31 posts categorized "Social Innovation"

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 2 of 4


Read Part 1. This new post talks about the following rule:

2) Don't have anything to hide. It just makes for more hypocrisy.

Have you ever taken a trip to the fine city of Energyville?

Chevron has taken it upon themselves to design a game that shows just how hard it is to keep electricity flowing to the nation's cities without traditional fossil fuels in the mix. And you know what? They're completely right. It would be hypocritical of me to think that within the next two weeks, let alone ten years, we're going to be able to generate enough energy from alternative energy sources to create a major offset of fossil fuels in the United States to power our cities, cars, and planes.

That said, Chevron is hypocritical to think that a simple game modeled off Sim City and designed for smarty-pants liberals who listen to NPR and wear corduroy is going to change my impression of their company and business model. Yes, they have invested billions over the past half-decade into alternative energy sources--but I know that's a mere fraction of the profit they've been raking in from this multi-year spike in oil prices. It is not in their corporate interest to shift from their main source of revenue (oil) to envisioning a future tied up in alternative energy sources. They have to keep the pumps running, putting out other fires, and paying out those serious dividend checks.

For the American populace and the Democratic government, Chevron has an infinite distance to travel to be seen as a good citizen. It was never part of the core DNA of the Chevron brand to be promoting "Human Energy" -- that was an evolution required by a hardcore assault by the Democratic government that's just the tip of the iceberg. Chevron's "Will You Join Us?" microsite is just an attempt to soften the blow of reality and make the public aware of just how morally fraught their position is. For those who don't see the whole picture, they have succeed, but at what cost? Chevron is part of a web of hypocrisy contingent on real change across multiple industries. Every time they report record profits for their shareholders, they look more like a hypocrite.

So, how can Chevron escape out of this marketing death spiral?

By following this corollary to the second law:

Humility and honesty is the only antidote to hypocrisy.

Not in a clever video game, mind you -- humility in a company-wide acknowledgment of the real impact oil has on the world at large and the direct steps they're going to take over the next 50 years to evolve their business out of oil and force other industries, such as car and airplane manufacturers, to focus their energy on alternative fuel sources. Articulate who you want to be without oil and people will respect you for your honesty and vision -- plus, you'll make more impact than all the companies like TerraPass that are trying to aggregate people's individual contributions into a motivator for real change. That would be a reflection of a true commitment to sustainability.

A similar strategy to Chevron has recently been taken by Chevrolet to focus on how they're developing a range of fuel solutions for their vehicles. This kind of marketing is just primed for a backlash, however, as it doesn't show true humility about how they'd like to get into the zero-pollution game with all of their car lines. And if Chevrolet doesn't pay off their vision with measurable results, they will always be seen as the villain. And it doesn't help that their primary ad image when this campaign broke was a boy hugging a tree. Um, right.

It'd be easier for Chevron and Chevrolet to spin off their green businesses, get them successful, then fold their old, tainted brands out of business than to reinvent their brands as they exist today.

Maybe I'm the one being naive... but it seems from this flurry of marketing activity, the oil game can't change unless you get out of oil. The whole position of "Saying No to No" that I saw in a recent Shell ad (that ripped off a photo that was on the cover of the CommArts photo annual and the New York Times Magazine) is saying to avoid being hypocritical. That's even more meaningful coming from an oil company, right?

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 1 of 4

Carbon Buttprint

It's difficult to work in marketing and live without illusions. Hypocrisy is something you can't escape when you sell a product or service. There is no perfect marketing message.

Unlike public relations, which can veer from great journalism to thinly disguised product placement, marketing doesn't claim to holiness. You're telling other people to focus their attention on a single element of a complicated product or service, all the while attempting to differentiate your client from their peers.

No wonder people equate lawyers with advertising professionals at the bottom of the professional food chain. Both of them deal in arbitrary versions of the truth, contested and argued before a court of your peers. At least salespeople get to have a conversation with their clients, while marketers often inject static messaging into the world at large, hoping that their audience aligns their loyalties with your line of thinking.

When you look at your marketing message in this way, I think it becomes evident why it's so hard for companies to market charitable initiatives, present themselves as socially responsible through mass media, or demonstrate true concern about environmental change. You're asking people to look you in the eye and perhaps smile, but they can't help but focus on the spot of blood on your cheek, trickling slowly towards the ground...

With this in mind, I'd like to propose the following three laws regarding the pitfalls of marketing your corporation's social responsibility. And at the end of this series, I'll provide guidelines that companies can follow to minimize the amount of perceived hypocrisy your social responsibility marketing can have on your brand -- and so you don't end up as a social offsetter like CITGO.

This post talks about the following rule:

1) You can't market social responsibility without an ounce of hypocrisy.

CREDO Mobile (formerly Working Assets Wireless) gives 1% of all wireless fees to liberal charities and organizations, straight off the top. Over they past 23 years, they've given $50 million to charity. Sounds great on paper. Looks good in the ads. Makes you feel like you're part of something bigger. Keeps you in your tribe of like-minded friends.

And if I do the math correctly, that is approx. $5 billion in aggregated revenue for Working Assets. So... why don't you just give that $50 million straight to the charities involved and use AT&T? Over the past 60 years, AT&T has donated $1.6 billion dollars (and counting) to social causes from their foundation. Sure, I don't have control over where AT&T donates their money. $1.6 billion is a micro-fraction of the many gazillions AT&T has made over the years. And I know they're getting a big tax break from their foundation revenue. With that in mind, I'm going to stick with their cell-phone service and go write a big check to the ACLU.

I love the idea behind CREDO Mobile and hope that they have continued success. But I can already hear the meetings cranking up in the AT&T corporate offices about how to cut off CREDO at the pass and crush them with their own big charitable digits. Every little bit counts, but if you've got lots of big bits, you have a better story.

This leads to a corollary to the first law of marketing social responsibility:

Context overrules substance. Your audience and competition will always have a counter-argument to your marketing position.

No matter how much you donate to a charity or how much you reinvent your business model to be more socially responsible, be aware of the context of change.

