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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Buy-in not buying. The marketing of 'good'

So how do we get people to buy seaweed, thick yak wool and soft brown sweaters?

'How to market' the things that we make in Good Growth? How do we get people to value things that come out of regenerating places?

A lot of what we can make is relatively easy to explain (and sell) because it's just really, really lovely. Soft and warm yak wool travel wraps, camel wool rugs, top notch rice.

Khunu's travel wrap

But some of it's a bit unusual. At least to consumers brought up on a diet of fast fashion, bright colours, incessant new products, cheap finance and limitless stock.

Some of our fibre products come from animals such as the wild guanaco - whose numbers have dwindled in Patagonia as sheep ranching has pushed them out. Creating economic value for guanaco hair (wild sheared at the beginning of summer) will stop them being treated as vermin (and stealthily turned into dog food by large European brands with zero-to-minimal morals).

Others come from hair normally chucked away - like the long rough camel guard hair that gets shed every year and just lies around. (Every camel sheds around 5 to 10kg of hair every year - some of it is fine, much is coarse). We create value for this rough hair by making homewares with it - rugs, cushions, thick blankets. The more value we can create for each animal - by working with all the fibre - the less pressure the herder is under to increase animal numbers. (And can do more good things like stop the camels eating the young elm trees in the desert, which would help restore the water courses, which would rekindle a whole lot of biodiversity and life....)

More from less. Fewer sheep and more guanacos in Patagonia. Fewer goats, more yaks in Mongolia. Each ecosystem is different, so the "ideal" mix is different in each place. But a key part of regenerating places is ensuring that the livestock in that place is both good for the place (encourages plant growth etc) as well as at a level that the place can support.

We also have a struggle on eco-friendly colours for clothing. The multi-coloured world of Zara and Uniqlo has duped people into believing that (e.g.) cashmere can come in vivid reds and headache inducing bright blues. Vast quantities of chemicals are needed to dye clothing these vivid colours. Natural dyes and the natural fibre colours are much more muted - browns and greys. How to persuade people to ditch the electric red for a soft brown?

And as we get into marine ecosystems we're beginning to work out how to create demand for seaweed products. Seaweed is kind of magic - it's brilliant for the sea (as long as it's the "right" seaweed species for the place) and full of good things and grows really fast.

Not exactly mainstream - photo by Patrick Perkins

You can make human food, cattle food, cosmetics, and even bioplastics from seaweed. But....seaweed has an image problem. There are few (if any) good seaweed product brands out there. Partly because the whole category is a bit new, and partly to do with 'seaweed' as a category in itself. Persuading people to eat it on a day-to-day basis is a very tough call. (The name's an issue - "weed" really doesn't fly in a food context (same is true for "insects")).

Buy-in not buying. Never turn sustainability into a product feature

So here's the problem. How to market these products so that people buy into them for the good that they do? (Rather than just buy them).

We find that at both ends of the chain - the communities who live in each place, and the "consumers" who buy stuff - the incentives are all a little screwed up and transactional.

A depressingly large number of herding co-operatives exist not because there is some kind of widespread common interest in looking after a shared space, but because a co-operative is a pre-requisite for accessing various subsidies. And beyond the subsidy there's really very little enthusiasm from herders to do more in and with the co-operative.

Two takes from this - firstly (and it's kind of obvious) a co-op is not the same as a community so, secondly, we should take care not to use co-ops as the base building block for each place brand. What we *actually* need are people who really do share a common interest in the health of the place.

There's a similar kind of transactional trap at the 'market' end of the chain. So many brands seem to treat "sustainability" as merely a product feature. I hear big brands like Ikea and Unilever talk about their sustainable product ranges (and how fast they grow) - as if "sustainable" was merely an exciting market segment.

But I don't think we should go down this product marketing route. Turning sustainability into a "reason to buy" just doesn't feel right. 'Natural dyes are better than colours that use napalm'. 'Seaweed's better than soya because it is wholly renewable and doesn't screw up land'. 'Yak's better than cashmere because goats eat everything and turn the place into a desert'.

It's a cul-de-sac and it misses the bigger point - which is how to reconnect humans to nature. Maybe part of the problem is how we think about consumers and brands.

Do consumers know what 'good' is? We met a big advisory business which was wrestling with what "good" actually means, and how their (mostly old school) clients should square new fangled ideas such as ESG with good old fashioned ideas such as making a profit.

They have an idea which crystallises my discomfort. They want to get their clients to focus more on the realities of ESG by articulating what 'consumers really want from sustainability'.

This idea - that there is somehow a consumer driven market for sustainable stuff - is superficially quite attractive. But it relies on three very dodgy assumptions

  1. brands somehow are just responsive to consumer demands

  2. consumers actually *know* a priori what they need and want

  3. somehow "consumers" have managed to navigate all the nuances and complexities and trade offs inherent to the whole "what is sustainable" question. I.e that they know what 'good' looks like and that they want it.

None of this is true.

Just look at the evolution of food retailing since the end of WW2 - we went from rationing and scarcity to superabundance and 3-for-2's in a couple of decades. All driven from the supply side. Check out Rustlers (impossibly cheap pre-packaged burgers and hotdogs). Did anyone, ever ask for them? Nope - it's a supply side innovation and the world and the human race are both poorer for it.

The Rustler - the answer to a question nobody asked

Forget marketing products - we want a reawakening of values, a reconnection to nature

Much of what we are doing in Good Growth is not radically new, it's radically old. We're drawing on a way of value creation that harks back to the pre-industrial era, before we all got swept away by globalised products and supply chains and efficiencies and economies of scale and product features and all the underlying elements of today's operating system that has so screwed up the planet.

The issue we are grappling with, at root, is the disconnection of human beings from nature. We got dislocated. The eyes we look through no longer are sensitive or even cognisant of where things come from. The land, the time, the people who go into making our stuff.

Product-ising sustainability completely fails to address this issue. It reinforces the basic problem of our dislocation from origin. Good Growth products are not (actually) the point of what we do (lovely as they are) - they are ways to create value for nature and specifically the regeneration of places.

Nature-based stuff doesn't just happen. It grows, it gets made. It's slow. The time that nature takes to grow something is the very opposite of that Klarna "get it now, pay later" nadir that consumer-world seems to have reached. If we see nature at all, we no longer see nature for what it is, rather what we think it should be. Our mental picture of "good" nature is more Capability Brown than messy biodiversity. I was really struck in Georgia by how wonderfully messy and lovely and above all full of life the vineyards are. There are cover crops and bees and flowers everywhere. Nothing like the sterile Tuscan or French image of a vineyard that we have been fed for so long.

Looks nice and neat - but where's the buzzing messy life? (Photo by Trent Erwin)

We need to rekindle a different sense of time and place. A natural and wonderful and vivid world. To get people to be more connected to where stuff comes from means we must tell new stories - not just about how the stuff is made but the values which led to the stuff in the first place.

Stories that articulate a different sense of time and place. An appeal to higher values.

So sustainability marketing can never be product marketing.

If you've never seen it take a look at this 6 minutes from Steve Jobs - brilliantly articulating why Apple needed to focus on values and beliefs rather than product features.

What he says is the foundation of a pioneering brand. It's what made Apple great (sadly lost its way somewhat since for sure).

If we're ever going to succeed at regeneration and sustainability we have to resist the urge to treat sustainability as just another product feature. What we need is to identify, amplify and reinforce a set of values that identify "nature" as a good thing, as a thing we want to be associated with, as a thing we believe we are part of.

Regeneration as a set of values. That's the marketing challenge. Call it regenerative marketing.

Now to find some people who can help us work out how to do it.

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