Time is up for parasitic brands

Chris Evans' IPA Excellence Diploma essay 'I believe time is up for parasitic brands. Mutualism is the mode of the future. Enter the age of brand ecolibrium.'

In his 'I Believe' essay for the 2019-20 Excellence Diploma, Omnicom Media Group's Chris Evans argues that mutualism is the mode of the future and that we are entering the age of brand ecolibrium.

Our house is on fire

Greta Thunberg

Marketers today face the ultimate existential threat.

We are in a global emergency; one that endangers not only the legitimacy of our industry, but the very survival of our species.

A legacy culture of parasitic capitalism has polluted our biosphere for brands and planet, draining its resources and destabilising its systems.

We are now witnessing a climate for change as well as of it; a shift in societal expectations and the beginnings of a new paradigm.

The Great Turning

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

According to the IPCC, the consequences of exceeding two degrees of global warming would be devastating for our planet.

Yet recent market estimates indicate FTSE 100 companies are tracking at a shocking 3.9 degrees of warming potential.

In the face of this crisis, a powerful global movement for climate justice has emerged; maintain the status quo and future generations will be denied the standards of living that previous ones have enjoyed.

While beyond our shores of prosperity, the most severe effects of climate change will be felt by the poorest and least responsible.

Little wonder then, that only one in five across global society feel the system is working for them. Or that Britain now distrusts its institutions and brands.

Brands now need new rules to thrive in a way that supports a more sustainable ecosystem for them and for all.

This essay demonstrates that our blueprint for success lies in the very thing we are driving to failure.

I believe that successful 21st century brands need to follow the Laws of Brand Ecolibrium, emulating the mutualism found in the natural world to help in restoring healthy balance.

Adhering to the laws of Brand Interdependence, Brand Conservation, Brand Reciprocity and Brand Resourcefulness will be vital.

I believe time is up for parasitic brands. Mutualistic brands are the standard of the future. Enter the age of Brand Ecolibrium.

The End for Parasitic Brands. Rise of the Mutualists.

In the wake of industrialisation, our business and planetary systems have become toxic.

Parasitic brands have aided in creating a degenerative culture; one of individualism and exploitation, of people cast as consumers and resources, of planetary degradation; a culture of harm.

In the eyes of many, marketing has misinformed, fueled addiction and funded hate in pursuit of profit.

Whilst there are unintended consequences of expansion and technology at play, this is still both unacceptable and unsustainable.

Brands now have a moral obligation to help fix things; and there is massive opportunity for those that do. Mutualists of the future will share a global market worth $12tn.

We are already witnessing a 'major [...] shift from passive to active' consumption (Pillot De Chenecy, 2020), with two thirds of global citizens saying they choose brands for their stand on social and environmental issues.

These brands are pioneering new models for collective benefit and revolutionising standards of responsibility. These are the enlightened Mutualists writing the new rules of Brand Ecolibrium.

It is a watershed moment for the rest. Those who only succeed in 'downward vision and mobility', or are unable to envision and innovate to a better future, will fail. (Christensen, 2016).

Those brands perceived as Parasites must adapt or face extinction.

A New Paradigm: Brand Ecolibrium

I believe the future success of brands lies in restoring healthy balance to our biosphere for marketing and mankind.

Brands must steward change to a new era of collectivism, contribution and regeneration.

Profit, people and planet are not only mutually inclusive, but the only viable model for the future.

I call this dynamic of purposeful prosperity, 'Brand Ecolibrium'

How do we get there?

The major problems of the world result from the difference in the way nature works and man thinks

Gregory Bateson

Successful 21st century brands will be those that take inspiration from nature’s systems, adhering to its universal principles and emulating its mutualistic symbiosis.

The three types of symbiosis found in nature can be employed as a compelling framework for brands to consider their impact and progress; from parasitism (net harmful) or commensalism (net neutral), to mutualism (net positive), which is the minimum standard for the future.

I propose four new Laws of Brand Ecolibrium, founded on the Laws of Ecology (Commoner, 1971), to act as guiding principles for brands to progress through this scale:

  1. The Law of Brand Interdependence: Brands must reflect the values of interconnectedness and fairness.
  2. The Law of Brand Conservation: Brands must not be a pollutant.
  3. The Law of Brand Reciprocity: Brands must do good in equivalence with their scale.
  4. The Law of Brand Resourcefulness. Brands must do more and better with less.

The Four Laws Of Brand Ecolibrium:

1. The Law of Brand Interdependence: Brands must reflect the values of interconnectedness and fairness.

Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology is 'Everything is connected to everything else. There is one biosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all'.

The implication for brands here is that people and planet, and thus brands, people and planet, are interdependent not independent.

Brands must help put a stop to our legacy culture of parasitic individualism and corporate short-termism for the good of all.

