Creating a Meaningful BrandOct 08, 2021
Shireen Smith: Hello, I'm Shireen Smith of the brand shooting podcast. And my guest today is Thomas coaster of the Goodvertising agency is the founder of it and is an internationally acclaimed speaker. Now, Thomas has written two books, the latest of which is called the hero trap, which I'm particularly keen to discuss with him because he shares some really interesting messages around purpose, which seems to have completely overtaken the world at the moment. And so I would like listeners to find out what he has to say about purpose.
Shireen Smith: Welcome to the Brand Tuned podcast. Thomas, tell us a bit more about your background.
Thomas Kolster: Thank you so much, and pleasure joining you. I mean, my background is I kind of stumbled into the world of advertising. So I started out as a copywriter and work on agency side for a number of years. And then my sort of directional change was, as some people have my little light bulb moment, was being around 30. And hosted, we were hosting. I'm calling it from Copenhagen today. And actually, in Copenhagen, we were hosting the climate summit, we had Barack Obama, we had Tony Blair, and America, all these people in town, and I thought, Wait a moment, all our elected government leaders got to do something about the climate emergency. And as we all know, nothing really happened. But that provoked me, to write my first book, which was called good advertising. And really, this is a decade ago, right? And really try to say, as a young advertiser creator, the time a Wait a moment, what is it, some of the world's biggest brands could be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?
Shireen Smith: Right, and it's your second book, The hero trap, that I'm particularly interested in because you've got quite a different message really, about this sort of social purpose that seems to have overtaken the world. So I was sort of watching one of your videos, and you certainly have a lot of sense to speak. So I'd love listeners to hear a bit more about your views.
Thomas Kolster: Yeah, it's, I mean, just watch in the last decade or so from my first book, and I was a really strong advocate for purpose. I was a really strong advocate for brand activism. And then about three years ago, I you know, in some aspects that you've been incredibly happy that you know, every brand. Today, whether you're a soft drink company, or you do toilet paper, they all have a purpose, right? They want to like save the oceans or stand up to climate change, or Black Lives Matter. And suddenly, they're like, super passionate about women and empowerment and stuff like that. Out of the blue, more or less, right? So I suddenly became a bit frustrated about this.
Start asking myself a question, which was, you know, what brand leader organization have, in fact, created positive change in my life? Yeah, and I also want your listeners to ask themselves that question, because we're all these brands, kind of, you know, pitching themselves as Mother Teresa and Gandhi and Jesus, how can it be that I can't actually mention that many brands didn't actually do anything for me. And that's when I certainly said with the latest book, The hero trap I kind of said, wait a moment, maybe the framework that I put in place was wrong, maybe this whole idea about the navel-gazing? Why no, why do we exist? You know, why do we have these great values as a company, that that might actually be wrong?
So those were some of the questions I started asking myself, because again, and again, and again, our business brands being criticized for either not doing enough, or even some of the brands too, went on great strides, like Volkswagen was part of my early examples in the first book, brands like, like Xi pipelay. And yet again, we see them also being criticized. So I thought something is wrong with the current approach to purpose we're taking.
Shireen Smith: Yeah, it's certainly very samey having the, you know, that approach for brands. And, if something happens, like with the BP oil spill disaster, it's then very difficult for them to be able to, really, back that social story, the story that they tell about their path. So, you know, it's what do you think is a better approach to differentiating a business and, you know, communicating how you are, you know, someone different in the way you approach what you offer, for example.
Thomas Kolster: Yeah, you know, I think, you know, sometimes I like to, I like to challenge even some of the better players out there. I mean, if you fundamentally listen to what some of these brands are saying, it's really nonsense, right? I mean, take Patagonia, they say we're in the business to save our home planet.
From me, that's some pretty megalomanic self-glorifying nonsense, right? that accompany was basically doing t-shirts, to people who live in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and want to feel a bit more connected to nature, to kind of check on this almost world savior role, I think is ludicrous. It's wrong.
