By Chris Riley
This is a transcript of a presentation
delivered at the Metropolis Design
Conference in San Francisco,
February 2001. The article was first published in 2001 in
I'm an advertising guy.
I wanted to make that clear as we engage in
this conversation about sustainability. Advertising is
intrinsic to consumerism and, as you all know, consumerism is
about creating desire.
Now, I am very happy in this environment. I
like advertising. I enjoy helping create it and I enjoy being
associated with strong businesses that are growing. Strong
businesses are important. I grew up in Manchester, England in
the seventies. Let me tell you, you learn a lot about the
importance of strong businesses when they are in short supply.
So I come at this question of "sustainability" from
that place. I am not an "environmentalist" in the
classic sense. I have not dedicated my life to protecting our
environment, though I have huge respect for those who have.
One of the big inventions of consumerism is
the "brand." You all intuitively know what I mean
when I talk about brand. Yet there are as many different
perspectives on what brands are as there are brand owners. It
may help if I share with you the way I think about brands. I
think of brands as business ideas that have achieved cultural
influence. Big brands influence culture in a big way, small
brands in a small way.
What interests me about this perspective is
that it hinges on two huge ideas. The first is that a brand is
a "business idea" and the second is the notion of
Let's talk first about a business idea.
There has been a lot of work done on this subject. On the one
hand you can focus on the business "model." The
business model is all about the way a business creates wealth.
For the last few years, many young technology entrepreneurs
have been presenting their business models to venture
capitalists for investment. The VC looks at their presentation
and asks two questions: Is this a good business model that will
generate a return on my investment and is this person likely to
do it for me? The business model is about Capitalism. It is
about Return on Investment (ROI). It is about the Commodity. In
one of its most refined forms, the business model's
effectiveness hinges on the financial value ascribed to
relationships. This is the way capitalism renders everything as
a commodity, to be bought and sold. For example, the value of
AOL exists within the relationships created by the service.
These relationships are then exploited to create wealth.
The problem with this way of thinking about
business is that it under-represents the social and cultural
role of business. When Time Warner merged with AOL, what kind
of business would be created as a consequence? Is AOL's
commodity its relationships with people, like my daughter at
her I Mac in her bedroom, to be traded as, well, just any other
stuff? I understand that the contents of an oil field, for
example, are an easy commodity to understand, or the value of
owning land, or the ability to make a fine automobile or…
but wait. Things are looking harder as I go through that list.
In the film Wall
Street, we are introduced to Gordon
Gecko - remember "lunch is for wimps"? The film
reveals the way business commoditizes everything within a
capitalist system. The futures of the workers' lives are in the
hands of traders who care little and understand less about
them. The young adventurer ends up in a limo with a beautiful
woman who informs him that he has earned a reward from Gecko -
her. The film uncovers the ugly truth of pure capitalism: the
human experience is simply another commodity to be traded for
It need not be so. In fact, other work in
the field of business analysis suggests that a pure focus on
the capital aspects of business is a deeply flawed way of
thinking about how business works and how businesses can
succeed in the long run. Some early pioneers of consumer
businesses seemed to understand this: Ford, Kohler, Cadbury and
Lever to name a few. In their world, business was an integral
part of society. The role of the business was not only to
generate wealth for the business owner, but to create
opportunity for all who engaged in the business transaction,
from the entry level employee to the most distant customer.
Business is a process, not an entity. It is entirely the
product of relationships. As capital became more and more
powerful, primarily as technology enabled businesses to scale
to the global level, so the human relationship factors that
underpin business were eroded. This is where we find ourselves
The emergence of corporatism as the
dominant ethic of business analysis is recent and will be
transient. As Kees van der Heijden has pointed out, in his book
Scenarios: The Art of Strategic
Conversation: "We define
structural profit potential as an attribute of a system capable
of creating value for customers in a unique way that others
find difficult to emulate." In other words, profit is an
outcome, not a sole reason, for business. Many who have started
small businesses or are part of family enterprises understand
this deeply. Those who have lived through harsh times in Flint,
Michigan or Liverpool, England are also aware of this simple,
What seems to be happening as we enter the
next phase of our economic evolution is that many of these
chickens are coming home to roost. Businesses that focused
solely on maximizing financial ROI seem to have become
disconnected from their customers, their employees and their
shareholders. This powerful alliance - with many individuals
participating in all three experiences - can be credited with
driving a fundamental change in the environment for business in
the 21st century.
I wonder why?
