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How to Make Mainstream Consumers Give a Sh*t

For me, this was hands-down the most entertaining session of SB ‘15 San Diego. If you ever get the opportunity to attend a panel moderated by Edelman's Henk Campher, I highly recommend it.

He set the mood for 60-minute breakout by welcoming everyone to “the panel on sustainable fracking.” Then we quickly dove into conversation on turning consumers into activists.

Or as Campher put it, “Why should anyone give a shit?”

To illustrate the point, we watched a series of videos, each handpicked by a panel member, that had achieved virality at some point. The best was The Rainforest Needs You - a highly engaging clip that tells a story. You really have no idea what the purpose of the story is, but it scored high marks for comedy and entertainment.

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Not until the end of the video did you find out it was a Rainforest Alliance promotion for its “Follow the Frog” campaign. And that was what made it great. The biggest takeaway from the session was that you don’t necessarily want to lead with your sustainability message. In fact, if you want to reach mainstream consumers, it’s probably a bad idea.

So we spent the next hour mostly avoiding the topic of sustainability, and rather telling stories that exemplified how the speakers (and the brands they represent) have become so adept at winning over mainstream consumers.

Here are the highlights from the panelist’s responses to some of Campher’s hard-hitting questions - including but not limited to hashtags and tattoos.

Jeff Johnson has worked at Kashi for 15 years, he’s been coming to Sustainable Brands conferences for many years, and he’s learned that in order to get mainstream people involved, you must get them motivated behind your brand. How do you do that? Many companies use social and environmental messaging as a means to activate consumers, and that can be a mistake.

Yes, positive impact may be the reason that founders start the company in the first place. But it’s unlikely to get the masses onboard. That’s why Johnson has focused on removing the word “consumer” from Kashi’s vocabulary. Instead, they make healthy and nutricious food for friends and family.

Joe Whinney of Theo Chocolate believed in Santa Claus until he was 12 - two full years after his mother told him the truth about jolly old Saint Nick. Point of the story? Once Whinney believes in something, he has a hard time letting go. For Theo Chocolate, it’s the people behind the brand that really matter.

That’s probably the truth about brands - whether we realize it or not. We talk about brands using human characteristics, so it’s no surprise that the best brands are the ones with a team of people that couldn’t imagine doing any other line of work.

“We’re a part of something that is incredibly exciting,” Whinney expressed. “And it works.”

Ryan Williams of Method shared personal stories about becoming a parent, learning Twitter while stuck in a traffic jam, and removing a tattoo. The common theme from all of his stories was that change is the one constant in life. If you pick something today that represents you, as you move forward, it will end up being wrong.

With respect to his biggest kryptonite, Williams delivered a pointed response to the typical “what’s your greatest weakness” interview question. (“I just care too damn much!”) But it can be true, especially at companies that strive to make a positive impact.

He said the key to getting around the passion that bogs people down, especially at Method, is to align the decision-making process with the appropriate functional experts. It’s understandable that sales people want to have some say in the color of the company’s latest hand soap, but the business tends to run a lot smoother when the creative design experts have the final word.

Andy Kim of Wype, an on-demand car wash company that doesn’t use any water, shared a lot of experiences from the perspective of an early-stage company. Its mission is focused on convenience, which is a factor that has allowed Wype to make early inroads to the mass market.

With a small team, Kim and his colleagues end up wearing a lot of hats. So when they reach a point in the week where they finally get a breather, they start to look around. “You don’t have an opportunity to rest.”

It’s never a bad time to tell a story. And when you sit down to write your next one, just remember: Change is constant. Stay true to yourself.


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