Would you develop retail branding to launch a hot, new consumer electronics gadget after the client gave you two and they both stopped working within weeks? What if they confided to you that they knew their gimcrack gizmo had a design flaw, but they were working on a fix? How would you feel if they planned to sell the defective units in the meantime? Have you ever felt screwed as a consumer?
Would you be willing to brand a sugary fruit drink that was nothing more than a caloric concoction of chemicals you couldn’t pronounce? What if the client planned to market it to moms as a healthier alternative to soda? How about if they wanted to brand it with cartoon characters so it appealed to kids? Are you a parent?
Would you market an OTC dietary supplement that claimed to dramatically increase breast size? What if it was labeled with disclaimers about varying results, and warnings to consult a doctor before use? How would you feel if it turned out that underage girls were buying it and exceeding the recommended dosage? What if clinical tests revealed that the product could potentially awaken latent cancerous cells that may otherwise remain dormant? Have you lost anyone to breast cancer?
Would you collaborate with a political consultant to brand his candidate even if you didn’t agree with their politics? What if that consultant tells you – with utter sincerity and conviction – that he entered politics because God appeared before him in the shower one morning and instructed him to do so?
He’s dead serious, he’s sitting right in front of you, he’s got a lot of money to spend, and he wants to know if you’re ready to help him and his candidate “change the world”.
What do you say? Do you compromise your principles for the money? You’d better be ready with an answer – and willing to live with the consequences.
Dilemmas & Disbelief
Every career has its share of ethical quandaries and “what the hell am I doing with my life?” moments. Those were a few of mine. Chances are, you’ve had a few of your own, either as an employee, or a business owner; either as a service provider, or product manufacturer.
Sometimes, you’re confronted with moral dilemmas, and other times it’s a situation that’s so silly, and surreal that you feel like you must be on hidden camera. That thought crossed my mind many years ago when I found myself sitting across from a client discussing branding for a line of sex toys.
Trapped in the Court of Caligula
This particular client was actually in the battery business. Recently, though, he’d discovered that he could make more money – a lot more – by purchasing vibrators from China for cents on the dollar, reselling them for $100 per, ahem, unit, and offering mail order replacement of the specialty batteries that powered them. The real money, and the “genius”, was in the replacement batteries.
Picture a conference room, empty but for a single table in the middle, and adorning that table dozens of dildos; a bona fide phallus freak show in a kinky kaleidoscope of plastic, metal, and rubber – all standing erect, right at eye level between myself and the client at the far end.
Selections for the new product line were under consideration, and a motley array of vivid, vibrating, spinning, studded, knobbed, ribbed, and pronged appliances – of varying lengths, and freakish configurations that could have made Caligula cringe – were being sized up. I was there to discuss batteries, but things had gotten more colorful.
“What do you think of this one,” the client asked, holding up a lime green, anatomically correct (for the Jolly Green Giant) rubber appendage with large, gyrating prongs that… well, it’s not important. What did I think? Oh, so many things, like “Why are you asking me?” and “This can’t possibly get any worse.” Then it did. He added, “This is the one that Craig (my then-boss, and no, that’s not his real name) said he uses with Nancy (his wife, my other boss).” Much worse.
At the time, I was six years into my career, employed by someone else, and desperately wanting to leave and start my own studio. Churning out sex toy ads for the back pages of skin mags was not why I’d gone into design, and it damn well wasn’t why I’d put in all those late nights, weekends, and holidays. Design was supposed to save the world. What the hell was I doing with my life?
To be fair, peddling kink in porn pubs probably wasn’t what my bosses had envisioned for their agency after two decades of hard-earned reverence from clients and peers alike. But, once poor decisions led to desperate measures after reckless ambition proved shortsighted, the agency found itself in the unsavory position of having to accept any account that came knocking.
Nobody wants to be in that position, and years later, when I launched Nocturnal, I swore I never would be. I learned early in my career, that responsible growth lets you make responsible choices for yourself, your business, your employees, your customers, and beyond. You might not always be able to do the work that feeds your soul; but if you don’t get stupid or greedy, you won’t have to do anything that sucks your soul, either.
“To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art.”
So goes an ancient Chinese proverb. Truthfully, it may have come from a fortune cookie, I don’t know. I read it on Twitter, but it’s spot on. Business often requires tough decisions. The choices you make define you as a person, and define your business as a brand; and can have far-reaching, and profound impact. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s a sign of strength; and operating a business from a position of strength is the path to success.
Profit at Any Price is So Last Millennium
Today, achieving profit potential while also having a positive impact on people, and the planet is the new black, or “green”, or whatever. Think that’s naïve? There’s a whole new generation of Millennials ready to rock your backward-thinking world.
A recent study by Edelman and StrategyOne found 87% of millennial-aged respondents asserting, “Business needed to place at least equal weight on the interests of society as it did on its own interests.” More than a quarter said that brands should exert a “positive impact on the world”, as well as help individuals “achieve their personal goals.” More and more brands, big and small, are doing just that:
- Shoe company, TOMS, launched their One for One movement in 2006 with the simple goal of matching every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need.
- Starbucks Ethos Water Fund supports water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries. Ethos is just one initiative within the Starbucks Foundation, which started in 1997 by funding literacy programs in the United States and Canada, and that is now supporting communities around the globe in a variety of ways.
- Whole Foods Market developed a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program that grades pork, beef and chicken products according to how farm animals are bred. The system helps shoppers learn more about the origin of meat and poultry products to make more informed choices.
- You don’t have to be a global brand to make an impact. Phoenix, AZ start-up, Empowered Clothing Co., knows that change begins with individuals. Empowered is an action sports clothing line whose mission is to “inspire everyone to find their purpose in life, and to feel empowered to live that purpose.” Their hip apparel emblazoned with positive messages is designed to help build self-esteem, and help people “be the change we want to see – by living and wearing positive energy.”
According to the 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility Perception study by research firm Penn Schoen Berland, more than 75% of consumers say that corporate responsibility is important. 55 percent of those polled considered social responsibility a differentiator among brands and were more likely to choose a product tied to a cause when other factors such as price, or size were similar.
Brands can no longer be built on promises they must be built on beliefs. People make conscious decisions to align themselves with brands they feel embody their values, and empower their potential. People care about brands that care about them. What is your brand doing to empower people, and show them that you care?
Make A Difference
Sir Winston Churchill famously opined, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” Business is about both.
Recognize the need, seize the opportunity, embrace the responsibility, and become the solution. For some brands, that equation adds up to a fast buck supplying batteries for sex toys. That’s not bad, it’s just not great.
People don’t need soul-suckingly cynical, cheaply-made, inconsequential junk that wreaks real, and long-term havoc on them, the environment, and future generations; they need meaningful products, services, and initiatives that offer lasting value, and engender enduring prosperity. Anybody can make money, but being in business is too great of an opportunity not to make a difference. So, what the hell are you doing with your life?
Note: What brands do you think are making a positive impact? Share them with us in the comments below.
©Nocturnal Design Studio, LLC