Communicating your positive impact story

Oatly, Allbirds and Bulb show that bringing together people, product and the planet isn't a straightforward exercise.

Communicating your positive impact story

Oatly, Allbirds and Bulb show that bringing together people, product and the planet isn't a straightforward exercise.

Being both a B Corporation and an advocate of ‘creative capital’, And Rising’s commitment to positive-impact brands is a crucial part of our fund philosophy. Scaling new brands that are doing the right thing might seem an obvious way to succeed, but in reality, it isn’t. Marc Andreessen famously said that he would “run screaming” from a B Corp, describing the idea of serving both profit and impact agendas as “like a houseboat: it’s not a good house, and it’s not a good boat”. Since then, we’ve come a long way, but brands being a force for good still creates tough and conflicting challenges.

Allbirds TV advertising : Run Hard Tread Light
Allbirds advertising links product and impact benefits, so the two are mutually reinforcing. (Source: YouTube)

Making a difference in the noise.

Ever since the advent of ‘brand purpose’, corporates have indulged in endless virtue-signalling, and it’s been hard to assess meaningful change. Marketing will quickly ingest trendlines like Greta Thunberg, the pandemic or Black Lives Matter and ‘woke wash’ their way to some extra PR. This constant din makes it much harder for a scale-up brand with a genuine difference to cut through. So, how do you communicate the difference? It starts with acknowledging some brutal tensions and being creative about how you work through them.

NY Times Global Warming Study Me v We
Most people think that climate change will harm people - it just won’t harm them. (New York Times)

The complicated algorithm of ‘me’ versus ‘we’.

Many new, positive impact ideas fail because they overlook to explain what’s in it for the individual. We’re all avoiding world disasters, and that’s good for everyone, right? The answer is yes, and no.

In the US, just about everyone believes climate change will harm Americans. However, the same number think it won’t hurt them personally, leading to a dissonance between what people think and what they do. Research has often claimed that people prefer to buy more environmentally friendly products, but will opt for the cheaper one in subsequent shopping tests. For scaling brands, communicating a differentiated, more rewarding product is the number one priority. Until all the other parts of the value exchange are a) distinctive and competitive and b) clearly communicated, it’s hard to win on positive impact alone.

Of course, people see a ‘me’ benefit in the social status of virtue signalling, particularly on social media, one of the best places to discover new brands. And people sometimes buy for entirely intrinsic reasons. But all too often brands assume that the moral choice will become the obvious and default choice for all. Behavioural dissonance, or habits, or busy lives are all barriers to this.

Importantly, we expect brands to be doing the right thing; people shouldn’t have to give extra credit for that. For a positive impact provider, this means ‘doing good’ ends up being more of a feature than a benefit. Bulb Energy has invested into standing up for “green energy for all”, whilst Octopus makes green energy part of a much bigger “value for the long term” offer. Since all providers buy green energy from the same places — and electricity is invisible — this makes things much harder for Bulb.

Bulb Energy v Octopus Energy Google Trends
In the UK both Bulb and Octopus buy 100% renewable energy, but the audience is swayed by more than that. (Google Trends UK)

So, if you’re a pet food using insect protein instead of meat, you need to communicate on taste and health equally. If you’re a beauty product that comes in sustainable formats, you need to start with the product quality, not just the packaging. And if you’re an app specialising in impact investing, it’s because investing in sustainable companies is the most logical path to sustainable returns. As we often say in the B Corporation communiy, do not expect to be picked just because you are a B Corp, you have to be excellent first.

Deal in the proof, not the purpose

There is less humour in advertising, Cannes Lion awards study
The “best ads in the world” are now serious, not funny. Too serious some might say. (Data: Cannes Lions)

We’re also tired of brands’ efforts to ‘be there for us’. It began with the sad piano music and ‘in these unprecedented times’ manifesto ads at the pandemic’s start. This advertising montage laughs at how many brands ran identical pieces of copy. A year later, and claims like “Burritos can save the World” (Chipotle Superbowl spot) sound like a parody. Living through our screens, we’ve begun to demand more unfiltered things and more straight talk. Oatly’s sold-out T-Shirt in response to their own Superbowl spot holds the clue. Was the ad weird? Maybe. But only because it sung the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: Oatly is not made from cows. We suspect Oatly sales (and fans) will grow even faster now. Sometimes a smile and a little synth-pop goes further than the lull of funeral-piano.

Oatly Superbowl T Shirt
Oatly’s Superbowl spot said one thing: “we’re not made from cows”. Even the ironic T-shirts sold out. (BuzzFeed)

The reverse is true for those that extol the virtues of their purpose, but don’t back it up. Employees have begun to call out their own companies whose announcements and actions become divorced. It’s the difference between setting out a vision and making any steps at all towards it. Going forward, communicating proof, however small or steady, will ‘eat purpose for breakfast’. And people will trust those brands that are truthful about progress: nearly half of Gen Zs & Millennials would trust a brand more if they were honest, even about problems (Futerra, 2019).

Bake it in, don’t bolt it on

Spending more time at home has made us realise how full are cupboards are and — as we fill our recycling bins to bursting every week with Amazon cardboard — how endless our consumption is. Less, not more will continue to be an essential theme, an approach made famous by Patagonia. And direct-to-consumer brands have the opportunity to simplify our lives, helping us focus on what we need. Take cleaning products, which seem to grow in number under our sinks, increasing the chemicals and plastic we dump out into the ocean. Method made the first breakthrough some years back with a paired back, eco-friendly product that ‘looks good, does better’ (subsequently acquired by Ecover, then SC Johnson). Homethings now offers a subscription-based service, using just three re-fillable products. The business model itself is the message. Expanding your range and commanding more shelf space is how a traditional consumer-product competes. But new recurring revenue models can underline our desire for less choice, giving us more reassurance in what we’ve chosen instead.

Homethings: Method’s use of colour but a genuine ‘less is more’ business model

If we build it (for real), they will come.

Creative capital is a way of investing in what brands are building, not just the return. In this way, we have a chance to avoid the compromised ‘houseboats’ that Marc Andreesen describes. The highest growth brands are likely to behave more like B-Corporations, taking inspiration from a more nuanced and comprehensive range of stakeholder issues. And they will be interested in their customers forming communities of collaborators, activists even, by offering a model that encourages them to think, and not just buy. After all, investing is about the compound payback over many years. With the UN giving us just ten to avoid disaster, it’s time to get building.