Whether it was the will to build a rail system that spanned a continent, the inspiration to put a man on the moon, or the ingenuity to create a computer that fits in the palm of your hand, innovation is woven into the fabric of our nation. As a culture, we celebrate it. We revere the champions who succeed—those who seem to defy the odds and break the mold. Their work, their genius, profoundly reshapes our lives, our businesses, and how we interact with one another.
However, where once America was a giant of industry—the world leader in agriculture, then manufacturing, and ultimately technology—other global players have now taken the lead. In the current capitalistic context, mass production rules the day. Built-in obsolescence is de rigueur. Lasting quality, artful craftsmanship, and transformational innovation are less and less a part of the mainstream U.S. equation.
But a new era is dawning. Familiar systems, treasured ideologies, and 20th century best practices are giving way to something unprecedented: an innovation ecosystem like none we’ve ever seen; one primed to reward a new corporate species—a new breed that will not only shape the future, but the very planet itself.
This game-changing new player is the courageous brand.
Asking the right question
In his philosophical text Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, the scholar James P. Carse forwards a theory of culture as “life actions” broken into two categories of game: one that could be called finite, the other infinite. By Carse’s measure, America’s cultural and economic model since the industrial revolution has been finite—a closed game played for the sole purpose of winning. But as Carse points out, to win—to land on top; to walk away victorious and damn the consequences—is to end the game.
However, a mere sixteen years into the 21st century, this mindset is shifting. We live in an indisputably interconnected world. Within this context, to win as a separate entity—as a company or an individual acting alone—is incredibly harmful to the whole. The game ends. Competition trumps cooperation. Individual gain vanquishes collective benefit. The planet itself transforms into a world that no longer sustains us.
In the finite game no one actually wins. (A fact Nature is plainly driving home.) Even so, the finite game still has its players: old-paradigm brands asking “How?”
How will we make money on this? How will we survive in a market changing more rapidly than ever before? How will we win and thereby end the game?
Courageous brands, on the other hand, ask “Why?” Why will our customers care, engage, invest? What in their lives, in our world, can we transform for the greater good?
Only a brave few disruptors have begun to ask this question. The right question. The question that will drive innovation for the second half of the digital age.
With this single question, Why?, the conversation transforms. Dialogue elevates. Perspective magnifies. Suddenly, what’s needed is much deeper than a catchy corporate statement or a viral video that tugs on people’s heartstrings without any nod to proof.
When courageous brands ask Why?, value moves from money to meaning—from How can I persuade you? to How can I contribute; how can I and add value to your life?—and a fundamental reset ricochets through culture.
The model shifts from profit to purpose.
Leading with true purpose
Now more than ever, just below the fog of cynicism, is a true and genuine yearning. A desire, a need for vision. Not just a catchy mission statement, but an underlying purpose. One that consumers can believe, because they see it demonstrated in action.
When purpose transforms into action, a brand’s purpose becomes its currency. Its tangible proof of good. Brands become courageous when they offer proof every day, with quantifiable actions that demonstrate a measurable commitment to their customers, the community, and our planet.
Unilever is a perfect example. They’ve got one of the largest corporate footprints in the global market. Future-facing CEO Paul Polman sees this as a key advantage. Polman, a tireless advocate for global good who has been a member of a raft of coalitions, councils, boards, trusts, and taskforces dedicated to conservation and sustainability, has led Unilever into a bold new era of corporate social responsibility.
In 2013, under Polman’s guidance, the company released the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. This ambitious 20-page treatise opens with a rousing vision statement that calls out the problems we’re facing: rising temperatures, resource scarcity, food security, and the widening gap between rich and poor. The statement continues, “At Unilever, we believe that business must be part of the solution. But to be so, business will have to change. Sustainable, equitable growth is the only acceptable business model.”
Unilever then backs up these statements with 19 pages of proof—descriptions, data, metrics, infographics, stats, and subsections, all delivering very specific evidence that demonstrates exactly how Unilever is making their bold vision a reality.
But the vision Polman and Unilever are championing does not eschew profit. Far from it. Instead, the company calls out their realization that sustainability, social responsibility, and environmental innovations actually incite consumers to buy.
Purpose reveals the path. The path illuminates action. And action builds toward cultural currency rooted in consumer trust.
Earning attention through the noise
One of the most precious gifts we can give—to a person, or even a brand—is the gift of our attention. Attention is one of the world’s most important resources, individually and collectively. And it’s a resource that’s growing scarcer by the day.
Attention is a signal: a focused beam of thought and feeling that holds the power to influence anything it touches. Widen that beam too broadly, and focus dissipates.
