An Evolution of Weeds and Trees: Reimagining Brand Growth in the 21st Century

Omar El-Gammal's 'I Believe' essay from the 2019-20 Excellence Diploma.

In his 'I Believe' essay for the 2019-20 Excellence Diploma, Wunderman Thompson's Omar El-Gammal reimagines brand growth in the 21st century. Omar was awarded the President’s Prize for Outstanding Body of Work by IPA President Nigel Vaz.

A simple Google search of 'Advertising is Dead' will show you that, on average, the industry is pronounced dead at least once a year. From this annual ritual, which hit the mainstream in a 1994 article in Wired (Schrage), you can be certain of two things: often the coroners are blind to the irony that this pronouncement of death is in fact a great advertisement for whatever it is they’re selling you next; and secondly, you can be certain that this industry is a master of reimagination. Yet in an era of burning rainforests and widening gaps of inequality between rich and poor, we may finally be forced to see the face of the elephant in our own room – that the industry needs to reimagine itself, the role it plays, and how we build brands fit for a 21st century steeped with new challenges. New challenges that are far more existential than any disruption in media or technology.

Regardless of the era or media preference, we have reimagined and repositioned the meaning of everything from soap to cities, all in the name of helping brands grow. Since the early days of the 20th century and days of Thorstein Veblen1, our industry has played its role in growth by being synonymous with one thing: consumption. Yet as John Kotter says, we are facing "the dawning recognition among manufacturers, consumers and everyone in-between that we are entering an era of limits; the cycle of mass production and mindless consumption that defined the industrial age is no longer sustainable" (2012). Comparing data in Western countries across three decades, researcher Andrew Oswald discovered that "the greater the rise in advertising [spend] within a nation, the smaller any later improvement in life satisfaction" (2019:5). Consistently and devastatingly, in Oswald’s research, happiness and advertising spend are inversely related. This is our elephant.

The Root of the Problem: A Misleading Narrative of Eternal Growth

To understand the real problem facing 21st century brands, we need to momentarily take a step back and dissect the deeper context: capitalism.

I’d like to make clear, this is not an attack on capitalism. For better or worse, it has overseen a stark decrease in extreme poverty, AIDS deaths, and child mortality, while driving many other improvements in quality of life (Norberg 2018). Nor is this an attack on growth. Jeremy Mathieu, Sustainability Consultant in the media sector, claims that supporting a movement for 'de-growth' ignores the positive intentions within growth itself (2020).
The real issue is how we measure growth: GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Since the early 20th century, economists have obsessed over ways to help politicians drive higher GDP. The more an economy produces and the more its people consume, the healthier and wealthier a nation is. Yet a higher national GDP, does not signify equal distribution of wealth across the population. Regardless of how much an economy produces, if people have to work harder to produce more, only so the rich can get richer, if the wealth is not distributed equally - what is all this growth for? (Pilling, 2018). A glance at the below (Figure 1) illustrates the danger of measuring growth through one lens (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2011).

Weeds and Trees Figure 1.png
Weed and Trees Figure 2.png
Figure 1: Two charts that illustrate that looking at Income Equality is a stronger indicator of the health and well-being of a nation, as well as the dangers of measuring growth through a single lens of GDP.

As David Pilling points out, most of us in the rich world are constantly buying things we know we don’t really need - so "when economists say the world’s problems are caused by a lack of demand, one wonders what else we might possibly want" (2018). Kate Raworth compares this obsession of eternal GDP growth, with being on a plane that is never allowed to land (2018). This allows us to draw the parallel within our own industry – does constant growth equate to a healthy brand? Pilling further argues, "only in economics is endless expansion seen as a virtue. In biology it is called cancer" (2018:13).

I would like to propose we call it a Weed.

The Cost of Growing Brands Like Weeds

They grow fast and are can be incredibly resilient – but at the cost of everything else around them. It is becoming grossly apparent that we cannot continue to grow brands like Weeds. A UN report estimated that the world’s top 3,000 companies cost the earth $2.2 trillion in environmental, social, and human health damage (Jowitt, 2010). If we were to limit global warming to only a 1.5C increase rather than a 2C rise in the coming years, we would still lose approximately 70-90% of our coral reefs (Mathieu, 2020). As economist EF Schumacher says, "Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side" (1976). Is this the kind of growth that we want to help brands fuel?

