Built to Fade: zero is the new black

Perhaps, if you are motivated, we will create something meaningful together?

For about 19 months I have been wondering how and what to think about John Dumbrille’s ChangeThis Manifesto entitled, Built To Fade: The Advent of the Biodegradable Brand.

It is highly recommended reading for:

– everyone in marketing or corporate leadership,

– political leaders and advisers,

– anyone who is part of the environmental movement, or,

– everyone remotely interested in thriving in the new economic model.

IMHO, John didn’t really need to invite Naomi Klein’s No Logo or Seth Godin’s quip that “zero is the new black” into his manifesto.  He is a former Greenpeace activist and has chosen to live his life on Bowen Island.  Go there.  I don’t think Bowen is formally part of the Gulf Islands, but you can consider it a gateway to beginning your journey into a part of the world where the Celestine Prophesy can seem a lot more believable than the Invisible Hand. I have not met John but I trust that he lives his philosophy.  As he points out, it is his immediate reality that gives him unquestionable credibility. (Now try to achieve that effect with your toothpaste and you will get where this is going.)

I find Built to Fade so challenging to consider because John has brought into focus the essential conundrum of traditional broadcast branding.  He notes, “The success of conventional branding has been measured by the persistence of the literal and graphic associations that it forges.”  While John is specific in alerting us to the cynicism that green branding can quickly give away to, how can any communicator or marketer walk away unscathed when John points out that “The diversion of attention into a me-brand-good pseudo experience, the holy grail of brand building, is actually part of the problem.”?

space junk

By calling out the roots of Green brand building as a flawed experiment, Dumbrille relegates the entire traditional brand establishment to the status of space junk.

John hits his readers intimately – right in the morning coffee …

“When green brands manage to nurture egocentric self-cherishing among its users through packaging and advertising, a fundamental, environmental disjoin has taken place.  Huddled with my coffee, whether it’s fair trade certified or otherwise, I am indulged in an intimate branded moment. I rise above the pedestrian concerns of the depressed, middle-aged woman as she walks past the café. Later, I take a sip of my organic chai latte, place it in the drink holder and accelerate through a busy intersection. My “green” brand consciousness is anything but that. The phenomenon of being wrapped up in a brand idea is displacing my attention and connection to the environment that surrounds me right now.” (strike outs added by me)

Jeepers John!  Don’t wake me up while I am enjoying my coffee for chrisssake!  Do you want to start a riot?

Even remedial memetic branding can not pass the inspection …

“Mass media is in decline, and with it, conventional branding that pays the bills. For brand builders, a line of response has been to line Internet corridors with viral gadgets. These gadgets are intended to encourage people to assemble a memorable, and hopefully positive, image of the brand. Examples include sponsored YouTube videos and camouflaged blogs and comments. But, as we get better at filtering and as alternative, less commercial media abound, these hacks become serious irritants and the brand is often correctly implicated in the negative experience.”

The new marketing koan: How do you brand zero?

I dunno …

But at the risk of looking like a hijacked ant waiting for a fluke (see this Dan Dennett Ted Talk for the inside joke), let me throw out some fodder for you to respond to.

My first thought is the simple hope that Less is More.

Here is an example: Just last week I was turned on to this global fundraiser for autism through a tweet by Andrew Jenkins. Click through on the links to catch the 1 min vid if you want the full description.  In this case, the approach has a special meaning but perhaps the thesis of the campaign needs broader application?  Supporters were asked to practice a communication shutdown.  The idea is that attention to the cause would be raised through the absence on Twitter, Facebook and other communication channels of the participants or by their notes announcing such.  Okay – I think it works on this campaign.

UPDATE: Andrew Jenkins just brought another “going silent” option from the NYT to our attention.

Built to Fade?

Simple Green & Green Works (by Clorox) side by side

I asked John for an example of the new “alternatives—products with straightforward labeling and claims that don’t present an image designed to eclipse immediate reality.  He suggested that I take a look at www.simplegreen.com.  For a moment I felt elated.  I checked under my sink and low and behold, I had a me-brand-good experience!

This is was immediately surpassed, as John warns, by a feeling of trust lost and confusion when I discovered a similarly labeled product right next to my Simple Green made by the familiar CPG giant Clorox.  How can Clorox satisfy my need to be socially conscience with my cleaning products?  Aren’t they the same folks who have been selling me bleach and Ajax and SOS pads all these years?  Loreal just bought the Body Shop again right there in front of my eyes.

Maybe Clorox is a leader in delivering authentically green products?  Maybe Wal-Mart is on the right track?  Maybe Dove & the Body Shop are doing great things?  The point here is that fundamental disconnect that John predicts is not only sitting right under my sink, I bet every marketer out there understands that nagging gap that has emerged between consumers and even our best intentions to meet their higher order demands.

As I look around my house which was built in about 1919, I am reminded of the simple Shaker influence that was present in the original design and our efforts to maintain that consistency when we renovated before moving in. Much to my surprise, according to Wikipedia, the Shaker movement only attracted over 20,000 converts and even at its peak the group reached a maximum size of about 6,000.  Actually, I am really just reminded of that Dan Dennett vid about dangerous memes because he talks about the Shakers in it for a minute and half (from 9:00 to 10:30).  Feel free to take the time to listen to him.  Dennett concludes that the meme for Shakerdom was essentially a sterilizing parasite that ultimately led to the Shakers’ extinction.  Part of the creed of Shakerdom is that everyone should be celibate.

Making less noise than the irresponsible or keeping it simple out of principal can seem like a risky long term strategy.

Perhaps John is pushing us to consider brands that are more like waves than permanent things?  I know this post is too long already but I dare you to stick with it and follow that link to Richard Dawkin’s related Ted Talk.  The money quote comes at the 10:50 mark when Dawkins highlights Steve Grand’s observation that, “matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you” … or a brand????  As a new, twitter connection and self described transhumanist Zachary Moser pointed out, “It is interesting to see such a fundamental materialist (Dawkins) speak with such mystical overtones.”

Does the materialist answer John’s call for a new marketing koan?

It is not that far fetched.

Check out the New YorkTimes Magazine coverage of social product development platform Quirky.com. Or consider the possibilities of employing a prediction market to manage innovation? Or Dell’s idea storm.

UPDATE, Dec. 1, 2010: Or check out Calgary’s Chaordix and their great Crowdsourcing: Who’s Doing It? list.

Do you want to tap growth?

Do you want to tap growth?

With these kinds of model’s the sustainable value of the enterprise is derived through the networks that it is able to mobilize for a purpose.  Altruism can be an essential strategy, completely aligned with the corporate motive of growing margins and profits.

Maybe these kinds of enterprises are by nature smaller?  But then again why so?  They operate more virtually and can have a more just-in-time model for talent, capital, materials and geography.  In any event, when facing the imperatives of emerging China, India and the rest of the developing world, are you really interested in prolonging the game of mass?

As we come to understand that traditional brand is less accountable for our corporate valuations, I think we are going to need a way to manage and compare these new corporate assets of social capital laden networks.

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