“Care more for the customers, and what they care about. They will in turn care about you.”

This simple, inspiring suggestion, in a nutshell, can be seen as the main message of “Goodvertising”, a term coined by Thomas Kolster, and the title of his book about sustainability in marketing and advertising. As encouraging and optimistic as it sounds, is this a basis of a real business strategy, or an idealist’s pipe-dream? had the pleasure to talk to Mr. Thomas Koesler about his new book, his ideas, and new solutions in how your brand can grow by becoming a part of the quest for sustainability.

Thomas, thank you for being here with us. As inspiring as the concept of Goodvertising may seem, who would you say it is mainly for? Is it a reminder for the consumers to make more responsible choices, or for the companies to embrace sustainability in their strategies? Would you say that there is a potential conflict between the bottom line and ethical considerations?

Goodvertising should ultimately be a win-win for business and people. I wanted to coin a new term that could engage the broader marketing community in a renewed discussion around sustainability and making a difference. Until very recently, we saw situations where most marketing people would have left the room before you could even utter “CSR”, “green” or “sustainability”. With Goodvertising I’ve been able not only to get their attention, but also to kick-start some fresh, engaging conversations with them. Case in point: I’m definitely not advocating for a model that’s non-profit, quite the opposite. I argue that it pays to care more for your customers and what they care about. But I do have all the understanding for the difficulties that go with it. I would even say, that if Goodvertising doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t improve your bottom line, simply don’t do it. A business needs to generate profit,  and investors want to see return on their capital.  Fact of the matter is, you can’t always expect a return in the short run. Look at how Coca-Cola is fiercely defending their brand value and sales through their sustainability efforts – it takes time. Investors are not always so patient, and that’s why many of the leading companies in the sustainability field are family or foundation owned.

You touched on the subject of the future value of current investments. But many causes, also those addressed by responsible marketing, require immediate attention. Advertising is a very profitable industry and the campaigns often take up significant parts of companies’ budgets. Is it not hypocritical to talk about water shortage, homelessness and hunger on a spot that costs millions to broadcast? Wouldn’t the most honest approach be to follow the example of Pepsi who pulled out of the Superbowl and instead spent the money on social campaigning? 

You ignore an important fact. In 1972 a company’s value was primarily based on tangible assets such as factories, equipment and only 17% was the brand value. If you look at a company’s value today, 80% of the value today is tied to intangible assets such as patents, trademarks and of course the brand. Using advertising is a way of reassuring not only consumers, but also your employees and your investors that you’re a future-proof brand. If you make the core of your brand to be and issue that matters to your consumers, and is essential for your company’s survival, then you just set yourself on a mission to make a difference. A great example here is how Nike has moved from being all about a winning spirit, to making the world better through sports – and they’re on a determined mission to do so, not only through advertising, but also through sustainable innovations like the Flyknit shoe or services like Reuse-a-shoe.

I think we’re finally seeing companies grow up and live up to their responsibilities after some pretty messy teenage years. It’s a journey that for most companies began with philanthropy, community involvement, Corporate Social Responsibility, to finally becoming a sustainable company, where it’s strategies are not about compliance or responsibility, but about new, corporate possibilities in a sustainable world. This is where companies really begin walking the talk and living their values through every touch point.

The coming years will be a make it or break it for many brands. When our children are looking back on the way we did business it will be as strange a notion as slavery is to us today. How could we be so oblivious to the harm we inflicted on people and the planet? Couldn’t we see the icebergs melting or the chemical time bomb, ticking away in everything from food to clothing? It’s time for a smarter way forward.

You mentioned how attractive a future-proof brand might be and how companies are willing to go to any length to get that edge. Going green still seems to be an original concept that allows businesses to “own” the sustainable and responsible approach, in the sense that they are among the first to use it. Will it still be attractive when everybody goes green and the novelty wears off?

Good question. We’re still decades away from that happening. If you look at most companies’ time frames of achieving full sustainability, they’re talking about 2020 and some of them about 2030, and even with that time frame they may not become fully sustainable companies. But hey, wouldn’t it be wonderful, if every company in the world would be fully sustainable so it wasn’t a competitive advantage? Until then, I believe it’s a company’s future survival that’s at stake, and if you’re not sharing your visions with everyone, if you’re not talking to us about what you want, I’m sure there’s plenty of other brands that will open up and  conquer the green throne. Staying silent is not an option anymore. A recent survey from Globescan ”The 2014 Sustainability Leaders” shows an interesting correlation between the brands being most outspoken and how their perception as the most sustainable. On the list you find big brands like Unilever, Patagonia, Interface, M&S, Natura, Nike, GE or IKEA.

In light of the above, do you see companies engaging in a “green competition”, or in a race to being recognized the most sustainable and responsible on the market?

Yes, definitely – that’s the ultimate goal. There is a race between sustainable businesses doing their very best to achieve zero impact. I like how the author John Elkington in his recent book dubs them: Zeronauts. We see this race take place in many industries already, and several brands, such as Nike versus Adidas or Marks & Spencer versus Waitrose are trying to out-compete each other in the sustainability field. When that’s said, it’s also great to see a lot of collaboration going on in the industry where companies realize they cannot solve the problems alone, but have to stand together. A good example is the fashion industry’s commitment to a Toxic Pledge – ridding our clothing of harmful chemicals

Can you name a few sectors in which responsible advertising is harder to implement than others?