Information technology has stimulated the
creation of a culture of knowledge and it is sweeping the
world. In the culture of knowledge everything seems knowable
but also everyone wants to know. From the vicarious experience
of survival to a basic understanding of the capitalist system
and its attendant marketing habits, people feel smart and
informed. And guess what? They are.
The world of marketing and the world of
brands have been rocked by these changes. Nothing seems to work
quite as it did. Which brings me to that idea of "cultural
influence." It turns out that the degree to which
businesses engaged with their public, creating relationships
that either sustained, evolved or eroded value was linked less
to their ability to create powerful business models and more to
their ability to create valuable relationships. This is news to many in the MBA-riddled world
of US consumer marketing but is an unquestioned fact of life in
Asia and Europe. Here's what happened:
As marketing mechanized the process of
relationship management, the consumer got less emotional value
out of the relationship. If money is a symbol of the value of a
relationship, they simply reduced the amount of money they were
willing to pay for the relationship they had with amoral
marketing companies. These companies are not bad but they are
sort of culturally autistic. By remaining unable to engage with
consumers as human beings with rich cultural lives and complex
social environments, businesses were unable to communicate.
Thus, they tended to scream and become abusive the more they
craved and needed consumer attention. We see the results of
cultural autism on our screens everyday: persistently
aggravating advertising sending manifestly corrupt messages
into our homes.
But in the culture of knowledge the
consumer knows. And is rebelling. Recent research that I have
been involved in at Wieden+Kennedy has begun to highlight what
is going on. We were interested in the evolving relationship
between the consumer and big business. We had already come to
the view that the brand was a surrogate for the business idea
and that if we were to evolve and grow the brands we worked on,
we needed to understand more deeply what they symbolized and
how people were relating to them.
As part of one study, I was in Tokyo
talking to a producer of Japanese Hip Hop records about the
idea of being "modern." I mention this because in
some ways the transcendent themes of the modern experience were
there to be witnessed within that conversation. He was
twenty-six. I was forty-two. He was from Tokyo. I was from
Manchester. Yet we were both intimately aware of and engaged
with the work of Ian Anderson and The Designers Republic. When
I asked him (through our excellent translator who herself had
lived in Kensington, London only three blocks from my old home)
how he perceived the idea of modern and where he saw culture
evolving, he said: "To a more mental place." He went
on to discuss in depth the fact that products have narratives
as well as benefits. We know everything about these products.
The whole story. From the vantage point of someone born in
1975, business had to engage with the whole truth of
consumerism. That involved two important and related realities:
Firstly, that non-sustainable consumption would destroy
everything we have and could have, and secondly that the
consumer experience was deeper and richer than is ever
acknowledged by mainstream marketing.
As we at Wieden+Kennedy travel the world
and talk to people for all types of reasons, these themes
emerge. Big Business is not perceived to be a de facto problem:
it is the lack of imagination, creativity and responsibility
within the idea of corporate business that sucks. Brands are
seen as manifestations, as surrogates, for the business people
who create them. The consumer wants - no - demands, a
relationship with those people.
From Brazil, a young media entrepreneur
asks: "I just have one question: Who are you?"
And who can answer that simple question?
The emergence of a culture of knowledge that is global in
scale, due to the attendant networking that now defines
communication and social interaction, has brought the real
issues facing our Post Industrial Age culture to the fore.
Brands can no longer survive on a diet of artificial benefit
creation (remember the Tense, Nervous Headache?) or the
assumption that somehow we are dysfunctional and need to be
"fixed." We, the individuals who consume, whose money
oils the wheels of corporate capitalism, are not broken. We
don't need to be fixed. We, to paraphrase an old Subaru ad I
was involved in, don't need to use what we consume to increase
our standing with our neighbors. We can relate to the size and
shape of our bodies in a way that helps us enjoy the life,
liberty and pursuit of happiness promised in our Constitution.
We do not need products to be symbols of empowerment; we have power. We do
not aspire to manufactured dreams that reduce our capacity to
feel individual. In short, nearly every branding tactic of the
past will fail in the future.
Because the nature of transaction between
consumers and businesses has moved on.
The cultural role of brands is to respond
to the spirit of the times. In the early 1930s, when Coke
employed Norman Rockwell, the company transcended its role as a
purveyor of refreshment and became deeply embedded in the
emerging identity of American consumerism. These values were to
sweep the world: Optimism, faith in the possibility of
harmonious diversity and egalitarianism. In an era when
students were being shot at Kent State and carpet bombing was
destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of people on the
South East Asian peninsula, Coke tried to "teach the world
to sing… in perfect harmony." Like it or hate it, it
was an attempt to project more than the benefit of refreshment.