And they must recognise the interconnectedness and intersectionality in issues of the environment and social justice.

The movement towards Brand Interdependence is well underway already.

'Stakeholder capitalism' was the focus of a new Davos manifesto this year.

The FT declared 'Time for a Reset' to capitalism in September and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney warned that companies who ignore the climate crisis "will go bankrupt without question".

This is the realm of Tim Brown’s new social contract – 'We are no longer buyers and sellers; we’re all in this together' (2019) where brands do more than seeking simply to satisfy shareholder interests.

Instead, those recognising the Law of Brand Interdependence practice 'enlightened self-interest', confronting harmful externalities and leading positive change, because it will benefit them to do so.

The evidence for how is clear. 90% of Gen Z believe brands must act on social and environmental issues while for employees, 88% of millennials say brands that do appeal more.

So Mutualists not only ensure they can compete in the burgeoning sustainability economy, but also attract the best employee talent, building a healthier all-round future.

Transparency and coherence in marketing, supply and company culture is essential here.

With trust at a premium, brands’ actions and interconnectedness to the world are more scrutinised than ever, with 75% of Gen Z saying they will research to see if a company is being true to its claims. So alignment of purpose, incentives and behaviour on all fronts, as well as transparency over shortcomings are critical components of Brand Interdependence.

One company doing all of this, and reaping the rewards, is Tony’s Chocolonely.

'An impact organisation that makes chocolate' rather than 'a chocolate company that makes impact' according to Chief Chocolate Officer Henk Jan, Tony’s has become brand leader in its home market of the Netherlands growing to €55m in revenue through a single-minded mission to end modern slavery in the cocoa industry – all without any paid advertising (Morgan, Devoy, 2019).

It has shone a light on unacceptable industry inequity, like the 30,000 victims of human trafficking and forced labour in Ghana and Ivory Coast, depositioning its competition in the process and leading collective change.

It has created a transparent sourcing model, paying higher prices for cocoa and working to build relationships with farmers and cooperatives that ensure a healthier, more sustainable system with fair rewards for all.

Yet it is honest about its own failings. Its 2018 annual report acknowledged the issue of its carbon emissions, vowing to integrate social and environmental costs into its profit and loss and work to produce a carbon neutral bar. This is truly a brand adhering to the law of Brand Interdependence.

2. The Law of Brand Conservation: Brands must not be a pollutant.

The second law of ecology is "Everything must go somewhere. There is no 'waste' in nature and there is no 'away' to which things can be thrown".

Our implication here for brands is two-fold.

  1. To restore trust and set themselves up for success, would-be Mutualists must help in conserving and cleansing our biosphere for brands, through generative contribution and the avoidance of 'brandfill'.
  2. As part of this and to help in planetary reparation, brands must steward change towards zero-waste, democratising circularity and normalising waste-free behaviour.

Today’s industry issues around privacy, misinformation and ad blocking are symptoms of an ailing system.

So, it’s both incumbent upon brands to help cure these ills and advantageous to those would-be Mutualists that do; (back to Brand Interdependence again).

Successful brands need to enrich and energise culture through what they produce rather than polluting it. They must encourage progressive behaviours and norms; deliver rewarding, additive experiences; create rather than extract value.

These are the hygiene factors of Brand Conservation for the ad industry. The Commensal (net neutral) baseline.

But in the context of the climate emergency, would-be Mutualists can and must do more.

Those that see the necessity and opportunity in decoupling growth from resource constraints and popularising zero-waste and circular services stand to be most successful.

There has already been an explosion in circular and recommerce brands, tackling issues of food waste, plastic waste and consumer tech obsolescence with the likes of Too Good To Go, Loop and Back Market.

So Mutualists that can co-operate to deliver scale and lead widespread change whilst marrying this with a Brand Conservationist approach to advertising stand to win big.

IKEA are one brand doing exactly this.

IKEA are consistently one of the world’s finest Brand Conservationists, contributing memorable advertising and game-changing experience innovation. It was one of the first brands to experiment with AR, bringing its furniture to people’s living rooms via mobile as early as 2012 and has continued to evolve this utility with the advent of IKEA Place.

Now with a sharp focus on issues of sustainability and waste reduction, IKEA are offering 'Kungsbacka' kitchen fronts made from recycled plastic bottles and offering a buy back service on all used items for refurbishment and resale; the very definition of Brand Conservation and Mutualism.

With all this, IKEA managed to grow global sales 5% year-on-year to €37bn in 2019 while investing heavily in store and digital development and furthering its use of renewable energy.

3. The Law of Brand Reciprocity: Brands must do good in equivalence with their scale.

Commoner’s 3rd law is 'Nature Knows Best'. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is "likely to be detrimental to that system".

