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Walking the Talk
Kolster to Brands:
Avoid the ’Hero Trap’ and Close the Intention-Action Gap

Internationally recognised speaker and author Thomas Kolster, also known as Mr. Goodvertising, takes a hatchet to his earlier beliefs around purpose-driven brands in a new book, The Hero Trap. He says the one question brands need to be asking and acting on to change behaviors at scale and unlock sustainable growth that benefits all is ‘Who can you help people become?’

Most brands today are firmly on the bandwagon around social and environmental issues from oceans plastic to diversity, like bees around a honey pot. People are increasingly distrustful towards these efforts viewed as cheap marketing stunts meant to wow people into buying more. In The Hero Trap, Thomas Kolster draws on top-line marketing case studies and in-depth interviews with the likes of P&G CMO Marc Pritchard, to demonstrate how people are truly motivated to act when they’re in charge of their own life and happiness.

One commissioned study comparing well-known commercials shows that, by taking a people-first approach, people are 29.5 percent more motivated to act on the messaging than the traditional purpose approach. ‘Who can you help me become?’ is the one essential question you need to be asking and acting on to chart a new course for your brand, changing behaviours at scale and unlocking sustainable growth that benefits all. Kolster heralds the beginning of a new, “post-purpose” era, where brands will be seen as villains if they don’t put people’s dreams, aspirations and creativity first.

The following excerpt is taken from the introduction to Kolster’s book, which frames why organizations and leaders have to step down from the purpose pedestal, or risk running into “the hero trap.”


Your brand is not the hero — turn people into the heroes

I was wrong about purpose. All these years, I had been asking the wrong questions. Let me ask you this: Who do you want to be? And I’m not talking about when you as a child could simply say fireman, pilot or doctor. I’m talking about “who” you see yourself as becoming. “Who” do you aspire towards being? “Who” embodies a good life for you? It can be smaller “who’s” or roles in your life — like a more considerate boyfriend or girlfriend, a better vegan chef or a better runner, right up to passions like a hotshot creative director, a skydiver or simply a great mum or dad. We all go through life struggling to find our “who.”

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Often, we lose focus on what’s important in our lives, or we prioritise wrongly; the same can be said about marketing and building purposeful brands. Our dreams, fears and aspirations are the building blocks of great, long-living brands that matter to people. The organisations that get this are touching the very core of people’s being, the very top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — people’s urge to fulfil themselves through sports, art, work or whatever rocks their boat. Think of the sense of safety you feel when driving a Volvo: you are a responsible mom or dad. Or think about the unhindered creativity when working on an Apple MacBook: You are truly a creative. It’s not about the product, it’s about who you become.

Admittedly, it’s easy to get lost in the fast-paced world of marketing, with all the talk of artificial intelligence (AI), digital transformation, real time and whatever else is trending — but the answer is right in front of you: People. In a post-consumerist society, the cost of ignoring people’s urge to reach self-fulfillment is brutal and, in most instances, fatal. It’s time to refocus. Market economists have made us believe we’re driven by green bills or status, but the inherent human truth that goes across age, culture and gender uncovers a stronger force: We want to be in charge of our own lives and our own happiness. You’re truly motivated to act when you’re calling the shots or chasing that dream. The organisations that get this win by making people become more, do more.

My own story of transformation

In my early twenties, I started working as a copywriter in an ad agency in Denmark. I liked writing and I guess I always had a creative edge, but I didn’t feel a burning purpose; and quite bluntly, I was getting paid for what most of the time seemed like a hobby. But something within me didn’t feel right. It took me the better part of ten years of advertising agency life — from copywriter to creative director to owner of an agency — to realise that I had to change.

It wasn’t an easy journey; and, in hindsight, it probably wasn’t even a conscious one. More of a spontaneous outburst, a rallying cry against my industry and the unhinged capitalism and consumerism it stood for — but, maybe more importantly, an alignment of my work life and my values.

My wake-up call happened when politicians from all over the world gathered in my hometown of Copenhagen in 2009 to agree on a climate treaty to curb rampaging carbon emissions. I had high expectations — but, as you know . . . nothing happened.

Frustrated, I couldn’t help but think that I’m selling cars, burgers and quick loans people really don’t need. How can I make a difference? How can I make marketing people realise that their voice and work truly matter in shaping a better world? How can I make them realise that creativity and communication are powerful tools that can be used to serve human and planetary betterment?