Its power lay in the confidence with which it voiced a
If we were to respond today, we would
respond to the culture of corporate repulsion. By which I mean
this: The transcendent themes of new consumers emerge from
their experience as the progeny of the Consumer Age. They have
known little else. They have engaged with and then experienced
the emotional hollowness of the consumer promise, that what you
buy dictates how well you feel. They still felt bad when things
didn't go right. They have learned through experience that
promises are shallow and that there must be an ulterior motive
for everything. Some would say that they are cynical. But I do
not believe that they are. I believe that they are aware.
As they view the world they are aware of
how it is all linked. They did media studies in elementary
school; they watched Sesame Street and learned about ecology from Ferngully.
What seems to be the case is that they have a different
narrative than previous generations of consumers. Their
narrative embraces their position within a complex and
interlinked world. As millions of the young swap banalities yet
create networks of relationships on AOL Instant Messenger, they
understand only too well the power of causality: that what you
do has an effect, somewhere.
They are translating that experience to
their life as consumers. In fact, they are rethinking the way
they consume. Rather than becoming trapped within the
manufactured aspirations of the mass market, they are seeking
to create experiences that connect them in a meaningful way to
ideas and ideals that are worth something. They take control
over their futures by taking control over their expectations.
And, talking of futures, they are very concerned about the
legacy of wanton excessive consumerism as practiced by the
previous generation. In their view they have inherited the
consequences of consumption for consumption's sake with scant
regard for the long term future of either themselves or their
children. Or, to put it another way, scant regard for
meaningful human relationships and responsibilities.
Surveys such as those of the Yankelovich
Research Company have directed our attention for years to the
evolution of a fresh perspective on consumption among the
young. Well, it seems to be here and if you are in any doubt
you only need to look at the fortunes of the Fortune 500 and
the near total collapse of the great marketing brands as they
surrendered to the ultimate commoditizing business: Wall Mart.
What happened to Kellogg, McDonald's, P&G, Coke, Oldsmobile
and a host of others is that they ceased to maintain and
develop a dynamic business idea that intersected with the
values of their customers. The brand is the manifestation of
that relationship, as I have said, its surrogate. Van der
Heijden would refer to this as a squandering of two things:
distinctive competencies and a dynamic relationship with
customers. Over time, the values of our consumers evolve and
competitors emulate our core competencies, delivering them for
less cost and reducing distinctiveness.
There are two distinct developments, one in
the realm of competencies and one in the realm of consumer
evolution, that threaten established brand owners who fail to
create a dynamic model for brand and business development.
First, we need to acknowledge that the
single-pointed pursuit of capital growth has thwarted attempts
at creating a sustainable model of consumerism. Technology has
been evolving at a hair-raising rate but business models have
not. Detroit and the oil industry remain locked in a death grip
grounded in the idea of exploitation for enrichment. The
consequence: a pathetic response to increasing anxiety
regarding all forms of pollution and near indifference to the
issue of gradually disappearing resources. The automobile
industry has been the bellwether of all consumerism but seems
intent on donating that leadership to other categories that
more effectively respond to the spirit of this age.
At a time when technology is delivering the
means to reduce the impact of the car on our environment,
Detroit is marketing machines that speak to the command and
control exploitation culture of the past. The Lincoln
Navigator, the Chevrolet Suburban. This is 1970s technology but
more important this is 1970s culture. It is about dominance,
power, exploitation and it is deeply masculine, or rather a
kind of warped version of masculinity that finds an echo in the
corruption of sport at the hands of capitalism: the NFL, the
NBA. This is how the new consumer sees the old brands.
Secondly we need to accept that things are
different now. The world in which our children have developed
has taught them much. We have taught them much. They are
individuals existing in complex cultural systems. They have
transcended vague notions of monocultural national values and
the politics of supremacy. They do not trust us. Their version
of leadership is not command and control, it is not JFK, LBJ,
Churchill, Thatcher or Reagan. If the Clinton presidency taught
us anything, it was surely this: leadership is about
acknowledging uncertainty rather than manufacturing certainty.
We are all flawed and it is how we respond to that fact that
defines our future. This sensibility is endemic among new
consumers. The Cluetrain Manifesto reflected this as its
authors indicated a way forward: Markets are conversations.
Absolutely, and so are brands. The question is, what do we want
The answer is kind of everything.