Change in the realm of social responsibility is incremental and somewhat arbitrary. You can never do enough to manifest real impact. It can only be aggregated over time and eventually quantified on a fiscal basis. Unlike marketing the benefits of a product such as a cell phone, which can be itemized and positioned against similar benefits of your competitor's phones, social responsibility has no parity other than how much you donate and who it goes to. Equality between charities is morally relative -- one person's National Rifle Association is another person's American Cancer Society.

Now, another corollary:

The risk of hypocrisy increases as social responsibility increases.

Take, as a recent example, the TerraPass.

Carbon offsetting is the rage in social responsibility. The TerraPass has gained a lion's share of press in the market, promoting offsetting as well as behavioral change as key ways to make a difference in the environment and help reduce global warming.

According to the ticker at the bottom of their website, they've helped 75,000 individuals and businesses offset 708,573,072 pounds of carbon emissions. That made me feel warm and fuzzy, because those numbers show that they've made a tangible difference. Their site does a bang-up job of describing the ways that you can participate without veering into preachy territory. It made me comfortable to give it a shot.

So, where's the hypocrisy in the TerraPass? It's hard to sniff out, but I'll take a stab:

They're selling the future. And the future is a hard product to offer, because it may never materialize in the bright, glossy, natural form that we imagine. (Yes, I have read The World Without Us. That isn't likely to happen... yet.)

I went and reviewed the Executive Summary of the EPA's summary report on Greenhouse Gases. It said that there were 6,089.5 teragrams of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in 2005. Needless to say, as I did the math my warm fuzzies rapidly evaporated under the hot sun of those statistics.

A much, much greater quantity of people -- an order of magnitude greater -- needs to participate in the TerraPass program and others like it before any real change occurs. We're so far in the hole on carbon emissions that it can seem a Sisyphean task to recover.

With regards to carbon offsetting: you can market the benefit, but the only tangible is how you feel after you've written your check and the knowledge that sometime in the future, the needle will swing one micron in the right direction. (And this seems like a silly little point, but here goes: they started with a team from a university, but are now a corporation. As a nonprofit, they may have been able to administrate their efforts more affordably and sink their excess revenue into more projects. On the other hand, as a for-profit corporation, things can get a heck more nimble and there's usually less politics about the whole enterprise.)

The TerraPass vision? 10 billion pounds of carbon offset and a million people participating in their program. What's wrong with that? Not much, unless those billions are amortized over, say, 25 years. Using the above math, and assuming the carbon output of the U.S. is stable, we won't have made that much of a dent. Why not just browbeat the oil companies through legislation into speeding up their development of alternative energy sources? Reduce plastics use and replace with alternative, biodegradable resources? There's always a faster way, with the right money and resources, to go further. Oi.

This is a third corollary of the first law:

A better charitable decision can always be rationalized by your audience. Be prepared for it. Roll with it. Consider using it.

I love the TerraPass and will be using it when I take plane flights. But I have no illusions that I'll perceive a demonstrable, positive climate change in my lifetime from their efforts. And there's no way TerraPass can be a success if they come out of the gate with that kind of truth. Sorry, Al Gore, but here's how I'm reducing my carbon footprint: I'm not having kids. What kind of special bonus credit do I get for that?

A Case Study in Social Offsetting: CITGO

Social Offsetting

Sell now, reap the reward now, ignore the consequences later. This strategy is social offsetting. This strategy is an all too common parlance in today's advertising world.

The work can be socially responsible, but not sustainable. It can be meticulously researched, but not insightful. It can be extraordinarily gorgeous in its production values, but vapid. It can illuminate deep investment in local communities, only matched by the vast sums lavished on advertising said investments for brand lift.

A recent example is a brand advertising campaign currently running for CITGO. It's a perfect example of social offsetting -- focusing on the positive impact on local community, making an investment in social responsibility on a day-to-day basis, all the while ignoring the long-term expense owed to the world at large regarding the product that they sell.

CITGO Local Jobs Ad

Social Offsetting is a Risky Maneuver

Why is it that our oil industry, which is one of the most profitable corporate ventures in today's economy, is wasting gallons of money on incredibly dumb advertising instead of investing in our increased independence from petroleum products? This is a rhetorical question. We know the answer: employees, shareholders, political stakeholders, and franchises. Incremental profits and dividends. Short-term and long-term gains.

The greenwashing race has been on since the heady days of the BP rebrand, and long enough for the inevitable backlash to crash down on unsuspecting corporations, drag them through the muck, and gracefully recede to leave their gasping corpses on the beach for all to see. Gracefully rich corpses, mind you.

What concerns me now, however, is that oil companies with little or no "green story" are pouring money and thought into tastefully executed ad campaigns that attempt to either immunize customers from the increased hypocrisy regarding oil use in America, or shift our focus onto immediate human needs and turn a somewhat blind eye towards the future impact of the use of their products.

Looking at these dumb ads can be like reading a terrible creative brief. Take the ad which I've included here from CITGO.

Imagined creative brief: Companies such as Chevron are touting figures that point to their investment in alternative energy. Customers are angrier than ever about rising gas costs. How can we increase brand lift for Citgo and potentially increase consumption of our gasoline without a strong social responsibility/alternative fuels message?

Solution: Let's focus on the human condition. Let's make it personal. It's more important than ever to foster brand loyalty towards a specific brand of gas, since it's pumped by a local gas station near your home. It's not about the price of the gas. It's about supporting local business and communities and the jobs in this unstable economy that are preserved. It's about the people who man the pumps.

This position would be fabulous... if it really meant anything. By reading the copy in this ad, I learned a number of things, but none of them created a real point of differentiation against other gas stations, or other local franchises, for that matter.

This well-designed, well-executed ad has only served the purpose of making CITGO look like a company that doesn't give a damn about the long-term effects of their products on society. The sale of their products benefits the owners of their franchises and their shareholders. Bully to them. But it isn't sustainable. It doesn't hold up against their competition, who are hammering on sustainability hard. CITGO just looks like they're being facile. And it never helps when the guy who owns your business also happens to be a head of state that loves to hammer on George W. Bush (which we Democrats do anyways, but we usually aren't hanging out with Fidel Castro).

