Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today? 

Brand Camp On Green Marketing

February 17th, 2008

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything from Tom Fishburne’s ingenious Brand Camp series.  Given that Tom is the UK marketing director for the naturally-derived, biodegradable method line of home care products, it’s no surpise that his point of view is so enjoyably consumer-focused.stephanie_fierman_tom_fishburne_eco_cartoon.jpg

I’ve long followed the interesting and well-chronicled careers of Mark DiMassimo of DiMassimo Goldstein (DIGO) and Eric Yaverbaum, who runs Ericho Communications and has written a number of bestselling books.   Together or apart, they’ve been the marketing minds behind a who’s who of successful brands including Ikea, Dominos Pizza, Progressive Insurance, Glaceau Vitamin Water, Crunch Fitness and Jet Blue.   

Now Eric and Mark have taken on a much different assignment:  that of helping the planet.  Their focus is not greenhouse gases but bottled water, and they’re doing so through the launch of a joint venture called Tappening and a huge educational media blitz.  Tappening asks everyone to send in one empty commercial water bottle with a note inside that commits the sender to drinking only tap water in the future.  The initiative also calls companies like Coca-Cola on the carpet for creating massive waste:   did you know that California alone throws out three million empty water bottles every day?   You can also get a uber-hip Tappening bottle to carry your tap water around in.  Or, rather, you could before the bottles sold out in the first 36 hours of the campaign.  [See below for a nice shot of the bottles and a handy link to a FoxNews interview about Tappening.]

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I spoke to both Mark and Eric today to get a rare look behind a grass-roots campaign that’s getting major attention – one based on the power of what they call two  “mad dads.”

Stephanie:  Hey, guys.  From what I’ve read so far, this idea seems to have sprouted from the minds of two angry marketing geniuses who’d just seen a documentary about trash.  True?

Mark:  Well I can’t address the “genius” part, but we’re definitely angry.  I have three kids and they deserve a healthy planet.  That means we’re going to have to do a little more than change light bulbs.

Eric: As parents, Mark and I are very much aligned emotionally in this.  And we believe that we can impact a lot of people.

Stephanie: And just to get it out of the way early… you’re also making some money, right?

Mark: When you sell your entire inventory of bottles in the first 36 hours, you definitely make a few bucks, although we’ve been shocked at the response. We thought we’d sell out our inventory in a year and just self-fund the initiative.  But apparently we’re onto something!

Eric:   Yes, selling out after 36 hours and logging 450,000 page visits in two weeks tells us that, based on what we do for a living, we have the wherewithall to educate people – and we’re succeeding.

Stephanie:  I personally have no issues with two marketing execs making a few dollars by spending every spare waking hour doing something good for the planet.  But why promote tap water? 
 
Mark:  Because it was there, because it’s everywhere – and because it wasn’t branded.  And all three of us understand the power of brands.  Look at vodka, a drink with no taste.  But branding has given plenty of vodka brands taste.  And a brand makes people pay good money for good old H2O in a bottle every day.  And what’s even in that bottle?  Pepsi admits that Aquafina, the #1 bestselling brand of bottled water in the US, comes from tap water!   Tap water deserves to fight, if you will, on equal footing.  Reusable water bottles and the Tappening brand is where we wanted to start.

Eric: People don’t realize so many really sad and fundamental facts regarding what we do to the planet.  The bottled water industry adds to global pollution, wastes energy, creates waste and contributions to the causes of climate change.  The industry’s solution so far has been to talk about thinner plastic and recycling.  Thinner plastic still needs to be made, cleaned, filled, shipped, collected and discarded.   And nearly 25% of Americans do not recycle.  Tap water is right in front of us:  we believe that something so simple can be very powerful.

Mark: And by the way, the stuff in the bottle isn’t as well regulated as the stuff that comes out of your tap.  Compare what the EPA requires of your tap water to what the FDA looks at in your bottled water.  See who makes you feel better about what you’re drinking.  But the bottom line is that, on the whole, the water from your tap is healthy for you, healthy for your family and a whole lot healthier for the planet.  Take the money you save and put it to good use, if you can.

Eric: That’s also what we’re also trying to do by using a portion of the proceeds from every Tappening bottle sale to promote the documentary you mentioned called Garbage!  The Revolution Starts at Home.   Now they are starting to get traffic from our site… and that’s the way you start to bind thousands of people together behind a cause.

Stephanie: Interesting.  Do you see marketing discipline as the solution to other social problems?

Mark: Yes, marketing and value innovation.  It would be of enormous value to get people drinking more tap and less bottled.  So we look at that problem and we innovate.  Why don’t people drink more tap?  And we don’t disregard or belittle the answers we don’t like:  if drinking tap isn’t hip, for example, then we need to address that.  Scientists may study it.  Politicians may demagogue it, legislate it…  But we know that what really moves the needle quickly is marketing innovation, which is about design, branding and excitement.

Eric: People buy brands to express themselves and their values.  Tappening allows people to be part of this campaign, which we hope is both a stylish and socially valuable thing to do. Maybe that’s why so many people like our bottle. It brands them when they carry it.

Stephanie: So you want to make an ordinary-seeming topic cool.

Eric: Definitely.  Hey, I have a teenage daughter to impress! That’s not easy!

Mark: Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Tappening IS cool.

Stephanie: How important has digital marketing been to your success?

Mark:  Incredibly. We were blown away by the celebrities who found our MySpace page and spread the word.

Eric: And all the environmental organizations online….  The bloggers also have gotten the word out, and they’ve been collaborators in developing our concept.  A lot of hard questions in this space need to be answered. And bloggers ask them. They don’t cow-tow to anyone.  To them, I would offer the biggest thank you.

Mark:  Traditional media has driven our success as well.  We and others are spreading video from TV interviews we have done all over the web. We’re getting newspaper and radio coverage.  It all ends up in digital form and then it travels everywhere.

Eric:  The doom and gloom predictions about the future of mainstream media fascinate me, because “old” and “new” media work so well together:  traditional media produces high-quality content and then the web spreads it around the world.  Given that both Mark and I are usually the “senders” of such messaging for our clients, it’s been a blast to be on the *positive* receiving end of it!

Stephanie:  Well many thanks to you both.  And if you have any Tappening bottles squirreled away… I want one!
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Readers:  consider what Mark and Eric are saying about the phenomenon of branding, the social quality and power of “cool,” and the idea that this concept could be applied to just about anything.  What can we apply it to next?

Checking In At Brand Camp

November 4th, 2007

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything from Tom Fishburne’s ingenious Brand Camp series, so I thought it was time.  Tom has a way of getting to the heart of marketing – and what’s funny about it – without making me feel too ridiculous (I think…). 

Check this one out:  which one would you be?

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If you’re not reading Tom’s blog at http://tomfishburne.typepad.com now and again, you’re missing something fun.  He’s also currently living in London rolling out the Method Home brand in Europe, which so far is an inspiring (and for the small team in London, PERspiring) story of real branding with a mission.