At the top of the list is the identity
question and the values consumers wish to be associated with as
they engage in transactions with companies. Deeply embedded in
this question lies their relationship with a world they feel
increasingly connected to and in a small way responsible for.
They no longer accept the cultural autism of corporate brands.
They want a conversation about where we are together. What we
are doing and how can we do it better? They want to enjoy the
benefits of a healthy economy (don't we all?) without the guilt
of screwing it up for everyone else. How can you enjoy your
smart new shoes if you know there are unhappy people living in
dangerous conditions so that you can have them? This was never
part of the promise but it was always part of the reality. Now
that reality is visible and the new consumer is aware and
engaged. This means we have to be also.
The sustainability question is intrinsic to
the identity question. In a culture that has rejected
exploitation, has confronted inequity and is striving for a
utopian ideal of life liberty and happiness, sustainability has
huge cultural value. Within the semantics of the word is the
resolution of a paradox: it is about keeping what we love, not
losing it. This means everything.
When you talk to new consumers, the idea of
impact, or the idea of sustainability, is right at the front of
their minds. It is in lock step with a variety of other
humanitarian issues. It may be part of a mystical or spiritual
value system. It may be part of a reality check and related to
their immediate urban environment. It may simply be a part of
their general awareness of the world in which they live.
Whatever the reason, it is there. It is part of their response
to the disappointment of mass consumerism, particularly the
mass consumerism created and fueled by the growth of
"While our cars may be shiny, and our
stocks may be booming, there is another story to be told. There
is an emptiness inside, a void in the soul of America. The TV
functions as a conduit for the lowest common denominator of
public dialogue. Whether it be Regis Philbin or Beverly Hills
90210, the world learns about America by the cotton candy that
we call Must See TV. And it works. Only 25% of teenagers
between the ages of 13-17 can name the city where the US
Constitution was written, but a full 75% know that you can find
the zip code 90210 in Beverly Hills, California."
Adam Werbach, The
Thin Green Line
I quote Adam Werbach because he is a
particularly eloquent representative of the new consumer
generation. Passionately committed to the Environmental
Movement, he was the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club
(at age 26) and now propels his agenda through a video
production company and web site called "The Thin Green
Line." As a media sophisticate, he understands the
relationship between the issue of environmentalism and what he
would consider to be the insidious actions of mass marketers in
concealing the truth of consumption from the consumer. Of equal
importance is the connection he draws between the feeling of
loss that exists within our mass consumer culture and the
explosion of environmental concerns. This connection is the
critical link between the future and history of brands.
Consumerism's great contribution to
Maslow's hierarchy is desire. In many cases branded goods are
promoted as a means of self-actualization. The notion is that,
fully empowered by access to the right stuff, an individual can
get a grip on his or her own reality and project a kind of
instant individuation, a personality that is both unique and
yet belongs to a larger group. The trick is always, as we know,
for the brand to influence the idea of the group to which
people aspire. And people seem to like this.
It turns out that buying stuff because it
satisfies desire is OK. In fact, it is rather pleasing. There
are many people in the world today who would love the
opportunity to get stuff because they want it rather than be
restricted to only satisfying their needs. And before we run
off in an apoplectic rage about the sinfulness of desire, I am
afraid to tell you that it is a basic human truth. We want as
well as need. The experience of desire is nice! We love it! In
my view the crisis of consumerism is not that it creates desire
but that it fails to satiate. Most critiques of consumerism and
the advertising industry it created seem to focus on how bad
creating desire is rather than asking if we can create desire
for, well, something else.
This turns out to be on the minds of the
new consumer: I want to want but I want to want what will
actually satisfy me.
So imagine if we, as the creative fuel of
an evolving consumerism, were to shift the focus of desire from
something we can never satiate to something we can. To me that
is the essence of the new consumerism. It has all the thrill of
the old but this time it actually delivers.
This is where we can begin a serious
conversation about sustainable consumerism. This is when we can
look brand owners in the eye and talk honestly and openly about
the challenges they face. The ability to create great stuff is
not necessarily correlated to the ability to create great
relationships. Within relationships that thrive, all parties
are able to enjoy the experience. The brand owner who ignores
the consumer values part of the equation fails to acknowledge
the human dimension to the relationship. As we proceed into a
consumer world within which many different versions of the same
stuff offer marginal differentiation for the consumer, we will
become ever more reliant on the quality of the relationships we
create. While the Internet utopians of rationality argue that
information technology will reduce everything to price value
based comparisons, the consumer is mourning the loss of human
contact. The loss of valuable relationship. Just look at the
mourning ritual of the recently bereaved Oldsmobile franchise.
