3_TRENDS_Vol.21: Joanna Lepore: Dark Philanthropy, Frail Brands + Choice Abandonment
3_TRENDS is an interview series with the world's leading cultural researchers and thinkers, sharing their favorite overlooked trends.
Joanna Lepore (JL) is a strategist, futurist, and Global Director of Foresight at McDonald’s. Prior, Jo co-created the strategic futures function within Mars Wrigley’s. An advocate for curiosity and differentiated thinking, Jo’s created two podcasts exploring future trends and fresh business ideas: Looking Outside & Future Imagined.
MK: Jo, what’s on your mind?
JL: When we jumped quickly to praise the efforts of Yvon Chouinard (the founder of Patagonia) who donated his entire company to charity — $3B it’s estimated — I cringed thinking about the backlash that would hit.
It didn’t come from profit generating corporations, most of which gave a collective shrug, nor from charities who went oddly silent when the news broke, certainly not from news corporations who called Chouinard “the anti-Trump,” and his move signaling the “end game” for profit generation businesses.
Instead, it came from the fringes — from the independent minds like Isabella Garo who dug into the situation with an objective analysis, instead of a fever of emotions.
“The fundamental issue with billionaire philanthropy is that it does nothing to challenge the economic, political, and social institutions that have created the problems these billionaires are trying to solve.”
“Throwing money at the nonprofit sector won’t change corporations’ fundamental goal to fill the pockets of their shareholders.”
“Giving away one apparel company won’t change the fact that there are thousands more who are eager to perpetuate a culture of hyper-consumerism at the expense of our planet.”
This resentment is fair. Yet the collective awe is angering.
MK: The richest 1% have an accumulated wealth worth ~$222T, nearly half the world’s total money. But it’s the irony of the acquisition of it that’s more troublesome...
The Gates Foundation, a nonprofit fighting poverty, disease and inequity, is only in existence because of Microsoft, which along with other large tech companies, have been accused of “unfair” (at best) labor practices — from factories to The Democratic Republic of the Congo, where families and the human rights firm International Rights Advocates claim that such companies are responsible for “children who were killed or maimed while mining for cobalt used to power smartphones, laptops and electric cars.”
Meanwhile, there’s Bezos who created a $10B fund to address climate change... all while Amazon emitted 71M tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021 – more than the entire annual emissions of countries like Portugal, Ireland or Singapore.
Okay one more. How about Musk who purchased his own accumulation of Bitcoin — and then accepted Bitcoin for Tesla purchases. But according to researchers, if anyone was to pay for their Tesla over 48 months in Bitcoin, “the carbon footprint of the Bitcoin transactions would exceed the total lifetime emissions savings from driving an EV instead of a gasoline-powered car.”
Natalie Knowles, a Canadian PhD researcher and wilderness conservationist wrote for Al Jazeera on the contradictions of Chouinard’s move:
“Concerned citizens are misled into thinking that more sales will save the planet. During Patagonia’s 2012 ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ campaign, sales rose +30%. Patagonia’s 2016 Black Friday pledge to give all revenue from that day to environmental protection groups led to +5X higher sales than the company’s estimates, reaching $10M.”
“Here is the problem: these campaigns all promote increased consumption and thus extraction of value from nature with the misunderstood message that creating more profits will better ‘protect the source.’ Yet three out of five garments produced globally end up in a landfill within a year.”
“The generous donations of billions of dollars are only possible through the accumulation of even larger sums of monetary profits. Greater profits are created by taking something, like nature, for free, or by undervaluing something, like human labour.”
“Everything that profit stands for was mined or farmed or grown or crafted, taking the energy of the earth, humans or other living creatures and turning it into products and services.”
“Philanthropy, even in the trillions, will never fully repair the damage inflicted by the continual pursuit of profits.”
“The profitable philanthropist approach to solving the world’s problems separates the goal of promoting the welfare of others from the accumulation of enough money to generously donate. Such philanthropists are happy to donate the money they have already made, but refuse to slow down and lose out on money they have not yet made.”
Here’s the thing. We can’t cease the applause for philanthropy as it will only lessen the incentive and weaken the conditioning for more of it, yet we must also remain mindful of the irony here, as well as our comfort with billionaires “fixing” our planet.
As Matthew Nisbet, professor of communication and public policy at Northeastern University, puts it,
“A few ultra-wealthy individuals are making decisions about the future of the planet with little accountability or transparency.”
It’s hard to remain super stoked about that.
Applaudable, yes. But let’s not overlook what it took for this to happen in the first place... let alone, where that money actually goes... and if it goes anywhere besides just the other pocket.