I like to be an optimist, but sure there are sectors that are more challenged than others. We see sectors naturally disappear because of development, as in the case of digitization that saw the disappearance of the video store. The same should be expected with sustainability both in the short or long term in the case of, for example, the oil industry. I also see a sector like alcohol struggle and a lot, as well as the heavily processed food companies.

If you’re not able to become a sustainable business in the long term, you don’t have a Raison d’être. Openness and sharing products’ back-stories are really only a few of the many possibilities in creating an interesting and engaging brand narrative. Another one could be to take the biggest threat to your company, and turn it into your own biggest enemy, just like Coca-Cola which is slowly beginning to talk more openly about the calories in its products. Another tactic would be taking your world-bettering feature and turn it into your mission: Method has done this with its fight against toxic chemicals, Sodastream has taken up the fight against plastic bottles.

What about well-established brands, who have little need for redefining their strategies? Is there place for Goodvertising in high-end and luxury brands, whose image is reputable on the market and who appeal to groups that are not necessarily the typical audience for CSR?

Yes, definitely it’s a must. Keering has come some way in its attempts to make luxury sustainable. For a lot of the luxury brands I’ve come across it’s about you as a brand taking the sustainable “inconvenience” on yourself, rather than asking your high-paying customers to go out of their way to do the right thing. If you’re paying a premium price for staying in a suite at a hotel, you shouldn’t be bothered with laying your used towels on the floor. It’s about rethinking service and rethinking luxury. If you look at a luxury brand like Tesla or what BMW has done with the BMW-i, you’ll see that they’re showing us a way forward to a new meaning of luxury, where luxury is sustainable. Many of the new, young tech billionaires have a different view of luxury, as an area where they want to show care. I see this as the future of luxury.

In the foreseeable future, do you see a place for a regulatory body that would guard the ethical considerations of sustainable advertising?

This is something I recently spoke about at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. What’s the voice impact of advertising? With hundreds of billions of euros spend every year to say: “Consume more!”, how are we ever going to realize a sustainable future? For me this is not a discussion about a regulatory body for sustainable advertising: a green- or for that sake a white-washing watchdog. I think we have to consider the media landscape as a whole. Countries like France have already passed regulation that asks companies to bring health warnings, as we know them from cigarette packs, if they’re advertising products with too much sugar, fat or salt. I hope the industry can regulate itself – and I’ll encourage brand owners to live up to this responsibility.

And so we’ve ventured into the area where politics and business intersect. I believe it’s worth mentioning how critics often point to the political underpinnings of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. In the interview with Bradford K. Smith one can clearly see that sustainability and CSR are not only new approaches to doing business. They are also at a center of a heated political debate about regulations and distribution of goods. Does this not pose a risk for the openness and honesty in goodvertising? What I’m really asking about is whether all agendas can be made openly accessible?

There’s no doubt there’s a political agenda and systemic thought behind the sustainability movement, but these are still the early days, and it’s definitely not a unified or clear-cut movement. In my opinion, it’s important to engage the public in open discussions about sustainability and the role of businesses in society. Where are the possibilities? The limits? The challenges? How do we create an open and accountable system? Today the biggest economies are no longer those of the world’s governments, but those of businesses. With greater power comes  greater responsibility. Shouldn’t we have a say in that?

But what about the pure economic considerations? The interview with Audrey Gaughran brings to attention human rights, and labor issues. It is also a – not so thinly veiled – attack against values associated with the free market. Don’t you think that such an approach could alienate many demographics, negatively effect the bottom line, and turn advertising into it’s own opposite? 

Audrey is touching on some really interesting aspects. Our lack of a global body to deal with these issues is an increasing problem – I agree with her. We’ve recently seen this in relation to tax evasion. Companies have to be held accountable for their actions – or lack of actions, but this is no longer a responsibility only left in the hands of organizations like Amnesty International and the free press. We as individuals have as big a responsibility ourselves, and thanks to social media it has become easier to make an impact and call out wrongdoings. We saw this in connection with the #InsideOut campaign challenging the lack of transparency in the fashion industry. Also Starbucks in the UK has felt the heat as it saw it’s stores being occupied by angry customers who protested against Starbucks’ minuscule tax contribution to society. Every time a corporation’s conduct puts a message out there – it’s put on the line. In her book “No Logo” Naomi Klein states “In many ways branding is the Achilles heel of the corporate world.”

Overspending, politicizing, zeal and manipulation – perhaps some or all these might be considered as potential pitfalls for sustainable advertising. Would you be able to name any more threats, and in this light give some suggestions to the young “Mad Men” out there who, inspired by example of professionals like yourself, wish to further the idea of Goodvertising? 

In that perspective “Goodvertising” can certainly be seen as the lesser of two evils. We’re at a really interesting period in time. After nearly 5 decades reign of mass-scale advertising and a consumerist society, we get to see change and partake in a journey to a more sustainable and inclusive society. What is the future going to look like? Goodvertising? A stringent, regulated global media space? A more developed, transparent and accountable system? Will messaging be put in the hands of governments as we see in the case of totalitarian regimes like North Korea? Or will messaging be an open, democratic tool for the people and by the people as seen in some early attempts by Loudsauce? What will tech bring to the table? Personalized ads through an implanted chip in our brains? For all you young “Mad Men” out there – it’s up to you to define. Why not begin the conversation now? What’s your take? Share your opinion using #GoodvertisingNow

Thank you for your time and conversation, Thomas.

The interview first appeared in Polish CSR News




© 2020 Thomas Kolster. All Rights Reserved.

Share This