In a recent speech to a conference hosted
by Metropolis magazine I put up the following slide: "The
modern consumer adds environmental impact to the perceived cost
of consumption and is attracted to companies who acknowledge
their responsibility by embracing incremental improvements in
This observation was grounded in
conversations we had with consumers in the research I have been
involved in at Wieden+Kennedy. Here is what seems to be going
on: The sustainability question has become a flash point for
the anxiety that permeates the relationship people feel they
have with business. The continuing lack of interest expressed
through brands by business in this question is seen as
symptomatic of the corporatisation of the consumer experience.
The profit motive is seen to have trumped basic human decency.
Carl Pope, of the Sierra Club, once told me that the
environment was the issue that almost guaranteed a young voter
turnout. It has become a focus of their fear that they will
lead meaningless lives in servitude to massive businesses whose
sole concern is shareholder value. It signals the threat they
feel: that they have little control over their lives and that
business cannot be trusted.
The upshot of this is that
"sustainability" has become their issue. The new
consumer owns the new consumption and their values will dictate
which brands succeed and how. There is no barrier being put up
by the consumer to the idea of sustainable consumption.
I was discussing these issues with a
designer called Alex Gajowskyj. Alex had designed the
"world shoe" for Nike. The idea was to create a
product with minimal waste, designed for manufacture and usable
by the people who made it. In a deep way the project reflects
the response a good company like Nike has when confronted by
this issue. Nike has started to move towards sustainable
consumption as it acknowledges the feelings of both its
consumers and it employees. Alex’s experiment was a
central part of this evolution. In his words this is what they
learned: "Tradition, natural opposition to change, and a
reliance upon 'tried & trusted' business practice represent
the biggest obstacles for any business seeking global
In other words, if the consumer is not the
barrier, then the business is. Part of the dynamic evolution of
distinctive competencies, to use Kees van der Heijden's idea,
is to evolve away from the traditions and practices that hinder
the ability of the business to engage fully with the consumer.
Evolving consumer values demand that modern
brands rethink the transactions they rely on for consumer
attention. This is why brand owners need to care about the
sustainability question. It is a cultural phenomenon as well as
a real issue. If brands are to respond to the spirit of the
times, they need to respond to this most crucial element of
contemporary culture. Furthermore, they need to acknowledge
that, as a symbol, it is also a symptom of a deeper
dysfunctionality between brands in general and the consumer.
The relationship between consumer and mass brands has decayed
to such a point that the days of premium priced high margin
branded products seem to exist only in our fantasy world. We
need to change that; people want more! But now they want more
from us as people rather than more of our stuff.
Here is a comment by Clive Whitcher, who
oversees Strategic Planning for Saatchi & Saatchi on their
Toyota business: "Prius buyers are ecstatic about the car
and what it says about Toyota. Toyota's their hero for finally
doing something tangible about the environment - one guy came
to a group with a collage featuring evergreen sprigs and a rose
stuck to (recycled) paper! The love is akin to what people felt
in the 70's when Toyota was their savior - saving them from bad
gas mileage when prices went up and there were lines at the gas
station and of course from bad domestic quality and ridiculous
domestic 'downsized' compacts."
The movement has started. There are
companies, like Nike and Toyota that are responding to their
consumers' deeply felt issues. But on a broader scale my
question is: Where are the designers? Where are the ad guys?
How can we develop skills and practices that respond to this
evolution? How will we determine the effectiveness of what we
do when the entire industry is trapped in an unevolved
capitalist paradigm? How can clients trust that the advice they
are being given responds to the reality of consumer culture
when that advice remains locked in process-based thinking from
the 1970s? It is time to challenge these traditions, as
Gajowskyj has stated. We have in our midst the most well
informed talent in the history of our young industry. Coupled
with mind-expanding technology that helps us learn and execute
ideas better and faster than ever before, we have no excuse to
fail the people we create our work for, both clients and
Sustainability is just that: it is about
sustaining, providing nourishment, keeping going. Brand owners
who nourish their consumers with meaningful ideas and
representation, designers and advertising people who take a
similar approach and help their clients keep going will
recognize that consumerism is, like everything else in our
world, about evolution. In this case, evolution away from the
self-destructive impulse of mass commoditization and towards a
sustainable consumerism that satiates our desires for strong
relationships grounded in our common humanity.
Chris Riley is a chief strategic officer
with Wieden + Kennedy.