And then instead, what I want to focus on is really what it takes to drive change. Because that's the second thing I really wanted to focus on this gap between the kind of people saying I want to buy from reputable companies and the ones who follow through I mean, there's a statistic from sustainable brands is that 86% of people want to buy from groups of companies, but only 26% versus this gap of 39%. So how do we understand that change that gap? And one of the things I realized was the fact that it's really not about the company's values, and aspirations, but it's really about my dreams and passion. We know young people want to be part of the check-ins, you know, young people are passionate about driving social change. So the framework I created was, and it's called the arrow, it's inspired by psychotherapy and coaching, because those disciplines are goal-oriented. That's a fundamentally different question. In fact, who can you help people become? Yeah, how they will also lead or push people towards change?
Shireen Smith: I think Yeah, it sounds absolutely spot on. Because as you also point out purpose is actually putting you yourself as the hero, whereas customers don't want you to hear a story brand sort of pointed out, it's Yeah, you want to be the guide, showing them you know, the way rather than the you know, the wonderful person that they're supposed to be admiring.
Thomas Kolster: So, it for me, for me, it's almost like you have I think it's it's it's an thing that, you know, is I think it's almost like a thing, we're always doing the industry, right, we create these, you know, too good to be true type brands. So on the one side, you have the sort of preacher brand. And the other side, you have a brand that's sort of more like a coach and in the book of frames, and then I call them transformative brands, and not purposeful brands, because transformative brands really put you at the very center of chains. They don't say, believe in us, like Patagonia to be the agent of change. Now they say, Hey, wait a moment, you are the agent of change. And and and one of the studies we did for the book was in fact that we compared personal commercials, to traditional to transformative commercials.
So commercials could be an example to transform to commercial could be always like a girl a campaign that's, you know, widely known in the world of advertising, which obviously talks to this kind of precious time where, you know, a young girl turns into a young woman and all the things that she has to deal with, and really want to change that sentence like a girl into a sentence, from processes of weakness to a sensitive strength. And when we did that study, we found out that not only are transformative commercials 29.4%, better motivating people, but people are also willing to 29.6% of people are also willing to pay a premium price.
So for me, if we want to create a meaningful relationship between brands and people, I think you really need as a brand to figure out a clear, meaningful role that you want to play in people's lives. And that begins, you know, by understanding who you can help people become how you can push people towards some of the aspirations or overcome some of the challenges that they're facing in their daily lives.
Shireen Smith: Yeah, so what would Patagonia be doing? It would be suggesting to people that they could mandate clothes, showing them ways of doing that? Would that be a better approach rather than them saying that their purpose is to save the planet?
Thomas Kolster: I absolutely agree that that change the mindset is, in fact, pivotal, I think, because I've interviewed for the book I interviewed, you know, big brands like P&G, Mark Pritchard, from P&G, IKEA, and into smaller brands, small emerging challenger brands. And it's so interesting to see those sort of brands that understood that we're here to enable people's dreams and aspirations, not only from a sort of brand and leadership perspective but actually also how you activate that across the marketing mix. Because I think that that's the second issue is that we sort of need to on mass marketing, this sort of mass marketing area, you know, young people aren't buying it anymore, because they want to be the bosses of their own life, they want to be in control, they used to be able to control everything by the click of a button.
And so the second model I talked about in the book is something I call the wheel. And it's basically looking at the whole marketing mix as a wheel, where the further out you go, the more control you give people from pricing to products and promotions, to campaigning. And, it really works with how we get motivated as individuals because nobody likes to get something, you know, so we do this, do that, or this is how I like to do it, you know, buy it or don't buy it, it's very transactional. Whereas in this approach, I sort of co-create with the brand, the brand is opening up for everybody's creativity, etc. And I can give you a simple example, which is, for example, how we used to deal with rental cars back in the day, it's like, you would go down to Avis, you'd have to go to the rental agency, wait in line pick up your car when you're finished with renting the car actually wrote back. Whereas if you take something like BMW, their drive-out program, I can pick up the car, wherever I want. With my phone, I open the car, I leave it wherever I want. It's on my terms, it's on my premises. And I think a lot of that change is fundamental for brands to think about if they want to be relevant, going forward.
Shireen Smith: Right. So how do you help a brand? Do you help people who are trying to create a brand or what stage Do you get involved with businesses?