Culturally, technologically, and emotionally, we’re coming up against the limitations of our attention. We can’t manufacture more of it; no matter how hard we try, no matter how many new things demand it. We can only choose where our focus goes, and how sharp or diffused it will be.
When courageous brands demonstrate their brand in action, they reinforce their authenticity of purpose. Much like attention, this purity of commitment is also a force. One that can be felt. And one that naturally, sometimes powerfully, grabs our attention.
Starbucks is a beautiful example of a courageous brand that was able to harness their passion (quality coffee), and find compelling, authentic ways to earn consumer attention.
For years, the proliferating green-and-white awnings told a visual success story that unfolded rapidly on virtually every corner of every city in the nation. Eventually, however, Starbucks hit saturation point, even as new and old competitors jumped onto the convenient-quality-coffee bandwagon. Culture and the economy changed as well. A long and significant recession, increased environmental consciousness, and the rise of the craft-coffee movement, all contributed to send the company back to the purpose drawing-board.
In this evolve-or-stagnate moment, Starbucks re-envisioned its core passion in a way that re-established its unique value. The company’s new mission reflects a vastly expanded purpose: “To inspire the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” The company embraced an ambitious vision with a much larger scope. A scope that now encompasses the bettering of our collective experience.
As Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz explains in his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul: “…we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do. We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead.”
Courageous brands create a sense of interest, urgency, enthusiasm, excitement, and even responsibility, by finding meaningful ways to hook into our shared humanity—even if those desires (in this case, a good cup of coffee in a comfortable, convenient location) are simple.
From responsibility to influence
In the ultimate, altruistic embodiment of “go big or go home,” courageous brands maintain a broader, more global view of where they fit—not just in the market, but in the greater scheme of things. These pioneering brands remain focused on the greater good, on the positive effect they can have, and on the tools they can provide that will lead to this effect—whether those tools are a product, a platform, or a suite of best practices.
Courageous responsibility comes from ownership. In this case, an unflinching understanding of your impact—on your market, community, ecosystem, and planet.
Ownership at this level may lead a courageous brand to be more involved in sectors outside of their primary focus. A clothing-design company, in accepting full responsibility for its footprint, might join with its manufacturing partners to shoulder the burden of impact, while actively innovating toward a sustainable next step.
Apparel outfitter Patagonia, founded in 1970 by blacksmith Yvon Chouinard, has maintained its steadfast commitment to quality, functionality, simplicity, and sustainability. Initially, Chouinard had no desire to own or run a clothing company. (He once joked, “What do a bunch of blacksmiths know about sewing, anyway?”) As he tells it, “I had to figure out a way to become a businessman completely on my own terms.” Those terms are evident in the company’s mission statement, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” They’re also demonstrated in Patagonia’s ongoing innovations at every level of influence, from supply-chain sourcing and manufacturing, to conscious provisioning and apparel recycling.
In May of 2007, the number of questions posed by eco-savvy consumers showed no sign of abating. Chouinard—driven by purpose—responded by challenging a nimble internal team to track the entire lifecycle of five of their products. The company pledged to release the results via Patagonia’s website. Not only did this give the company a detailed view of its supply chain (from foreign raw materials to domestic fiber manufacturing), but it revealed surprising data that the company used to spur innovation.
Patagonia knew they needed to adopt even more rigorous cradle-to-cradle best practices, all the while understanding that the release of their data to consumers would put it in the hands of their competitors. But as Jill Dumain, Director of Environmental Strategy for the company, has explained, “Our influence is larger than our impact. If we’re willing to share that information, it becomes exponential.”
When it comes to responsibility, transparency outweighs cost.
Courageous brands are not only able but willing to move from responsibility to influence. By taking full ownership of what they control—or can collaborate to control—courageous brands will discover huge opportunities for innovation in the coming decade. This will require new partnerships and alliances, as well as new ways of thinking and behaving within the marketplace. By so doing, courageous brands can help manifest a new paradigm based on cooperation and collaboration, as opposed to finite-game competition.
The new rules
In November of 2011, when Richard Branson was in London at a press launch for his book Screw Business As Usual, he explained it this way: “I truly believe that capitalism was created to help people live better lives. But sadly, over the years, [capitalism] has lost its way…. The short-term focus on profit has driven most businesses to forget about the important long-term role they have in taking care of people, and the planet.”
Brands and products come and go, their usefulness determined by various changing factors. But mission, vision, purpose—these are the forces of true power. The kind of power that can change a brand, an individual, the culture, and the world.
As a people, planet, and global economy, we’re entering a new age. Courageous brands are poised to thrive in it by playing with a different rulebook. Courageous rules will not only drive innovation, they’ll map the way toward lasting transformational change.