As we follow this logic:

CITGO thinks we all believe oil companies (may) own our corner gas stations, and the employees that work there are shills for the man. Just like at 7-11. And McDonalds. In fact, they assume we don't know that many major corporations that sell products sourced globally are franchises or licensees. Which would make CITGO just like pretty much any other corporation that sells a parity product. They have to franchise them. They don't want to dirty their hands with the actual effort managing thousands of local retail locations would require, including becoming good local citizens on the ground level.

Since the oil industry is doing so well, it's helping to keep people employed and prosperous in a down economy. This is the same case for any scarce resource, and while we haven't reached peak oil yet, they're in the business of putting us all out of business. Again, the short-term view rears its head.

These employees have money to support local communities, since they're doing so well. Ah... just cause they're doing well doesn't mean they're supporting local communities. Don't assume that everyone that owns a CITGO station is a good samaritan, unless it's required as part of their corporate charter (which I wouldn't be surprised if it was.) But this is a small point. You're still selling gas. Are you really being telling me something in this ad I didn't know already?

What really gets my goat, however, is that I spotted the CITGO ad in Harper's, where you practically need a Master's Degree to read some of the book reviews. These well-educated readers are going to see this ad, think about it for two minutes, and shred it with their intellect like a hot knife through Earth Balance buttery spread. Especially since the editors at Harper's have focused on peak oil issues and energy independence as a major topic of interest for some time now. Did your media planner read the magazine before making the buy? Did your media planner think that 97% of Harper's readers would know that CITGO is effectively owned by Hugo Chavez? (Actually, they might score some points there with those wacky Marxist college professors.)

Yes, it helps when you place your dumb ads in magazines where people will recognize just how dumb they are. Now come up with something better that doesn't belittle the real situation we're in.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the ad campaign from McDonald's about how they're supporting local businesses, as well as farms and slaughterhouses, and by extension making the world a better place.

The Right Kind of Transparency

Clearly, if we have cars, we need some kind of fuel. I totally understand that. I have an old Corolla that I drive to client meetings and band practice. I can't be so much of a hypocrite that I can't understand that I'm contributing to the problem. In fact, I'm educated enough to know that if I could reduce this argument to a simple answer, we wouldn't be having it. It's a wicked problem that will take hundreds of years to unravel.

However, I am mindful enough to think of the impact of my driving four miles to work, and try to minimize it by bussing or biking. I am investing time, energy, and attention into ventures that are looking to get us out of the petroleum game, both in making lifestyle choices (such as buying very local foods), in choosing socially responsible investment vehicles, and in having been a vegetarian for 13 years.

And because of this, and because the biodiesel movement is fraught with all sorts of risks and perils, I actually appreciate it when companies such as Chevron point out that they've invested $1B in alternative energy and are attempting to migrate their business into that as a long term venture. $1B is a drop in the bucket compared to their profit margin last year, and their marketing has its own hypocrisies that piss me off and will be mentioned in a later post. But I appreciate it when they don't skirt around the fact that we need oil now, but are trying to sell me a future with reduced independence. This "putting ourselves out of business" argument holds a lot more weight for people who are mindful about their footprint.

Now, if you've made it this far through this unintentional screed, you're going to be very interested in what follows. (And I should disclose that I wrote all of the above before I went to the CITGO Web site.)

For some reason, CITGO actually pushed to the public not only all of the TV and print ads, but also the media schedules for their ongoing campaign, their top-level market research, their audience segmentation and personas. I think it's pretty rare when a corporation puts live to the viewing public the thinking that supports their advertising at a strategic level. And there's a good reason why we don't expose this thinking to our audience. It makes corporations look ruthless, manipulative, and reductive. In many ways, that summarizes intelligently executed marketing strategy. However, seeing the wizard behind the curtain has a way of making the puppet show look mighty flimsy.

Thanks to CITGO, I know that I fall into the Progressive Activist category when it comes to their marketing. They've created a lovely logo to personify my recycling-junkie ways. They've told me when they'll be reaching me with these ads. They have big plans to educate the masses about their efforts. They've identified the issues of greatest importance to me and my corporate fellows, such as Environmental Stewardship, Local Ownership, and Social Development. Yes, Environmental Stewardship is one of eight pillars of their positioning, but they aren't talking about reducing dependence on oil. After all, it says on their Web site that "gasoline is still cheaper than bottled water" with regard to how much value they can squeeze out of every ounce of crude.

Yes, I'm quoting somewhat verbatim from copy on their Web site.

Yes, it is quite embarrassing to tell your customers on a page advertised on their corporate site exactly how you're going to convince them that you're not all that bad. Then again, look at poor Barkley out of Kansas City. They couldn't stem the PR nightmare and the flood of money that gushed out when 7-Eleven pulled out of working with CITGO in 2,100 stations due to its ties to Venezuela and Hugo Chavez. Even local gas stations are doing the same today. CITGO is clearly looking for a way to purchase themselves out of a rock-bottom brand position with the American public.

And they've continued that downward trend beautifully by showing me just how much they consider me part of their future. CITGO's exposure to the public of their market research and segmentation plans, how they are working to shape my opinions to like them more, and the lengths they want to go to do so in public, bald language, is both arrogant and galling.

Don't tell me how you're going to change my mind to like you more -- especially when you didn't include a Web site URL or other call to action in your ad to find out more information. Clearly, you didn't want me to look. I did. And look what I found: Beautifully designed, tastefully photographed, well-written ads calculated in a gambit to "change perceptions about CITGO among opinion leaders across the country," targeted at influentials like myself.

Guess what. You succeeded. I now have an even lower opinion of CITGO.

And I also have a parting request: Invest your advertising money in something more worthwhile, like these local communities that you love to tell me that you support.

Sustainability is Experience Diversity

Sustaintability Collapse

We may like to gloat about once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the long vacations to exotic locales and unrepeatable dinners at the restaurant that closed long ago, but more often than not, we discuss the things that we share in common.

Television shows. Products that can obtained anywhere, always taste the same, and are sold for the same price (or less, if it's on sale) no matter where you find them. Starbucks, Target, and Jamba Juice, repeated endlessly on an ever-repeating suburban filmstrip.