Thomas Kolster: I mean, the sort of mantra I guess we live by ourselves is really just being a catalyst for other people's positive change. Ah, and I think we do that as sort of across the ecosystem. In fact, I, you know, we work, we work with agencies, for them to understand this, this shift. In mindset, we work with brands in with some of these tools arrow, the Weald, that I mentioned, in terms of kind of shifting their mindset and opening up their brands and making them change their leadership.
So I think we're lucky to work with a whole ecosystem. And I think that's really needed. Because I think not only are the challenge, obviously, to avoid brands, running into the era trap, and risking a lot of the brand legacy that they build to these legacies brands are 50 - 100 years old, and suddenly they're risking a lot of that.
And a lot of that, a lot of that capitalization in that brand, by suddenly embracing the true moment by suddenly, kind of embracing a black lives matter movement, and a lot of authenticity is gone. And so think we were an incredibly interesting point when working with brands, and also a pivotal point in terms of creating the much-needed ship, because sustainability, social issues, all that stuff has become a hygiene factor that every brand need to relate to.
The key point in my book is just how you do it. And the current way 99% of brands are doing it is plain wrong. And that's really the moment because it's a lot of research that we looked at in the book is in fact that those young people are being disillusioned. They turn that back on a lot of these messages.
Shireen Smith: Yeah, it creates cynicism, doesn't it?
Thomas Kolster: It does, it does. And, and even though it might be a little bit early to talk about a sort of PR post purpose market, I, I sort of do see some of those kinds of signs, and maybe even I'll be an accelerated by what we've seen out during the pandemic.
Shireen Smith: Well, often, a lot of this sort of purpose stuff should really be just for internal purposes anyway, rather than communicating it to consumers. Isn't it about motivating your team having a culture where perhaps you want to save the planet, but you don't necessarily need to go and tell your consumers that that's what you're doing? So maybe you need a different way of communicating internally, to well, how you might communicate with your customers.
Thomas Kolster: I absolutely agree. And I could give you two examples. So so I'm not a big fan of all these commitments that I hear all the time, the 25th year 2014, 2030, we're going to do this and that all corporate doing at the moment, it's almost like a plates marathon, they're each trying to kind of, oh, we're going to be net positive 10 years before you might be for that. Internally, it makes a lot of sense because you have to change the course of an oil tanker that's like running a marathon, right? It's step by step. Internally, it's fine. When you do that externally, what I feel is wrong is let me give you an analogy. Like, if, you know, when I wrap up this podcast, I go home and I catch my girlfriend, being unfaithful, she's there, she's with another man, I obviously get extremely upset. Like, you know, Honey, what are you doing? And then she says to me, you know, Tom, as you know, I know I screwed up a little bit, but towards 2030, I'm gonna be a little bit less unfaithful each year, until 2030. And we're fully back together, you know. And it's that sort of nonsense that brands are putting out there. It's like, I have a choice. As a consumer, as the citizen, I have a choice. I don't have to wait around for P&G, or Coca-Cola to change their, their the packaging issues or whatever it might be, I can buy from another brand.
So that's the one thing the second thing I observed is, and I've done the mistakes in the past, from my first book where device companies and a lot, a lot of corporate headquarters, you walk in there, and they have slogans like too good for people on planet. It's all over the place, right? And I'm like, how many of us really wake up in the morning and go to work to do good for people on planet, very few of us.
There's not that many Mother Teresa's out there. But what a lot of us do is we have a passion for a lot of other stuff. And I think that's fundamental for me, working in advertising. I'm passionate about brands and passionate about creativity and being able to combine that and find that with something that leaves a positive change excites me.
And so a good example is if you take, again, organizations that are able to find the passion within all of us, and turn that into their sort of purpose, I call it transformative promise, that's a promise about a certain chance to create in people's lives. If you take kind snacks, for example, out of the US, I mean, they obviously talk about how we need kindness. And I think especially during these kinds of divided times, I think kindness is a very sort of human value that a lot of us can understand. And when I interviewed their CEO, he talked about how kindness is something that obviously they communicate, externally presenting, that really resonates within the organization, and they do an annual survey. And when they did it last time, 86% of staff said that they felt kinder after working at kind snacks.
