South, where every God-fearing-southerner heads out to eat after church. So, when Truett Cathy founded Chick-fil-A and decided to stay closed on Sundays, it made no sense. This was a bold move that today costs the company millions in revenue each year. But they don’t just say they are family friendly; they actively work to create a culture where their employees and their families can have time together.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Chick-fil-A’s definition of “ family,” their decision takes guts. They chose to reject the common philosophy that in order to survive in the fast-food industry you had to serve sandwiches on Sundays. This is exactly the type of thinking you need. As soon as someone says, “that’s the way you have to do it” your ears should perk up and automatically begin to question that assumption.
Do you really have to use cheap labor to stay in business? Can you give up revenue in order to make more environmentally friendly decisions? What if you stopped carrying a particular product with a negative social impact, even if it was a top-seller?
2. Think about the product
Normally, when we talk about good outside of a brand it comes down to a model or company culture or something of that nature—like “buy-one-give-one” type of stuff or maybe some generous vacation policies or salary structures. These are all great ways to push at the current assumptions. But let’s not limit our thinking to just the back-end processes. Let’s make sure our product reflects our vision of good as well.
I once sat in on a conversation with a wildly successful CEO. His company had wonderful policies for their employees. They were cared for and paid well. He was thoughtful with how his philosophies and theologies drove all that his organization did—except when it came to the product itself. Yes, they were thoughtful in that they didn’t make obscene things but there was no philosophy of aesthetic or consumption or even obsolescence. No one asked, “Is this product too kitsch?” or “Should this product even exist?”
Your product might be benign in what it is. A pack of gum. A wicker basket. Whatever. But is what you make promoting consumption (or over-consumption)? Is it aesthetically pleasing or is it kitsch? Does it enhance one’s life? How was it sourced and produced? Do you have a philosophy of beauty that you are infusing into your products that moves past what it looks like and examines what it is?
When doing good, the product you sell matters.
3. Engage in thoughtful compromise
As an entrepreneur, CEO, brand manager, or employee working to bring change to your organization, you are pushing to accomplish big things through your work. No matter your role, you are facing real issues. The problems you are trying to solve are complex and this means you will need complex solutions. The technology, the model, the supply chain, the methods will all take an enormous amount of energy and effort to tackle. But, as C.S. Lewis noted, “…real things are not simple.” In the complexity we find that there are no easy ways to position things 100% the way you want them.
Hans Hess started the fast-food chain Elevation Burger out of a desire to see organically and ethically raised beef accessible to the average family. When you enter an Elevation Burger, you’ll find organic, free-range beef, fries fried in olive oil, shakes made from hormone-free milk, bamboo wood floors, and energy efficient griddles.
And yet, you can order a Coke with your burger. All that energy and effort into the beef and you can still wash it down with a huge slurp of high-fructose corn syrup. On the outside, it looks like a contradiction in values but when you dig in, you see it as a thoughtful compromise.
The revenue generated from soda allows Hess to keep the costs of the burger lower, making real food more accessible to a wider range of people. “If you want to have a business that can sustain itself,” says Hess, “then you have to make some of these compromises and choices. You can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.” Hess admits it’s a problem, but we can see he has thought about it.
Hess continues, “So we still have soda fountains because that’s how we, in some ways, make it financially. But at the same time, I would rather have somebody coming in and having an organic burger with that Coke rather than [going to] the other guys, where they’re going to have the Coke and the factory burger.”
The idea might be simple, “let’s sell better hamburgers.” But after that, the decision tree becomes anything but simple. Thoughtful compromise keeps the vision from dying. Hans knew what he was doing by allowing soda into the restaurant and he made a decision in the sprit of Henry Clay, who once said, “What can I afford to let go of for the sake of what I hope to achieve.” (ii)
A Complete Expression
Brands work best when they reflect the true nature of your organization. This is especially true when you are building a brand that promotes good. Every part of your model, your supply chain, your backend processes, and the products themselves must be designed to be a reflection of the good that your brand promotes. Only when actions and expressions are aligned will you have a brand that does more than offer hype.
(ii) The ideas in this point have plagued my thoughts for years and are still muddy. However, through conversations with my friend Dave Blanchard and a recent issue of Comment Magazine, my thinking has started to crystalize. I owe the bulk of this point to Comment and the contributors to that issue—this article by J.K. Smith and this one by Marilyn McEntyre. The example of Elevation Burger was taken from this article and this one.