At least we have something in common, right? Something to chat about on the long ride home, on Twitter, at the cocktail party where you don't know anyone around you and don't know where to begin.

Well, let's begin at the beginning: People share relatable experiences. That's been going on since we invented language. Then advertising came along, and talked about all these products and services that sewed us even closer together in a cultural microcosm, shaped by shared products that reflected our lifestyles. At least, that was the intent.

Advertising is most effectively applied in differentiating parity products, and the very idea of nurturing a parity product runs completely counter to sustainable business practices.

The idea that a mass produced product, which supports a shared experience, ties us together as brethren in an otherwise undifferentiated American horde. It's pointing to a fundamental hypocrisy about mass-produced products and the efficiencies that corporations engineer to keep their prices low.

If you're running a sustainable business, your only competition should be yourself. The energy and ethos behind your products or services should be as crystal clear as a plate glass window.

This is why corporations are scared witless about the complete reinvention that's necessary to be a responsible corporate citizen. It's infinitely easier for a corporation to react to its corporate peers. It's nigh difficult to turn yourself inside out, change everything from how you product your products to whether you should even be selling those products anymore. Organic Rice Krispies, anyone?

No wonder so many companies are pouring salt on the wound: marketing cars like the Chevy Volt in the hopes that some green will rub off on their other products; starting up crafty arguments about why we can't give up on oil just yet; calling foods natural in the grocery store when they aren't organic, sustainably grown, or local. Let's focus on the battle and lose the long-term war, one hypocrisy at a time. You're still selling me cars, gasoline, and produce shipped overnight from Chile. (More on the latter later.)

Change doesn't happen overnight, but without real incentive to change, then nothing will happen. Fast. Watch the land rush towards and away from biodiesel. Sustainability is the antithesis of the next big thing. It's a bunch of small, unique things that come from around the corner.

We need to encourage people to make choices that use fewer resources, more equitably and intelligently, and in the process, provide a more unique result.

As designers, we need to shy away from the mass experience and think about how we foster small, local, exclusive experiences. Desirable experiences made from things that will peacefully fade away with little to no impact on the world.

Here's some ways we can help usher in this new kind of thinking about business.

Focus marketing on fostering unique individual experiences -- micro-products that extend off brands for a limited time. Encourage clients to build businesses out of them, clustering them together meaningfully.

Stop thinking about consistency. Focus on the evanescence of your product in the face of time, its exclusivity, and how that can be a powerful motivator if you have something truly unique.

This business model is familiar to vinters, brewers, and other fermented products, but has yet to heavily impact mass-produced goods at supermarkets, which are controlled by multinational corporations.

When touring the Scharffen-Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, California, the guide told us about how they would purchase and blend cacao from multiple sources every few months to try and keep the flavor profile across the product consistent. This required great care and attention from their cacao buyers to get the highest-quality beans that had overlapping taste characteristics, often paying up to five times the market rate and often ensuring that their beans were organic in nature from cacao farms that were vetted for fair labor practices.

At the same time, their cacao buyer would ensure that if a great batch came through with a very strident and unique flavor, they would buy up all of those beans and make a unique line of single-origin chocolate bars that would vary season to season. These single-origin bars, to my palate, completely trump their main products in terms of quality and taste. And when those bars are sold out, they're gone for good. Can you imagine a straight-up single varietal Hershey's bar? That's not American. (Don't get me started about chocolate. I'm as passionate about chocolate as I am about design, and that's scary.)

Practically any mass-market product can be produced on a small scale, in a clustering model, in a truly sustainable way. It just requires playing by your own rules, going against the grain of large-scale business ventures.

One of my friends, Melissa, is the first florist in Seattle to exclusively offer local, organic, and sustainably grown flowers. She's creating this kind of dream, customer by customer, and even planning a co-op to wholesale those flowers to other florists, breaking a chain built up by the big dogs like Teleflora and 1-800-FLOWERS. She's one of my inspirations and role models for how it's possible to take a given about an industry controlled by corporate giants, completely reinvent the rules, and offer an experience supported by exclusively local, handmade, and mostly organic merchandise in her store as well. Her store sticks out because there are so few people in a socially conscious city that are actually walking the walk.

Every time I think a thought such as, "Hmm... I bet that plastic factory can't find a replacement for those plastic spoons," I see something like Taterware and am continually reminded that corporations rarely are motivated to change their behavior. Individuals are making the difference in the sustainability game.

Be aware of the nuance of your decisions. It's not always easy to know you're doing the right thing, and you'll need due diligence at every turn.

The Eat Local movement, among other current trends in sustainable agriculture, is promoting that we eat what's in season and available in our local region, ideally within 100 miles. The logic dictates that you'll reduce the use of fossil fuels in transporting, say, grapes from Chile to your supermarket.

There's been some recent, very fascinating talk in the New York Times Magazine that has dug into this premise very deeply, what I find most important from this dialogue is that whenever a critical mass of people gloms onto a purchasing trend, what usually happens is that people make the easiest choice to fulfill that new desire. In the example from the above article, the Catch-22 is buying locally-grown produce spawned in a greenhouse during the winter. It's local: check. Compare this to buying tomatoes grown in a warm climate by the sun (free energy), and then shipped to you. Less energy use... but in both cases, not sustainable.

Often, when making a case for sustainability, it's the lesser of two evils, unless you can control every single decision through the food chain, like my friend Melissa above. In the winter, she needs to ship in organic flowers, while in the summer, she can get them grown locally. It has to balance out in the end.

If you're passionate about being a thought partner with your client, you should engage them regarding sustainability in not only their marketing, but in anything that you consider an environmental factor.

I don't think it's unfair to bring up to a client that you see opportunities for them to improve their business practices, brush up their PR, and less their impact on the environment. And if you're being hired to obscure or gloss over the facts at hand, you should be prepared to mosey along.