And I think that's the sort of change that we want to see. That's the sort of change that I've served at companies like Lego as well, where they're sort of this focus on creativity, playfulness, it's such an integral part of the company. And I think that's the true hero trap is when you again, overstate your role, and you come up with a lot of this do-good nonsense that nobody can relate to.
Shireen Smith: What is Kind Snacks, I'm not familiar with the brand?
Thomas Kolster: So Kind Snacks it's a company that was started by Daniel Lubetzky, who was an Israeli immigrant and really wanted to think about how a company could actually help bring people better together, and they do lots of different stuff, they have random acts of kindness, whether for example, the water at the US borders, follow the immigrants crossing, and they have lots of different initiatives that they're doing.
Shireen Smith: How do they make money?
Thomas Kolster: So basically, it is a for-profit company. And the claim to fame is to say that kind snacks, is the snacks of kinda to your health and your body, and his kindness to the planet. And that's how they did kindness as a kind of key value. And, and for me, that's exactly what I think is really an exciting way of looking at branding. By densifying, this claiming for role you can play in the book, I call it the who word. So so this is almost like blue ocean, you can find a sub-brand. And and and in the book, I detail how to create a meaningful life for people. And there's many ways you can do it. But again, this is inspired by coaching.
You know, there's, there's kind of 12 things, some, some talk about six, some talks talk about more, but a sense of home, a sense of family, a sense of love, a sense of financial security, and all these roles are what are possibilities for brands to make a mark, and to help us achieve amazing things. And a good example, again, is, for example, how IKEA has really transformed their business model from being incredibly transactional. I mean, I think we all have been there one of the IKEA LeBron’s probably got into an argument with our girlfriend, or wife or husband or boyfriend.
But today, they have launched x, just up the road from where I live, they launched something that they call a planning studio. And it's a small store 150 square meters, and you have a four to five designers ready behind a screen, helping you make some of your dreams come true in terms of interior design, in terms of creating your dream home. And I think that's really an example of a brand that understands that it's not about the transaction. It's actually about playing a key role in people's lives. And I think that's the sort of future that I envision for retailers going forward where we see a lot of brick and mortar stores fail. It's because they deliver no value because I can buy everything off the internet. But I can't actually deliver a key fundamental change in my life that I want to understand and like that I can utilize.
Shireen Smith: Okay, so this obviously applies to services as well. We're using myself as an example. I guess what's really important to me is that designers marketers who create brands should take IP into account because it's such a key part. And yet, it's not part of their training. And they just have to pick up the knowledge. And I think it's quite inconvenient for them, because it adds a constraint that, you know, suddenly the name you want isn't possible to have at the moment is very much sort of sidelined and ignored. And I would like to help the people who care more, I guess, for their clients, for the people that they are helping to actually learn enough IP to know when they've got to point the client to a lawyer, or whatever.
Thomas Kolster: I think you talk about something there, but I think you're talking about something fundamental there, which I think is going to be an even bigger challenge going forward. Because what a brand is today, and what it is going forward, I think is going to be challenged quite fundamentally. Because one of the things that as I mentioned with the methodology, the wheel is the fact that you need to open up for people's passions and creativity much more. And in that sense, you suddenly stretch what that brand had traditionally been doing or maybe what industry that brand is, in fact operating. I could give you a very clear example of that. So there's a brand called District Vision, it's a US brand. And basically what they do is they create these beautifully designed running glasses. I didn't know you needed running glasses, but apparently, you do. But so definitely running glasses curled up a little bit like chalky and you know, way too functional.
So, they create a beautiful product. But in fact, when when when I talk to the founders, Panamax in their mind, that's exactly not what they're selling. And so they're true transformative brand, because what they want to do is, in fact, they want to help people connect their mind with the body, because that makes you a better runner. So they're all about mindful running. And so in fact, yes, on paper, they do sell running glasses. But in fact, they teach people, mindful running classes. They even work now within the New York prison sentence in the New York prison system, to teach mindful exercise to inmates. And from a soda IP from a soda. What area do your own? I think it's, it's, I'm seeing a shift there where I think brands need to be much more open in terms of what categories they operate in, and how they may be comparing.
Shireen Smith: So they're providing these glasses, but they're also providing all these services to facilitate one more mindfulness in running sort of related activities that you'd want the glasses for is all right.
