When John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, and a university professor published Conscious Capitalism in 2014, a slew of advertising and marketing campaigns that espoused purpose-led conceits swept the awards at Cannes and the Effies the year prior. In fact, 2013 could be considered a breakthrough year for conscious advertising with “Real Beauty Sketches,” “Dumb Ways to Die,” “Smarter Cities,” “Immortal Fans,” “Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late,” “The Ant Rally” and other amazing purpose-led campaigns that now act as the first wave of “goodvertising.”
In the six years since, our industry has been thrilled to tell the stories of commerce-centric companies that are seemingly embracing a more conscious approach to capitalism. In fact, for more companies to embrace a higher level of doing business, our industry has an opportunity to rewrite the narrative of capitalism established by academics, regulators, anti-capitalists and capitalists themselves as a single-minded drive for profits through rapacious ruthlessness and cunning. The more we as an industry work to find, create and elevate the stories of business and commerce operating from a more conscious perspective, the more we help redefine business and commerce.
Mackey and his cohorts like Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever; Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks; and Sally Jewell, former CEO of REI, believe that capitalism creates value and “is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity.” And most importantly, “the larger the company, the greater its footprint and therefore its responsibility to the world.”
It’s a positive that behemoths like AB InBev launch campaigns to talk about their sustainability efforts during the Super Bowl. Or Ikea talking about its adaptive furniture work for the disabled. Or Starbucks touting its college tuition program. Or IBM chest-thumping its credentials in helping eradicate cancer. Or … You get the point.
Yes, there are myriad stories out there in culture about companies trying to do good. And yes, a lot of them fall flat or don’t resonate. The vitriolic and unbelieving reaction to companies attempting “goodwashing” or “greenwashing” is a testament to how deeply the notion of capitalism is ingrained in our culture.
It’s hard to combat the prevailing notion that companies are just out to make money at the expense of everything else. A recent Deloitte survey showed that 66% of young consumers think just that, up from 50% a year ago.
Talking about the good you do as a company isn’t going to move the needle; actually doing the good is what matters. Instead of playing the hero, companies should champion the people that benefit from their enterprise. Instead of lauding their CSR accomplishments or donations, companies should instead find ways of empowering and enabling their customers, consumers and audiences to enact change themselves. Conscious companies know their true mission lies in helping all of their stakeholders actualize something much bigger than profit.
Conscious businesses have a simple but powerful belief: The right actions undertaken for the right reasons generally lead to good outcomes over time. I think that conscious agencies—the kind of agencies that work with their clients to produce Cannes-winning work for Nike or The New York Times or the slew of clients that showed how advertising and marketing can help people create better, more thoughtful and more meaningful lives for themselves—have that same dictum.
Companies don’t need to commit themselves to saving forests or cleaning the oceans or unshackling child laborers. It’s cool if they want to, but that’s not their raison d’être. That’s the beauty of conscious capitalism: Companies don’t always need a social purpose; they just need a purpose beyond profit, something that will help people help themselves.
And if the advertising work for these companies is itself conscious, purposeful, serving, meaningful and self-aware, then we could embark on a movement that will change the course of humanity. We can create ideas and campaigns that chip away at the erroneous facade of capitalism as a heartless juggernaut maniacally chasing profit at all cost. The more stories like these we tell, the more conscious capitalism can become.
Too lofty? Yeah, maybe. But it sure beats working with brands and agencies that are still driven only by profit.