The measure of success for a marketer is their ability to understand the essential truth about what their audience needs from them, not imposing what they believe the client wants at a merely abstract level. Bringing sustainability into play as a fundamental attribute of your business forces you to come to terms with not only what your audience desires from you, but also what the audience desires for the future of our society. This kind of scrutiny is massive for any slow-moving corporate beast, but I do hope that the wheel will continue to turn, ever slowly, to get this cruise ship into dock, where it can be recycled for scrap.

Eco Luxury: Not to Scale, Yet

Eco and Indie Luxury

My big advice to Nau 2.0: Charge more for your clothes. And start as small as you can.

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the rise of Indie and Eco Luxury, and one of the hero companies of Eco Luxury that I mentioned was Nau. They were one of the first attempts at creating a luxury brand that forcefully marketed ecological, sustainable, and stylish clothing through online and direct retail stores.

Sadly, due to a lack of venture capital funding Nau was forced to shut their retail stores and sell off all of their stock at a discount. There's been much talk in the blogosphere about what killed Nau v1.0:

Their unusual, I mean novel, retail model. Nau stores generally carried one size of each style and encouraged store visitors to have their purchases shipped to their home instead of buying them in the store. Critics have noted that many luxury fashion purchases are often made on whim, and the inability to easily carry a purchase out could have been a negative for the buying experience. (I personally didn't care when I had made an purchase there, but then again, I'm not really a luxury shopper.)

Their all-Flash Web site. Nau.com, as much as I love it from a branding perspective, was not created in a manner that made it easy to shop and had weak user experience. When the brand launched, some of my designer friends had hammered on the site design as an example of design trumping usability, which is definitely a bad place to be for a design-oriented brand that focuses on function and form.

Their oversized ambition regarding audience demand. Nau's business plan hinged on continued rounds of investor financing to ensure their continued growth into more retail locations. This is what really spiked Nau's ambition, when you boil all of this down. Instead of fostering an audience through their Web site and then growing that online audience into local retail, where demand had been generated, Nau was looking to expand into new locations even as they were discussing shutting their doors. My neighborhood of Fremont in Seattle was the destination for one of those new locations.

I find it fascinating that a company that wanted to live, eat, sleep, and breathe sustainability in clothing production, distribution, and sales practices didn't launch their business by only selling through the Internet, or intentionally limit their market by starting very exclusive before mass-producing their line and attempting to go big retail. Millions of dollars were wasted in proving that without a strong online customer base, a compelling retail experience in a few upscale markets isn't quite enough to keep the doors open.

Had Nau offered a smaller product line that was made to order and was perhaps more exclusive in both price point and retail placement, my gut tells me that they would have organically created a group of loyalists that would have evangelized the brand when they dove into the mainstream retail market as their own storefront.

Small pioneering eco-luxury brands such as Mink Shoes took about as long as Nau's lifespan to get off the ground, and still haven't achieved any major economies of scale. But they're profitable, and resell through many top retailers. A recent article in Fast Company echoes similar sentiment regarding the need to find sustainability through selling small quantities of green products in the luxury market. You won't see Barney's selling 2,000 of the same pair of eco-friendly shoes. Eco Luxury has a long, long way to go if it's going to scale to the mainstream in any meaningful way.

Hindsight is 20/20 here. And luckily, Horny Toad has swooped in and purchased the Nau brand and legacy, along with much of the original staff, to give it another go. Here's hoping that with this new financial backer, Nau 2.0 will be able to create a sustainable business practice through actual clothing sales that matches the deep philosophical roots that underpin their products.

So, back to what I said at the start of all this...

Okay, Nau 2.0: Now that thousands of your loyal customers have jumped up and down and told you how much we want you to stick around, I don't think we'll mind paying a little more for your clothes -- especially if that will allow you to continue donating 5% of each purchase to charity.

If you're going to try and keep the luxury mantle on your products and your philosophy untouched, that's one of the few ways to keep an edge on the dozens of other fashion brands that are now rolling out eco-friendly lines alongside their usual unsustainable practices.

And we'll forgive you for the missteps along the way... just be sure to be a little smarter about what you're doing this time.

Trying to Solve a Wicked Problem?

It Would Be Easy

When you work as a professional in the area of solving problems for clients, no matter what your discipline, there's rarely a roadblock you run up against that can't be overcome through collective brainpower or sheer brute force.

Most designers would be loath to concede defeat in the face of a client need. We thrive on challenges that require all of our wits to surmount, either by solving a difficult problem with an elegant design solution, or reframing the problem to probe the thinking behind it and come up with a new problem to solve properly. Wrong audience, business, message, media: no problem. Just adjust these dials, push a button or two, and we've recalibrated the machine for maximum throughput. Press "print" or "go live" and all will be well in the state of Designopolis.

Once you start playing with the big corporations, however, you aren't solving simple problems anymore. Instead of digging a hole to plant your tree, you're asked to move a mountain, spoonful by spoonful, to the other side of the bay. And while you're at it, can you raise customer satisfaction in the 24 to 40 age bracket by 20 percent and sell $2 million more of our product line, and pronto? Different goals and needs become tangled together. What you as a designer can control, and what your client controls, become contingent. Insert a wicked problem here, and it'll all go haywire.

Wicked problems. Big, thorny, gnarly problems. The kinds of problems that drive our creative industries to sleepless nights, burning with their own sort of dangerous energy, morphing over time and confounding marketers left and right.

The idea of "wicked problems" was coined by Horst Rittel, a theorist of design and planning and M. Webber. (See the full Wikipedia entry here.) I've copied Rittel and Webber's list of wicked problem criteria here from Wikipedia because they can't really be paraphrased, and while they're related to social policy planning, as you read through this list some previous clients you've worked with and the problems they were trying to solve might bubble to the surface of your mind:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.

  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.

  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.

  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

While scientists have been spending years trying to develop various tactics to break down and expound upon wicked problems to derive positive change, we as designers can't easily engage with wicked problems -- that is, without entering into a client-designer relationship without both parties being aware that the problem is wicked and that we can only define success as a specific type of improvement agreed upon by both parties. Without calling out the complexity of a problem before engaging with a client, and being aware that you can't "solve it," you can't easily escape failure. This is why marketing is both an art and a science. You can quantify your goals and your previous actions, but only hope to predict the outcomes of your current and future actions, based on a snapshot of your audience's needs that are fluid, at best.