Thomas Kolster: Exactly. And I think that's, that's, for me is really exciting. And a key thing for a lot of brands to move from a very transactional relationship to a more transformational relationship. And I think that puts, that adds new challenges to how you view your brand and how you protect your brand.
Shireen Smith: It makes it more difficult for competitors to copy you. Because, you know, a competitor might be able to copy the classes and provide those classes. But if you provide all sorts of other experiences, it’s become much more difficult for them to copy you. And therefore you've got your customers who want to do business with just you rather than whoever sells those glasses.
Thomas Kolster: Yeah, really a really good example of that. And I know that, you know, this is not an example of great sustainability and impact. But if you look at Red Bull as an example, which is also a clear transformative brand, because they're pushing me further they're giving me wings. So whether that is an extreme sport, or whether that is an electronic music, they’ve been able to basically take the blue and red can and make it much bigger than that. And I think that's exactly the future of brands, because they understand that it's about the relationship and it's about the meaningful role that they have with people. And I'm astonished by how much equity they've been able to build into that brand across a number of different disciplines. So I think that's a great case of how you really need to think in the big picture, and nobody can copy Red Bull.
Shireen Smith: So it's basically time to move away from Simon Sinek's approach of why, you know, why do you do what you do and towards, you know, how can you transform your customer? How can you enable them to be who they want to be?
Thomas Kolster: And that's exactly, exactly and it's an evolution. I mean, as I said with my first book advertising, I was a big believer in Simon Sinek. In in, in begin with why, but obviously now as the so many so-called or at least claim to be purposeful brands in the marketplace. The real proof point is not what you say. It's not just your actions, but it's really the outcome, the transformation that I can feel that I can say, you know, thank you, Nike, because you keep me motivated, when it's raining in Copenhagen, and it's great, I still get out there, I'm still motivated, or thank you kind snacks because you confronted me with a different style of myself that I sometimes forget that I need to be kind to strangers, that I need to be kind to my family that I need to know.
So I think these brands, are brands that people valuable, are willing to pay a premium price for, and are also brands that are much better at actually motivated to motivate people to create the change for the ones in their lives.
Shireen Smith: So it's a sort of slight tweak, I know a lot of people who may not necessarily have a big purpose, but they're looking at the global goals, and aligning their business with one or more of those global goals like to tackle poverty or hunger, and they'll give a certain percentage of their revenues to those causes. I mean, is that an approach that you can see the need to tweak or what?
Thomas Kolster: I think there's, there's you know, there are numbers of ways of looking at that, I mean, I don't really like the SDGs, sort of tokenism where you're like, you're put on that little, you know, different colors, the little pin there, and then you feel all about good global citizen. And yes, in some aspects, there's a hygiene factor to that you need to do something, you can't just say, you know, I know the direction the world is going. So obviously, you need to, you need to, you need to respond to that moment, where I think it's precious, and it's dangerous, and potentially our hero trap is, in fact, when you have CEOs, or you have companies that are suddenly, you know, talking about it, you know, putting that into commercials, putting that out there in front of their clients, and customers. It doesn't really seem that offensive.
In, you know, oh, certainly we should a person about water was super passionate about climate change, you know, if it breaks down to kind of this basic thing that a brand is really about a relationship.
And it's pretty much like our friends. And I think the problem is that our friends play many different roles in our lives, like brands, potentially should play lots of different roles in our lives. And when brands go wrong, it's obviously when they are not sure about the role that we play in our lives, or when they overstate that role that play in our lives. And I don't need a million friends that are suddenly talking about climate or social injustice or black lives matter. Or, or this sudden change. My thing is, suddenly you have Barrett's brand, that is like suddenly all about Black Lives Matter. And like, where did that come from?
It's like having this friend that you hang out in a pub, and suddenly just starts talking about Black Lives Matter. And you're like, where the hell did that come from? I mean, honestly, where did that come from? And I think that's the problem. A lot of marketers are rushing into this without really thinking about the repetitiveness of a brand that a brand is built over time. It's all I know, I know this brand, I know the values, and know what that stands for. And suddenly, I just feel like they pin these courses to themselves, and it's just not genuine. It's really not genuine.