The implication for marketers here is simple. Brands need to make good the changes to those systems on which they depend.

Mutualists demonstrate the reciprocity found in nature and ensure that their contribution to the world is commensurate with their scale.

Despite increasingly negative public associations with 'Big' as a category descriptor – Big Food, Big Tech, Big Pharma – and a 'renewed romance around small', (DeVoy & Morgan, 2019), bigger brands should see the Law of Brand Reciprocity as a source of hope and empowerment rather than fear.

The bigger you are, the bigger the impact you can make, and the bigger the prize.

A prime embodiment of this Mutualist ethos is Unilever.

Unilever continues to be at the vanguard of marketing for positive, socio-ecological change worldwide and has proven the commercial worth in doing so.

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan was launched in 2010, with three major goals:

  • By 2020 we will help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.
  • By 2030 our goal is to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products as we grow our business
  • By 2020 we will enhance the livelihoods of millions of people as we grow our business.

Each goal is underpinned by science-based targets for everything from water use and waste to opportunities for women, in line the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Unilever also aimed to double the size of its business in the process.

This is the very definition of the kind of 'Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal' (Collins and Porras, 2002) that aspiring Mutualists need to set in order to 'stimulate progress' and that in so doing, will deliver the necessary transformation to both business and the lives of those they serve.

2018’s latest results saw growth in Unilever’s Sustainable Living brands - like Dove, Hellman’s and Ben & Jerry’s – not only outperform the rest of its portfolio by 69%, but contribute 75% of overall growth. Brand Reciprocity really pays.

4. The Law of Brand Resourcefulness. Brands must do more and better with less.

Ecology’s final law is 'There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms'.

The average UK 10 year-old has 238 toys, but only regularly plays with 12.

As is now widely acknowledged, we are at, or well past, 'peak stuff'.

So to thrive in Brand Ecolibrium and limit obsolescence, brands must find ways to continually evolve their utility & value, whilst stewarding reduced consumption and materiality.

This requires fundamental, transformational change for society and brands.

It requires a challenger mindset, to oppose both historical category norms for brands and cultural and economic norms for the entire Western world.

It requires viewing scarcity rather than abundance as 'the defining element of our futures' (Pillot De Chenecy, 2020) and recognising creative opportunity or 'beauty' in constraints (Morgan, Barden, 2015).

Ultimately it requires the collaboration of brands and institutions to 'help society relocate its dreams' (Puttnam, Grant, 2018).

Over the past decade, the sharing economy has shown the capability of an ‘access over ownership’ model in doing just this.

It has come with well-documented pitfalls, arising from a lack of Brand Interdependence.

But technology remains an accelerator to connecting unmet needs with 'abundant systems' in these times of scarcity (Grant, 2010). Or indeed, creating 'ecosystems' of open-source innovation and distributive value as nature’s keystone species do (Johnson, 2011).

Pioneering Mutualist brand, Depop, is a shining example of this.

The Gen Z lovechild of eBay and Instagram, DePop is a mobile, social recommerce marketplace connecting buyers and sellers of used and vintage clothing and 'creating a new generation of teen entrepreneurs' (Maria Raga, CEO).

Depop encourages users to treat their profiles as digital shopfronts, curating and styling their items for sale.

The platform promotes top picks and trending items from sellers, harnessing and celebrating the abundant creativity of its user base, whilst satisfying their desire for fast and affordable, yet responsible fashion.

It is a triple threat of community, entrepreneurship and sustainability and a direct challenge to the incumbent Parasites of the fashion world still operating under the old rules; a trailblazer in Brand Resourcefulness.

Building such 'ecologies of innovation' (Lotto, 2017) through partnership, networks and communities will be vital to aspiring Mutualists as they seek to reimagine their offerings and lead necessary change from product development and selling to 'service renovation and experience creation' (Pillot De Chenecy, 2020).

But as Depop have managed, to thrive in Brand Ecolibrium, Mutualists must ultimately make their new way a better way in every way - through designing products, services and experiences that are more accessible and more attractive than the status quo, irrespective of constraints. This is Brand Resourcefulness.

The biggest business plan […] in the history of mankind.

Paul Polman

Brands are constantly preoccupied with finding the 'next big thing'.

Well, this is it. The only really 'next big thing' (Pillot De Chenecy, 2020). The biggest problem, the biggest opportunity; the biggest brief ever.

I believe adopting nature’s mutualism and the Laws of Brand Ecolibrium offer an inspiring framework for necessary progress to a fair and sustainable future for all.

The legitimacy of our industry, equity of society and health of our planet depend on it.

Mutualism is the mode of the future. Enter the age of Brand Ecolibrium.

Chris Evans is Group Projects Director at Omnicom Media Group UK. This essay earned a distinction as a part of the IPA Excellence Diploma.

Last updated 21 September 2020