JL: “There’s no room for moderates.”
That’s one of the first things I was told coming to the U.S. from Australia. Somehow I found a way to survive in the U.S. (so far) without being called a fence sitter, jeered at as violent through silence, nor cornered to take a side.
Done well — brands take on an archetype, usually led by Jung’s extreme personas. The traits of these archetypes help marketers create distinctions and guide actions, exhibiting a clear personality.
However there was always an understanding that these archetypes were ideals — aspirational.
They are not who we are.
Today’s brand archetypes though are seemingly obsessed with being just like us.
Before being fired, take a look at the latest purple M&M: full of insecurity. Or Oatly: breaking the fourth wall like a sarcastic friend, misdirecting us that they’re actually a company with a P&L.
It’s easy to hate on a celebrity or brand — they’re an exaggerated version of normality — but it’s harder to hate on something when they’re more like you and me.
Are brands making themselves appear more “frail” so we judge them less harshly? Or is this uncanny personification a cop out from just taking a side?
MK: The best cultural observations are the most complex: those with clear pro’s and con’s for each side. This is one of those observations. It’s messy in the best way.
Firstly, does the purple M&M even cop out from taking a stand, when the M&M company is leaning into our anxiety crisis and building a persona which reflects and then sells back the anxiety to us? Can we even consider this passive? Yet it doesn’t feel active...
Is M&M’s feebleness actually weakness, or cultural awareness and social progressiveness... just masked as weakness?
And more recent, is their step away from their spokescandies (I can’t believe I had to type that fucking word) an act of strength — making a difficult call — or weakness — an inability to double down with conviction?
On one hand, a more feeble brand can be more relatable — imperfect, genuine, honest. But brands and genuineness is just counter-intuitive. Everything is a script. It doesn’t work. Inauthenticity is apart of the game. So writing in frailty or relatability or weakness is moot. It’s just fake. It cancels out. A paradox.
Then on the other hand...
A modest or moderate brand — one which isn’t vocal — can actually be a refreshing, seemingly needed alternative to the social extremism we face in culture today.
In her WSJ piece “Does Your Mayo Need a Mission Statement?,” Saabira Chaudhuri points out that while Unilever has been on a mission to give all 400 of its brands a social or environmental purpose, its stock performance has significantly lagged behind its peers Nestle, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble.
With this, is there even a validated financial upside for my crackers to take “a side?” We know pastas aren’t allowed to be homophobic, but do they have to actively march?
In an annual letter to investors, Terry Smith, chief executive of Fundsmith, one of Unilever’s largest shareholders wrote:
“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. Unilever is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.”
But then on a third hand: you have a Ben & Jerry’s.
This is a brand which is anything but feeble nor moderate. They’re perhaps one of the loudest out there. Within the last five years they’ve taken stands with a 2018 anti-Trump campaign, a tweet calling out Biden for fanning the flames of war by sending troops to Europe in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and decided to to stop selling in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
It’s aggressive and unprompted... But Ben & Jerry’s sales have grown +9% over the last year and remain the number one sold ice-cream brand in America.
Is it their bulging muscles and anti-frailness, or just good ice-cream?
JL: Perhaps it’s no wonder we live in a handful of emotional states with no space in the middle.
We are completely overwhelmed and confused.
We make close to to 35,000 decisions a day.
This has boggled the minds of food marketers in particular, and is getting worse as we clutter POS (point of sale) marketing, packaging labels, and advertising with claims, promises and data to — you know — try to make decisions easier.
With the growth of carbon footprint tracking, and further in time precision targeting, and whatever scanners, apps and gadgets that enable those — the choice in-store is arguably going to be getting harder not easier.
Decision paralysis is certainly real for the consumer, and it’s just as real for brands. It’s why we think to add more claims on pack without considering which ones to remove.
But the good news is that our slowness and greed to communicate everything possible to a consumer isn’t impacting their decision making – they are still choosing “that yellow pack” when shopping.
MK: We’ve got to nod to Andrea Hernández’s 3_TRENDS volume, where she forecasted “Curation as Service”:
“The need for curation in food, beverage and groceries alike stems from an overabundance of options — and we’ll see more of experiential grocers lean into discovery, and an increase in online grocery shopping... the niche marketplace.”
But while there’s not just more choice, which she alludes to, to your point: as a result of so much choice, our choices’ claims are are also getting overwhelming.
The solution to all the above is curation — the outsourcing of decision making to either the algorithm or the expert.
Choice invites doubt of satisfaction and an uncertainty of “the other options.” Selecting one, means giving up others.
Perhaps the best choice we can make is just allowing someone else to make it for us?