A 21st Century Alternative to Weeds

Luckily, there are alternatives. Brands have an opportunity to play a role in a different narrative fit for the 21st century economy. We can start by reimaging how we understand growth. Raworth argues "today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive: what we need is economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow" (2018:30). That radical flip in perspective invites us ask a 21st century question: "how can we meet the human needs of every person within the means of our life-giving planet?" (2018:25). Rather than thinking about increasing revenue and profit alone, how can we think of growth in context of how it shapes society and the environment? This is not an entirely new idea. Over 25 years ago, John Elkington coined the phrase 'The Triple Bottom Line' – where annual reports included People and Planet metrics alongside Profit. Yet in 2018, Elkington comes to terms with its failures and recalls it, "the TBL wasn’t designed to be just an accounting tool. It was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future, but many early adopters understood the concept as a balancing act, adopting a trade-off mentality" (2018).

Therein lies the opportunity for our industry – an opportunity to reimagine growth for the 21st century brand: the Tree.

Trees are less aggressive in their growth, but they build long-lasting roots in the communities they help thrive. They provide shelter, fruit, and grow sustainably into the future. When thinking about how we help brands grow in the 21st century, we need to consider the context of that growth and impact it can drive for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

A Tale of Weeds and Trees

I believe that in the 21st century, we will need to refocus on building brands that thrive (Trees), not just grow (Weeds). While businesses still need to grow, there are many other metrics that need to be considered for a brand – and the communities they are embedded in – to thrive.

It’s important to understand, this is not just a tale of morality. While this may seem an idealistic approach, it is also a necessary one. "If environmental volatility continues to increase, as most people now predict, the standard organization of the 20th century will become a dinosaur" (Kotter, 2012: 169). Furthermore, according to a UN report, reimagining growth in this fashion equates to $12 trillion a year in market opportunities by 2030 (Elkington, 2017). That’s a conservative estimate derived from the achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals across just 4 sectors out of 60.

It’s also not a tale without precedent. Unilever’s Sustainable Living brands grew 69% faster than the rest of their business and delivered 75% of their overall growth in 2018 (Unilever, 2018). Further afield, over 1 billion Muslims around the world believe in a banking system that does not pay them interest. Interest is forbidden in Islamic banking because it is seen to widen the gap between rich and poor. Instead, Islamic banks act as a partner to customers and "invest deposits and return a cut of the profits" (Anon, 2018). Islamic banks also differ to their competitors in that they are only allowed to invest in assets that also benefit the community (schools, real estate, etc). They are forbidden from "financing the kind of instruments that have adversely affected their conventional competitors and triggered the global financial crisis. These include toxic assets, derivatives, and conventional financial institution securities", which is why, according to an IMF report, Islamic banks did not face the same wrath of the 2008 crash (IMF, 2010). That’s not to say Islamic banks are in the business of altruism – they too are here to make profit (and make plenty). Yet the rules that govern them also take into account the ecosystem they are embedded in, not just the economy.

The opportunities to reimagine growth for 21st century brands are clear and necessary – ethically and financially. There is also precedent for a brand to be able to do this while continuing to grow and progress. The question now, is what can we do about it? How can we begin bridging the gap and help brands grow more like Trees than Weeds?

The Challenge Of Measurement

Simon Kuznets (who devised GDP to measure growth) actually understood the shortcomings of GDP fairly well. We should really be measuring true wealth, not just income (Pilling, 2018). Many sources of wealth fall outside of the economy and thus are not measured in economic terms at all. Rory Sutherland points out, "there is no reason to assume something is more important just because it is numerically expressible" (2019:114). Equally, just because we cannot easily measure something, does not make it less important. Nicolas Sarkozy once said "We will not change our behaviour unless we change the ways we measure economic performance. We have built a cult of data, and we are now enclosed within" (Pilling, 2018:11). Therefore, I propose we begin measuring some of the key ways that healthy brands can grow more like Trees, benefiting people, society, and employees.