When I first read this list, a wicked problem for designers seemed to fit these criteria neatly:

Being asked to steer public opinion regarding a complex societal problem to sell a product. Hello, greenwashing. Social responsibility marketing, or any kind of marketing that is hinged on "changing the world for the better," really, is a function of a wicked problem. This is why there's hypocrisy inherent in promoting incremental improvement towards an idealistic goal of reduced environmental impact for, say, a plastics corporation. I could go on and on regarding this subject, but I'll leave it here with the knowledge that my thinking alone won't make a major dent in this problem. Marketing products through social responsibility requires reductive thinking on the part of the marketer and the market, which doesn't always indicate positive change from the requested action on the part of the customer.

The following didn't seem like a wicked problem at first, but it's definitely indicative of some of these criteria and hard to overcome:

Being asked to create belief in a company's actions when the customer's desired experience is never acknolwedged. If you are asked to motivate consumers to act based on a poor product experience, it's going to be an uphill fight. The rules change monthly, if not daily, based on customer behavior prompted by variables you can't control. Designers can't solve these types of problems without systemic change by the client, and can only effect positive change by attempting to foster alignment across all parties in the long term -- and hoping your competitors don't move to entrench their relationships with said audience at the same time. This type of situation requires designers to have discussions with potential clients about doing more than a marketing campaign. It requires a systemic gutting of how that company approaches their customer experience to achieve real success. Otherwise, you're just moving the needle positively in one area while the other ones plummet.

You'll notice that posing any type of positive solution to these wicked problems fall outside the domain of what designers can usually control. And nowadays when a client comes to you, asking for a solution to a problem that can't really be solved, only improved, it usually requires reframing the problem on a grand scale -- reaching your hands into the mechanisms of their organization to point out where the real problems may lie. This can be a scary place for a designer to operate, as it isn't always our core competency. Also, as marketing can be very reductive -- Universal Selling Proposition? Three product pillars in the body copy? -- I would argue that any type of reductive thinking will actually worsen a wicked problem unless it's grounded in a very sophisticated long-term plan that strings together those marketing nibbles into a holistic, long-term pattern that generates meaningful change.

Ecotagging: Fostering Transparency for Sustainable Business

Consumers now expect sustainability and ecological sensitivity to be factored into the cost of manufacturing and selling consumer goods. Corporations such as Patagonia, through their Footprint Chronicles, and Timberland, with their nutrition label for social responsibility, have started a major trend that pulls back the veil on the apparel industry, making us aware of the major demands that the textile industry put on our world. It's not enough to just offset your purchases. Through our purchasing decisions, we can alter how the industry operates.

The EcoTag for apparel, shown below in a draft format, was designed as a prototype to make sustainability factors more transparent for purchasing decisions across all brands -- not just these brave few who are striving to lead the industry. The ultimate goal of the EcoTag is to incent corporations to make their sustainability measures accountable to their customers. “Sustainability grading” or other methods of ranking products, derived from ecotagging, would create new ways for customers to evaluate the value of a product, while forcing corporations that have since been uninterested in bringing sustainability practices to their businesses to change their behavior.

The front panel of the tag displays the standard SKUs for a product, as well as the costs of offsets and recycling that have been factored into the product price.

EcoTag Front

The back panel of the EcoTag gives a view into how a piece of apparel was sourced, produced, and shipped, as well as the average carbon cost and whether the clothing is organic, recycled, and/or biodegradeable.

EcoTag Back

Ideally, the tag would be resized, printed, and affixed to goods in a way that had minimal impact on the product’s carbon footprint.

Without an industry-wide standard for this type of information, it will continue to be difficult for consumers to make educated decisions about what they purchase and how their purchases will influence the world. With proper education of the consumer at point of purchase, the latent waste of the textiles industry may be reduced and ideally replaced with more sustainable options.

Download a one-page PDF summary of this piece at this link: http://www.davidsherwin.com/EcoTagForApparel.pdf.

If you're interested in helping with this endeavor, please feel free to contact me at david at davidsherwin.com.

Design and Business Sustainability in 2012


One of my co-workers recently lent me a copy of the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. The entire book is a stunning thought experiment about what would happen to the world if all the humans suddenly vanished. How long would it take for nature to recover from our influence? What are the real impacts of our daily lifestyle choices on the world at large? What systems do we have currently in place, such as nuclear and petrochemical energy creation, that would have an explosive impact on the Earth if we weren't there to manage them?

As I read the book, I jotted down a few questions that came up that we designers should be considering now, as part of our day-to-day responsibilities. It will take us some time to formulate real ways to answer them.

Should we worry more than we do currently about the environmental impact of an interactive property, and plan our user experience accordingly to lessen its effect?

I could see this movement as having the following slogan: Make Hits Mean More. Code your apps tight. Make them efficient on your processor. Make sure your hosting service uses green IT. Improve overall usability. Save a kilowatt or two.

Last month's Harper's magazine had an interesting short piece about how each Google search burns a certain number of watts. When you tally up the number of searches engaged by search engines on a daily basis, we're burning a helluva lot of power to see where Britney Spears had lunch on Tuesday.

We will have methods to quantify this impact on our power grid, and perhaps even be charged for our electricity consumption amortized across the Internet, the number of searches we engage, and any other wasteful Internet usage. There will be systems to quantify power used across a web site or Internet application. We may even test our code for browser compatibility alongside its overall wattage use per click.

Will people be warned of the environmental impact of their purchases online or in a physical store?

As designers, we will need to develop rationales to guide our clients into greater transparency on whether the world needs their products, and if so, what kind of impact purchasing their products will have on society as a whole. People will need to see, in product marketing, the long-term effects of their choices beyond their own lifespan.

For example: baby clothes and toys, which are swiftly outgrown. You can recycle baby clothes and toys by passing them along to new mothers, but eventually, the polyester and plastic clothes will enter a landfill and degrade into tiny bits that in a few thousand years will perhaps be eaten by microbes that have evolved to consume plastic and its derivatives.