My mission was shaped, and it formed the springboard for my first book, Goodvertising (Thames & Hudson, 2012). So, I slowly developed a voice and a conviction, which was ultimately to give others a voice, give others a platform. I grew from feeling I was getting paid to use my passion and creativity on something I didn’t believe in to waking up energised and ready to spark change.

From 'why' to 'who'

I’ve been in the hurricane’s eye of the purpose revolution the last decade and have been a vocal advocate. Today, I’ve lost my belief in putting organisations or leaders on that purpose pedestal rallying for change. If you try to fly like superman, you’ll fall like a can of soup. If we are to create change, we have to put people first. I’ll argue that organisations have to chart a different course, where they instead help people to follow through on their needs and their ambitions in life. It’s a move from “why” your organisation matters in the world to understanding how you as an organisation can help me to achieve “who” I want to be: making me matter. It’s a move from being a self-obsessed evangelist to a real leader.

We’re at a tipping point; and although a sustainable narrative is becoming more commonplace, there is still far to go in pushing people to live better, more sustainable lives. This can only happen if organisations truly motivate people to act.

Great leaders make you grow

Michael Jackson hit the nail on the head in the classic hit song “Man in the Mirror”: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror / I’m asking him to change his ways.” No doubt about it, we are our own biggest enemies of change. That’s why organisations should look to people as the agents of change. Everyone has the potential to change at any point in his or her life — from small goals like eating healthier to bigger aspirations like living with your heart first. We just need the right motivation.

Very few organisations have been able to bridge the purpose gap and get people to move from buying into the purpose to actually buying the product or changing behaviours for the better. The intention is there, but action doesn’t follow. Through years of advising leaders and organisations on purpose, I finally realised what the missing link was: the very people you are supposed to serve and consequently motivate. I looked to coaching methodologies and psychotherapy to understand how to move people from inaction to action, from unfulfilled to fulfilled. One simple but essential question helped spark the needed change: “Who can you help me become?”

When you dare to ask “who,” you motivate people to make that jump across their own personal gap from aspiration to action. You become a gardener of change and prepare the soil for people’s growth. Ultimately, you have to help people grow. You have to light a fire in everyone — not by passing it on, but by helping them to make it! The best leaders I have come across in my life have been those who made me grow, who made me better. The “why” of an organisation has to be found in the individual’s “who.”

Mass-marketing, mass-production and the other “masses” are dying, as people are gaining control. Organisations are faced by smaller, more agile challengers; and there are plenty of those — potentially eight billion ordinary people armed with great ideas and a burning passion; Davids with a sling. Across industries, the big players — the Goliaths — have felt the impact, and some have been brought down. It’s the many Davids who are taking over the very creation of marketing, the very creation of business. It’s unavoidable to put people first.

The transformation toolbox: Begin with 'who'

I want to set a new agenda for leadership, a new agenda for brand growth going forward; that’s bottom-up, inclusive, diverse, democratic, sustainable, open, life-improving — everything that’s so far from how organisations, businesses or marketing programs traditionally behave.

My goal is to write a practical, hands-on book, one that’s not just left on the bookshelf to gather dust but is being applied again and again to transform people, organisations and leaders. It’s goal-oriented; it enables you — and your stakeholders. We all need a friendly push from behind sometimes, that reminder not to leave going for that run till tomorrow. Your “push in the back” for crafting organisations that are not dumb, irrelevant, self-centric or outright harmful is now. I believe that together we can create a wave of change for happier, life-improving growth, and it all begins with truly putting people in charge of their own change. The aim of this book is to provide you with the tools for that transformation, and it begins with that one simple question: Who can you help people become?


Join Thomas for a free, live-streamed launch event — Thursday, June 25th

To mark the launch of The Hero Trap, Thomas will be joined by guests such as our very own Koann Skrzyniarz, Founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands™; Tim Lindsay, President of D&AD; Virginie Helias. Chief Sustainability Officer, P&G; Edel Rodriguez, Cuban American artist and illustrator, Lanre Adisa, CEO, Noah’s Ark; Julian Marsili, Global Director, Carlsberg; and Per Pedersen, ex-creative chairman, Grey.

The event will begin at 9am New York / 2pm London / 3 pm Copenhagen / 9 pm Singapore time. You can sign-up for free at thomaskolster.com or join via Youtube or Facebook Live.

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