Shireen Smith: It's almost like they're embarrassed to be in business making money I mean, really, that is the purpose of, of business isn't to provide a good product that's needed and wanted and you know, to make a profit, obviously, that's the essence.
Thomas Kolster: And that's exactly and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I mean, for me, a meaningful role you can play in people's lives is to provide a, it's a cheap product and make that readily available for people who can't afford a premium.
Shireen Smith: That's a useful role.
Thomas Kolster: And that's the thing, What I don't like is certainly when you have a toilet paper company, or every soft drink company, suddenly need to have this big social environment a role to play. Sometimes I actually just want toilet paper that does what toilet paper does. And that's great. And, you know, there's this, there's nothing wrong with that. That's being said, Yes. If you're a toilet paper company today, there are certain sustainability challenges that did you have to face to be in business in the long term, but that's a whole different dilemma. Compared to kind of make that a key part of your brand.
Shireen Smith: What should a toilet business, a toilet company paper do? There’s one called something crap, where they donate a certain amount to good causes or toilets for the third world, I think the two installing toilets or providing some sort of toilets.
Thomas Kolster: But you know, honestly, I think that's the great thing about as a company being very clear about the meaningful role you want to play. Obviously, there can be customers out there that like crap in the sense that they think we have a super boring commodity product that adds really no value whatsoever to my life. What if, when buying that product, I can make a little difference? That's fine, that might speak to one specific target group that loves that. Great, but when you're certain which, which I've been seeing over the last couple of years, have so many toilet paper companies that do the same thing that caught our running.
You know, hygiene, telegrams in Africa, Asia, etc. Yeah, it becomes tiring. And that's also why I start to worry about this evolution towards post purpose towards this thing, where it's much more about the tangible change that I can feel.
So I wouldn't say to companies don't, don't do it. They just need to be extremely clear about that role, and really about carving that niche in the marketplace and understanding how they can deliver better than anybody else. And I think it really comes from having a super clear focus about your customer’s challenges about your customer’s aspirations, make it easy for people, you know, make it aspirational for people give them a bigger say, I think it's also a key part of, of what I'm preaching in the book, this idea about on massing on, on mass marketing, because it's, it's young people today, compared to my parent's generation, my parent's generation were, you know, the, the emerging middle class, they saw companies as part of prosperity, part of bringing products to the masses. I mean, I even remember my mom, you know, patching up my jeans when I had a hole in my jeans today, nobody does that, because jeans are so cheap, you know, they cut out this fast fashion, throw away culture. But when you look at young people today, the way they look at companies, really, companies are part of social injustice. They're part of social decay, you know, environmental degradation. They're the villains that have created a world that's polluted, that has way too much carbon in the atmosphere. And so obviously, they even have a harder time you talked about cynicism, and I think you're right. They're cynic towards a lot of these too good to be true efforts. And that's exactly why I say especially for the young generation. Don't pitch yourself as the hero. Don't be too much navel-gazing and focus too much on your own radios, but understand how you can turn people into the heroes of their own lives. I think that's really the key thing going forward for brands that one or one craving for growth going forward and for claiming for role to play in people's lives.
Shireen Smith: Yeah, I think that's a very good note to end on. I think, you know, companies need to be more imaginative about how they position their products. So where can people find you, Thomas, if they want to get in touch, what's the best way for them to get in touch with you?
Thomas Kolster: You know, anybody who wants to obviously, join, join automation and be part of creating positive change. They can either Google thomaskolster.com and they can find me they can learn more about the tools and methodologies, or they can join Goodvertising, which is still a movement that brings passionate people together that want to create positive change in the advertising industry and marketing industry in general.
Shireen Smith: Great, well, we'll put those in the show notes, and of course, your latest book.
Thomas Kolster: Thank you so much, Shireen and I really enjoyed this conversation and also, maybe putting a different lens on this as well, as you mentioned, in terms of how do you protect brands? How do you think about IP going forward? Because that is fundamentally changing. And I think it's going to raise a lot of new challenges. And there's a lot of new unanswered questions when you move from being a very transactional brand, to a more transformative brand.
Shireen Smith: Great. Okay. Thank you very much.
Thomas Kolster: Thank you, Shireen.