Why I wrote We First

For the past three years I have examined how brands and consumers practice capitalism, with the goal of helping our consumer society become a perpetual motor of prosperity for all. When I first began, I had no idea how much inquiry was being done in this area. But I quickly I discovered that many respected economists, thought leaders, and social visionaries were critiquing capitalism and proposing innovative new versions of their own.

There was British economist Noreena Hertz who called for cooperative capitalism, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green who believed in philanthrocapitalism, Umair Haque who created constructive capitalism, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey who proposed conscious capitalism. There was also Bill Gates, who proposed a notion he called creative capitalism, which I will explain in a moment.

As I began writing about the topic, I was asked why I chose to devote energy to becoming an activist for social change. This forced me to think about what inspires any of us to get involved in building a better world. Why are some of us social activists seeking to improve the world, while not others?

In my case, I was inspired by three events. First, I hit my 40th birthday and had a young family with two daughters. My father had just passed away, and I realized that I now had a greater responsibility for my children and their future. We might call this a personal onus that many people feel to leave behind a better world, especially when they have children themselves.

I also had a professional motivation. I was working in the advertising and happened to read the transcript of a speech that Bill Gates gave at Davos. He talked about how government and philanthropy can’t fix the world on their own and that the private sector needs to find creative ways to help. He asked corporations to figure out if they could be more creative in defining “profit.” He challenged them to find ways to serve the world’s poor who had the same human needs as the rest of us, but who by definition did not have the money to give corporations the same profit margins.

Finally, like many people, I was very disturbed by the financial crash of 2008, leading to so many regular people losing their jobs and life savings all around the world. I felt at a loss to understand how capitalism, which is consistently described as the smartest economic system, could have failed us so profoundly.

These feelings and events made me realize that I could no longer sit back and count on others to create the social change we all needed. I began mulling over Bill Gates challenge to see if I could contribute to new ways to thinking about capitalism and the role of the private sector.

From the perspective of a branding consultant, I started looking at the potential of social media and wondered whether it may provide the solution we need. These new tools offer consumers a new way to share their values, to unify their voices against socially irresponsible companies, and to organize buycotts and boycotts. Social media also gives consumers real time ways to be more mindful in their shopping, or to research products and companies and verify their social and ethical track record and their environmental footprint. At the same time, social media provides responsible companies a new connection to their customers and consumers who share their values. Companies could now create strong communities of loyal fans who not only like their products but who endorse their approaches to contributing to causes.

Given these facts, I began developing ideas that called for a new partnership between brands and consumers to bring about positive social change. My goal became to hep create a new partnership between brands and consumers to make the private sector into the third pillar of social transformation, along with government and philanthropies.

But one thing still intrigues me about why some people will accept a role in social activism while others don’t. In my research, I noticed that there is a consistent trend of growing consumer support for socially responsible companies and products. There is a fascinating research study called the Edelman Goodpurpose Survey that is done each year to measure consumer attitudes about corporate social responsibility. Here are a few facts from Edelman’s study based on polling 7000 consumers around the world:

  • 62% of global consumers “would switch brands if a different brand of similar quality supported a good cause”
  • 62% would be “more likely to recommend a brand that supports a good cause than one that doesn’t.”
  • 65% say they “have more trust in a brand that is ethically and socially responsible.”
  • 62% would “help a brand to promote their products or services if there is a good cause behind them. (compared to 53% in 2008 and 59% in 2009)
  • 71% believe “brands and consumers could do more to support good causes by working together”
  • 64% believe it is no longer enough for corporations to give money; they must integrate good causes into their everyday business
  • 73% agree government and business need to work together more closely to ensure the environment is protected

On one hand, these statistics endorse the notion that a majority of consumers prefers to do business with responsible corporations who support causes. I am curious, however, as to why these numbers aren’t all 95% or 100%? How is that 30 to 40% of consumers don’t endorse such statements? Does it mean that some people prefer doing business with unethical or irresponsible companies? Are these people really satisfied with the world we live in, with all its problems? What can they possibly gain from the rising rates of poverty, joblessness, and as Arianna Huffington has written about, the unacceptable loss of the American middle class.

It’s clear that anyone who takes part in social activism has two challenges to face. The first is to build up larger ranks of social activists who are willing to participate in social change. The second task is to understand and address why the other 30 to 40% of people aren’t yet committed to these issues.

These are not small tasks but I believe we find ourselves at a unique historical moment in which people are connected in new ways around what they care about that can make all the difference. I invite you to buy We First and define a role for yourself. It will not only help build a better world for us all, but provide enormous personal fulfillment as well.