We can't expect our clients to shoulder this kind of burden while we're just pointing the way. It will likely be a shared responsibility, and we'll have to create methods to kindly shame the big companies into shifting their business strategy.

Will the environmental impact of a future product, or even a meme, be accurately measured and rated before it hits the market?

The tools don't exist to make this kind of assessment over time... yet. But they will.

"Great thought, Jim. You'll make millions off it but it'll generate at least 20 million pounds of carbon waste, use as much water as Lake Michigan in processing, and kill dozens of whales and three species of waterfowl. Should we come up with something better, or see if we can improve your idea to have less of an environmental impact?"

People will need to make judgment calls before they even engage on making a product or service. This kind of filter for a business decision hasn't been clearly articulated across Wall Street, because both public and private corporations had been traditionally focused more on making money than on leaving no trace. Sustainability is the next arms race for public corporations, and will be full of claims such as: "We use 5% less waste in our packaging, reducing our overall waste by 50,000 tons." All while the bottle's still made of plastic. And not being recycled.

Are we really being creative enough about finding a better way to assess a product's long-term impact? Companies will need to evolve existing products that sell well to either minimize their impact, or make the decision to cut them entirely (such as spray aerosols) and invent new products that aren't as convenient, but won't, say, destroy the ozone layer accidentally over New Jersey.

Designers will need to be vocal and raise their hand when they see potential problems, both in product design, development, and marketing, to ensure the long-term interests of the Earth aren't being trounced.

Designers can also encourage innovations that, for products with a short lifespan, biodegrade gracefully with low or no environmental impact. A company that makes tricycles, for example, could replace the plastic with a corn derivative or another compostable substance, which would break down over a year or two. This is already happening with plastic silverware. Consumers will need to be sold on the benefits of owning a product that will fall apart quickly and return to the earth in a non-harmful way.

The only danger with this technology is that we'll need to be sure we don't overtax the land necessary to grow the crops we'll use to create the plastic alternatives.


I have other questions, but in order to save a watt or two, I will beg them off for another post. However, I'd like you to expend some watts by posing some more questions regarding the future of design and sustainability.

The Crasstige Manifesto


A day will come when people will pay more -- by an order of magnitude, I expect -- for things that are not only well made and technologically sophisticated and desirable in the marketplace, but also intentionally crass and funny and ironic and over-engineered and technologically overblown and completely painful to look at.

I'm not talking about vintage revival, chuckle-inducing wagon-wheel coffee tables and 100-dollar torn t-shirts emblazoned with witticisms that elicit stares from fashionistas as they paw through the clothing racks at the upscale boutiques. I'm not talking about fashion shows where people parade down the runway with outfits that look like they're cobbled together with urinals and clothing dredged from dumpsters. I'm definitely not talking about gangsta styling with mass appropriation of high-value items that are then paraded through high-production-value videos on MTV to sell albums full of cringe-inducing props to Dom Perignon and Courvoisier.

For starters, I'm envisioning those who drive cars inspired by the Edsel or the Delorean, because it's crass enough to be cool. I'm envisioning people who spend vast quantities of money for clothes that are just so ugly it's like you're looking at a train wreck. I'm envisioning big hulks of stereo technology that completely dominate your living room, like modern sculpture on crystal meth.

In short, I'm envisioning people standing on the very edge of popular fashion and technological innovation, leaping off of it, landing flat on their face in the mud, rolling around in it, and making sure that everyone knows they paid through the nose for it.

This future trend would come to be known as crasstige. I've Googled the term and it hasn't appeared on the Internet -- until now. And as I'm the one throwing my stake in the ground, let's venture a real definition of the term:

crasstige (n., adj.):

1) a high-cost product that intentionally goes against the grain of popular taste and fashion in its design. Example: Wow, that $2,000 hat he bought is so ugly... It is completely crasstige.

2) a category of products that, when consumers purchase them, immediately broadcast their frustration with traditional notions of luxury. Example: Bob is a real crasstige sort of guy. He bought the Scion xQ with the argyle pattern.

But here's the twist -- the little quirk that makes the idea of crasstige so interesting and of-the-moment:

3) a mashup of attributes between different product categories, creating a new item that seems on the surface to lack functional utility. Example: That's some crasstige handbag you've got there... Yep, it's hip, it has a refrigerator compartment, a clock radio, it checks my stock prices, and I can plug in a little doodad that checks my blood sugar.

The idea of a mashup is so popular in digital culture, it's inevitable that it will bleed into manufactured objects. An item denoted as crasstige would cross boundaries between convenience and utility and product categories for no real reason other than to be crazy. There is no single utility from a truly crasstige item. It's the inverse of the orderly universe of an iPhone.

This is not the kind of trend that will just appear on the street in one year, fully baked. I'm thinking this is the kind of snowball-becomes-an-avalance thinking that will surface when we emerge from recession, as a kind of conspicuous consumption gone haywire, fed by small artisans and then major corporations who smell a trend and dive into it with ferocity.

Like most trend predictions, I hope this one falls by the wayside, never coming to pass. But if it does, let us be ready for the ferocious parade of scary manufactured goods that further contribute to the clutter of the world, and vote with our pocketbooks as designers for items that connote elegant form, utility and function, meaning and sustainability, and some measure of grace.

As designers that seek order and polish, this is a trend that we will passionately hate. So don't shoot the oracle.

The Rise of Eco and Indie Luxury

Designers asked to work with a luxury brand know the general rule of thumb: make it look twice as valuable with half the budget and a fraction of the tangible materials.

Designers also know the dirty, dark secret of marketing luxury goods: quality of design can trump quality of materials. Quantities may run low and costs-per-piece high, since you have a limited audience and a limited quantity. Products may be outsourced to factories overseas and only cost incrementally more than their regular brand cousins. The product always includes a premium markup, to create an aura of value.

And that aura of value is morphing into something new.

The idea of Old Luxury (high fashion, high quality, high touch, high price) has fractured over the past ten years into a number of new and surprising categories that make it even harder to market a product as Old Luxury, but even easier to draw an audience into considering a purchase at a higher price point.

