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Brands That Treat Customers Like Idiots Are Not Sustainable

At SB ‘14 London last month, one thing that really stood out for me was the focus on how storytelling can be used to help brands engage their customers with the theme of sustainability. For example, on the first morning of the first day, Daianna Karaian and Stuart Duncan from Futerra ran a workshop that focused on how to tell a sustainable brand story that customers will listen to.

At SB ‘14 London last month, one thing that really stood out for me was the focus on how storytelling can be used to help brands engage their customers with the theme of sustainability. For example, on the first morning of the first day, Daianna Karaian and Stuart Duncan from Futerra ran a workshop that focused on how to tell a sustainable brand story that customers will listen to.

Ty Montague at SB '14 LondonThat afternoon, Ty Montague (left), author of True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business joined forces with Conrad Lisco from co: collective to run a workshop on making the move from storytelling to what Ty calls Storydoing™.

Thomas Kolster at SB '14 LondonIt was also great to spend some time with Thomas Kolster (right), author of Goodvertising and the founder of the Goodvertising advertising agency. Thomas’ work is based around the questions of: can advertising be a force for good, can it bring around positive social and environmental change, and should advertising tell the truth about brands?

Storytelling when done well can certainly be an extremely powerful force for good. I don’t know if I need to point this out, but at no time at Sustainable Brands did anyone suggest a brand invent a story out of thin air. Storytelling is about authenticity, about engaging people with what you are doing — it is not about pure fiction.

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However, two Brazilian companies didn’t receive the memo, and both are in hot water for doing just this — one inventing a fake history, the second inventing stories of where their products and supplies come from.

The first case is that of ice cream company Diletto, which tells the story of how its recipes were first invented in 1922 in Italy by Vittorio Scabin, one of the grandfathers of one of the founders. The truth of the situation, as the magazine Veja reported this week, is that Diletto was created in 2008, and while Scabin is the surname of one of the founders, whose grandfather is Italian, he was a gardener who knew nothing about ice cream.


In order to rectify this situation with disgruntled customers, the company has posted a letter on its website, which can be read here (in Portuguese).

My reading of this letter suggests that they are in no way apologising for this deceit. In fact they argue that the character of Vittorio Scabin was “created in order to reinforce in a very clear manner the values of the company” and that it “has in no way negated their DNA.”

The second example of fake storytelling is somewhat more serious, I would say. Maria and I were big fans, but this ‘sustainable’ juice company has for us, pardon the pun, left a sour taste in our mouths.

Do Bem are a relatively new company, having launched their first drink, Coconut Water, just a couple of years ago. When I first saw their packaging, it seemed to me that they had really studied Innocent from the UK in terms of the “wackaging” — bright and brash packaging using chatty, casual, matey, and at times babyish language that describes itself in the first person.

As you can see from their website above, in their section about themselves they explain why they are here and why they want to change the world, their incredible history and their mission, which makes people want to get out of bed. DoBem™ want to do good, which is reflected in their name — Do Bem — which can be translated perhaps as “Of Goodness” or “Wellness.” So what is the problem with their storytelling?

Do Bem

The problem is that Do Bem have a story about where their oranges come from. The image above is from their website, and we are told that Do Bem oranges come from the farm of Mr. Franciso, which is to be found in the state of São Paulo. This justifies the premium pricing of the product, as Do Bem are supporting small organic farmers.

The reality, again reported by Veja, is that the oranges are produced on an industrial scale, and come from wholesalers such as Brasil Citrus, who also supply the majority of the biggest supermarkets. It is important to point out that no one is questioning the quality of produce of Brasil Citrus. But what Do Bem is now discovering is that there are limits to storytelling and there are limits to what consumers will put up with, especially engaged consumers looking to make more conscious purchasing decisions.

It should be pointed out that Do Bem have replied, stating that now that they have grown, they do utlise a wide range of suppliers, but in fact Mr. Francisco does actually exist (see this report, in Portuguese), and that with their packaging they are highlighting suppliers who are “special in their history.”

So what can we learn from all of this? Sustainability is not a gap in the market to be exploited commercially. If we act from a place of integrity and authenticity, then there should be no need to resort to bogus stories about the origins of our products, services, projects and activities. If there is a lack of authenticity, then this will soon be found out by those we are seeking to hoodwink. If your brand is predicated on treating those you seek to serve as idiots, any brand value you build up will not be sustainable.

The highest form of wisdom is self-knowledge. Sometimes we hide from ourselves, and this can be manifested in the false narratives we tell others about ourselves, and the narratives we also tell about other people, as a form of ego-defence.

clayMaria and I also ran a workshop at Sustainable Brands, in which we introduced participants to what for many was quite a strange exercise: We gave everyone a lump of clay, and then blindfolded them. We played sounds of trickling water and birdsong recorded in a forest, and asked people to model something in clay that represented their relationship to nature and their understanding of sustainability. If we enter the clay exercise with the desire to really explore the stories within us, then where we do encounter shadows, we find the exact areas of both ourselves and our brands that may need some work to achieve the level of authenticity and integrity needed for our advertising and publicity.

SB ‘14 London was the first Sustainable Brands summit I had attended, and it was quite a phenomenal atmosphere to hear so many inspirational stories, such as Aly Khalifa discussing the very holonomic and disruptive business model for Lyf Shoes; Mathieu Delcourt from Intermarché discussing the reintroduction of ugly fruit and vegetables into supermarkets; and Nigel Stansfield from Interface explaining how fishing nets from the Phillipines are upcycled into materials used in their flooring solutions, to name just three.

Dave Wheldon at SB '14 London

In addition to these uplifting stories, we also heard from Dave Wheldon (left), Head of Brand, Reputation and Citizenship at Barclays Group. Barclays really have a monumental mountain to climb following the scandal relating to the manipulation of LIBOR, and as Whelan put it,“culture change is painful and difficult.” Consumer trust in banks and the financial sector has been shattered, and it will take a long time before this fragile trust is regained.

It is interesting that Montague pointed out that where in storytelling companies, the ownership of the story normally resides in one department, usually the marketing department — in storydoing organisations, the story is held in the entire leadership team, which leads to a more holistic expression and understanding of the story. Storydoing organisations pay far less in terms of advertising, since the story generates so much buzz across social networks.

Do Bem and Diletto may find that their own advertising may well have cost them dearly, in terms of lost goodwill and subsequent lost sales. They are now facing a backlash, with strong narratives being told about their brands by ex-customers. It never had to be this way since they already have strong products.

But brands that treat their customers like idiots are not sustainable brands. It is amazing that large organisations with large advertising budgets are still failing to understand this basic point in the era of social networking. Those that do and who use communications as a force for good will be the ones that thrive and prosper in a world of more conscious consumption.

This post first appeared on the Transition Consciousness blog on November 30, 2014.