The Impact of Trees in the 21st Century

Value Exchange vs Value Extraction

We must stop treating a customer like a step-child, as Theodore Levitt put it. "Like a step-child, the customer exists and has to be taken care of, but not worth any real thought or dedicated attention" (Levitt, 1960:54). Our job as marketers is not merely to extract value and cash from customers so that we can offload our production/services, irrespective of whether they really need it. Neil Barrie, founder of 21st Century Brands, argues we should be measuring 'Value Exchange' we create with customers and shareholders, not just the value we extract from their pockets (2019). It’s about creating a situation where people and company can benefit from brand growth. In 2019 an Instagram and eBay love-child that empowers (mainly) youth to resell fashion items, Depop, helped over 13 million users sell more than $500 million of merchandise on their platform, while taking a 10% cut of the profits ($50m) for their shareholders (Lunden, 2019). On its online website newsroom, Airbnb publishes the measured impact its growth has created for its guests, hosts, communities, shareholders, and employees (2020). This approach does not need to be limited to service/digital brands – which leads us to our next measurement of growth: quality.

Quality vs Surplus

Charles Handy once discussed the economics of quality – that we will see a shift in our definition of wealth from materialistic to non-materialistic goals; from a wealth of consumption and surplus to a wealth defined by quality (1976). In 2011 the Chinese green-economist, Niu Wenyuan, introduced the "GDP Quality Index" – a tool that that measured the economy "not just by size, but by sustainability, social equality and ecological impact" (Watts, 2011). It offers an entirely new way to understand how strong an economy really is. Today, over 50,000 companies globally have begun using B-Corporations free Analytics Tools to understand and track how their growth is impacting the ecosystems they operate in (B-Corp, 2020). The B-Impact Assessment allows companies to track everything from their commitments to social impact (e.g. poverty alleviation, sustainable economic development), to environmental impact (e.g. reducing waste sent to landfills through upcycled products), or even target new beneficiary groups in need like low-income customers. Adidas looks to earn $1 billion in revenue by selling over 5 million pairs of its new Parley sneaker, made entirely from recycled ocean plastic. The shoe also commands a quality premium from its customers with an average retail price of $220 (Aziz, 2018). These are all strong and compelling examples of how we begin measuring the quality of growth we help brands deliver.

Societal and Stakeholder Well-Being

It is harder to make the case for the direct relation between brand growth to the broader well-being of society and stakeholders. While not many have written the IPA Effectiveness Awards cases for this yet, there are clear opportunities to do so in the future. This year, Microsoft announced that it aims to be carbon-negative – that is to remove more carbon in the atmosphere than it emits – by 2030 (Peters, 2020). To take the commitment a step further, Microsoft also plans to "remove all of the carbon it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975". That’s an astonishing commitment, but one that Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, sees as necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of the communities we all work and live in. While there are several examples of companies committing to growth that benefits the wider society, I’d also love to see more measurement of progress by making the link between brand growth and employee well-being. According to a 2015 study, brands that invested in employee well-being experienced a 46% reduction in the cost of employee turnover and a 19% reduction in the cost of sick leave as well as increased creativity and innovation (Grant, 2018). These are all strong measurements and indicators of how we can continue to drive brand growth in a way fit for the 21st century.

Tending to our Gardens

While I have tried to suggest some of the ways we can reimagine brand growth in the 21st century - as Trees rather than Weeds - the reality is incredibly nuanced and differs from one brand or category to the next. It can feel like an impossible task to take on a century’s worth of 'best practice' and habit. It’s also tempting to draw a line between yesterday and tomorrow, casting away all of yesterday’s brands as Weeds. The truth is, regardless of when they were born, what stage of transformation the are in, or what they deem important to measure for their stakeholders – every company has a few Weeds in their garden. Colwyn Elder, CSO of Futerra Change Consultancy, argues that some brands are 'Born Again' and some are 'Born Good' (2020). She adds that when you are dealing with the sheer scale of 'Born Again' legacy brands, you could either see it as an uphill battle, or take advantage of the fact that even a seemingly small change in such a large business will drive impact at scale. If "management deals most with the status quo and leadership deals with change" (Kotter, 2012:173) – then what we need is more leaders in our industry. Leaders who are willing to face the elephant in the room and understand that the industry truly needs reimagination like it never has before.

This is a paper that offers a new lens to see our role and to hopefully begin a conversation we need to have: how can we transition to a more thriving, sustainable future? Yet in the words of the Brazilian philosopher, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, "Hope is more the consequence of action than its cause. As the experience of the spectator favours fatalism, so the experience of the agent produces hope." (2005).

Omar El-Gammal is a Planning Director at Wunderman Thompson. Omar was awarded the President’s Prize for Outstanding Body of Work on the 2020 IPA Excellence Diploma.

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Last updated 01 May 2024