With the coming recession, there is going to be a shift from the New Luxury or "masstige" market into Eco and Indie Luxury:


Old Luxury will never take a major hit, because people who purchase Old Luxury products have enough wealth to support their lifestyle even if their portfolio drops 50%.

But people who consider New Luxury products as part of their lifestyle will seek a greater meaning for their purchases. The new categories that I've noted, Eco and Indie Luxury, provide that meaning above and beyond what an Old or New Luxury brand can provide.

The old thinking went like this: If you want to simplify your life -- if you really want to do more with less and own things that no one else owns -- then be prepared to spend a premium, have fewer options to choose from, and defend your piece of ground with the (limited) members of your tribe. Go to Wal-Mart if you want to get the most for the least. Never mind that the same factory may have made your fancy Coach bag and those Wal-Mart briefs.

The new thinking is much more complex. And exciting.

Eco Luxury

I recently found myself fingering a Jil Sander wool jacket at Barneys Co-op that I could easily see myself wearing. Ten minutes later, a very similar jacket was at Banana Republic for one-tenth of the JS jacket "sale price". Old Navy around the corner, another similar jacket that was one-sixty of the BR price.

The major difference between the three, other than a slight difference in percentage of wool and the cut? The Jil Sander jacket had no label inside it and was the simplest, most minimal design.

This seems pretty obvious to a New York fashionista--they'd know the jacket was Jil Sander when they saw it because of its styling and notch it in their little mental black book. And when you're in that kind of community, you're part of a semi-closed circle that amplifies the value of your lifestyle choices (or devalues them, depending who you run with).

But then I walked over to the Nau store. Welcome to Eco Luxury. Their black jacket that costs the same as the jacket at Banana Republic was made through sustainable practices. It looks sleek and different from all those other jackets. (Full disclosure: I drool regularly over their clothes but have not made a purchase... yet. I also critique them regularly because it's hard to be play luxury and sustainability at the same time...)

This single piece of clothing brings up all sorts of considerations I didn't have when I was shopping at Williams-Sonoma or Tiffany's. Do I want a high-end necklace that's biodegradeable? A high-heat spatula that's recyclable? It doesn't sound so far-fetched in 2008. In 2018 it'll be an assumed part of the buying decision.

In clothing, travel, and a host of other markets, Eco Luxury is poised in the wings to infiltrate and overtake the New Luxury category. In ten years, it's likely that Eco Luxury won't exist as its own category anymore and will be absorbed wholesale into New Luxury -- only because it can be factory produced and has the potential to be marketed on a mass scale. Call it New Eco Luxury, which hopefully will never go out of style.

Indie Luxury

Generate your own fashion. Design your own products. Take it open source. Generate a global audience in a matter of days. It's all possible and it's happening every day. Products can be priced for their scarcity, originality, and impact, and sold within a community that's outside of the traditional purview of corporations insistent on controlling their brands.

A mere decade year ago, the context of the store environment created the tangible value--that was the only place you could get the product. Is that Jil Sander jacket less valuable if I buy it on eBay? Er... what's eBay? Nowadays, sites like eBay and Bag, Borrow or Steal are hammering down the value of Old Luxury and New Luxury brands in mid-size retailers like Nordstrom and Tiffany's.

The old thinking here:

The story I tell about how and where I purchased the product creates the tangible value. Especially if the product is on parity with others in its market. The tribe protects the brand value. Luxury marketers dictate the rules of the game. The cost of entry is the cost of the product. Don't play the game if you aren't serious about being vocal to protect your "investment." Cults and communities online and in the real world defend or destroy the brand value. This happens quickly in the fashion community as different houses veer into and out of style.

The new thinking:

But for the rest of us, the unwashed, the cost of entry can be seen as a psychological barrier, a badge of your inclusion in the tribe, and the only perceived result of the purchase in the physical store.

The purchase is also influenced by economic and social factors. Right now, there's a buzz in the air as banks and investment firms take multi-billion dollar hits to their bottom line from underestimating the risk of sub-prime investment. Why would I blow $5k on a jacket when everyone is suffering?

The Internet has created many more opportunities to access and purchase luxury goods, but also the seeds of their destruction. As more people create online communities around their favorite brands, these communities will communicate about "online deals" as well and further dilute your product value. These communities will also start producing the luxury goods themselves.

I'm paying more attention to this category than Eco Luxury, because it brings the thinking of the long tail into an industry that's always been tight-lipped and inaccessible. And there are people that are doing sustainable work in this area to go head to head with people like Nau, which is exciting.

Of course, companies will try to monetize Indie Luxury by generating communities that ease fulfillment and promotion of product sales. But Indie Luxury as a category will always resist being under a corporate thumb and will generate its own communities and spin-off products that trickle up into the mainstream.

The Dot of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is something you can't escape when you sell a product or service. You're telling other people to focus their attention on a single element of a complicated product or service, all the while attempting to differentiate your client from their peers. When you look at your marketing message in this way, I think it becomes evident why it's so hard for companies to market charitable initiatives, present themselves as socially responsible, or demonstrate true concern about environmental change. You're asking people to look you in the eye and perhaps smile while you're talking, but they can't help but focus on the spot of blood on your cheek.

The challenge of marketing any product or service that includes a social responsibility message requires you to confront what I like to call "the dot of hypocrisy." Your message won't be effective unless you focus on one idea in each communication. If that one idea is a naked social responsibility message, however, you're in big trouble.


If you lead with a marketing claim that is solely based in a social responsibility message, your audience will pick it apart. This is something that I'll be exploring more in-depth in some other posts, but the short argument is this:

Product claims may seem logical to marketers, but they are emotional in nature to an audience and tied up in a mess of factors that include your brand perception and your product position, value, and quality. You can try to control your brand and your product, but you can't control how people perceive the value of your charitable giving or social responsibility. People nowadays say that they think it's critical for companies to be good global citizens, but that single claim isn't enough to get them to act. Social responsibility has to align with people's purchasing factors to make a dent in the dot of hypocrisy.

Sometimes minimizing the dot of hypocrisy is this simple:


Can you think of any examples of companies that have diminished the dot of hypocrisy in an elegant way?