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Modern Capitalism Based on Shared Values

Goddamn that Alex Bogusky is inspiring.

I finally had a chance to watch his presentation for the newest project from Fearless – the open source brand called “Common” for socially minded businesses (for lack of a better term). One of the biggest hypocrisies of my life is the fact that I work in brand strategy consulting while maintaining a very cynical view of big businesses and capitalism in general. My friend affectionately calls me a corporate whore and there’s nothing I can do but resignedly sigh in agreement.

Part of me feels like the concept has always existed, but it wasn’t of an interest until big businesses figured out how to make money from it. The HBR podcast titled “How to save capitalism” makes a compelling point about how current CSR programs are a huge waste of money. They’re essentially giving money away to random third parties who aren’t even part of the stakeholders group. Sure, it looks generous but it’s also horribly neglectful. It’s like buying dinner for someone else instead of your family. Smart CSR programs would try to evenly distribute value between all the stakeholders to promote mutual success.

My friend mentioned that idea is reaching it’s tipping point because it’s gotten so much heat lately. I’d say it’s a pretty cutting edge idea because if a business wants to implement the model, they’re going to have to defy business logic. But I realized that I’m probably too cynical about things for my own good.

I realized is a situation that represents this shared value concept is the Antoine Dodson story. If you’ve already forgotten, he’s the bed intruder guy. He got famous off of a song that someone else wrote about him. The creator of the song shared the proceeds of the iTunes sales with Dodson. Dodson also made money off of ringtones and TV appearances and was able to get himself and his family out of the projects. Under the old model of capitalism, Dodson wouldn’t have made a cent unless he sued. People would see that the value was created by the guy who wrote the song. But in this “shared value’ capitalism, Dodson would be seen has having contributed to the song and ultimately its success.

And to be fair, that’s one of those weird stories that happen on the internet were it’s all kind of a fairy tale (or nightmare depending on how your perspective). How does this work for a big business where it’s extremely tough to change course?

I was watching Stephen Colbert last night and saw the segment with Wal-Mart’s vice president talking about a program they created with the U.S. government to sell lower priced fruits and vegetables in their stores. That’s pretty amazing right? They are the largest retailer in the U.S. and are in the position to affect behaviors on a grand scale. And then you think about how they are buying their groceries from local farmers. They are forcing their supplies to adopt green practices (in the past they’ve also forced suppliers to adopt crazy inventory systems). They’ve switched to a fluorescent lighting to save energy.

For a big evil company, they’ve done a lot of good. And the good isn’t that stupid, wasteful-throw-money-at-a-random-cause good, it’s a sustainable action and an investment in their stakeholders. In this case, their stakeholders are their customers (the cheaper produce and vegetables, local and organic farmers) and the environment. And investing in both these stakeholders, Wal-Mart stands to gain big as well. Going green with the lights saved them tons of money. Offering organic and local foods allows them to strategically leap ahead of grocery stores (who are slowly figuring it out) to capture market share. This is assuming that they are betting that local/organic foods is the next evolution of grocery products.

I think there’s a little bit of greater awareness of how other parts of the system adds value, but I’d like to think that we’re slowly becoming nicer to each other and more mindful of how our actions affect others around us.

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Saving the World from the Bottom Up

After slugging it out on a cause marketing project at work, I’ve been taken away by how much change a non-profit can make on the world. I’ve also noticed that it always seems like saving the world is a grassroots effort instead of an initiative taken on by large powerful institutions such as governments and businesses that have the resources to make large-scale impact. Sure, a business could sponsor or donate to a cause, but it’s a relatively small amount.

There’s probably a conclusion in here about the inertia of government and the inherently evil nature of capitalism, but that not very interesting. What interesting is that it feels like it has become the responsibility of the individual to clean up the messes that large institutions make or issues that they are incapable of solving. What I think was wrapped up as our civic duty has now been exposed as the large institution’s incompetence, eroding the trust and confidence that we used to have in our government and businesses’ to get things done.

Perhaps that’s why open source and crowdsourcing have become such a force. But what seem to be different now is that these individuals don’t work underneath or in service of the institutions. If you want to draw a chart that illustrates power dynamics, the individual would be on par with the institutions. It’s a wonderfully empowering thought tinged with a bit of cynicism only because of what I think inspired this situation.

What Planet Do You Live On?

One of the few things that can instantly annoy me are right wing pundits. Whenever the Daily Show is featuring a clip from one of those guys, I cringe. Obviously, it’s because of my politics.

But I’m beginning to think about the people who agree with the likes of Limbaugh and O’Reilly and if this was ever possible before media fragmentation (I know, this idea is so 2 years ago).

My classmate had this idea that information creates communities, which until now, I did not understand the impact. While multiple viewpoints on a idea is ideally very good for the sake of getting the full picture, I think the opposite has happened. The communities that are created by this information are too strong. People simply choose the viewpoint they agree most with and shut off everything else. It’s the exact opposite impact that choice is supposed to have.

My problem with this is that now we can’t agree to one reality. Everyone is living in their own little world and when something comes up that demands discourse and debate, we spend all our time arguing about how to define the problem rather than fixing it. Nothing happens and everyone starts blaming each other. It’s a frustrating process that’s easier to laugh at than doing anything about.

On Racism

A couple of weeks ago, a class discussion led to the topic of racism. It was an emotionally charged situation where everyone was defensive about their experiences and views on racism.

The reason why it was so emotionally charged was because no one was listening to one another. I feel that people seemed threatened when people offer a different view/experience with racism because it calls into question the validity of their own – for example, two black people having completely different experiences or a white person saying that they have experienced racism as well (in the form of reverse racism). So when we start sharing our experiences with racism it becomes a forum where everyone wants to inform/educate everyone else without listening to anyone else.

I know this seems like a hard pill to swallow. Even with my own politics it seems hard because if I give time to a perspective that I think is false, I justify it. But consider perceptions. Perceptions are just as if not more important than reality and they play a big role in how we experience race in this country.

Social Networking Websites Don’t Democratize

I’ve been thinking about the comment that Louise left on this post. I realized that I didn’t consider social networking into my answer because I don’t feel that it is a democratizing force online. For me, this issue of democratization is wrapped around power and access and social networking websites do neither.

It all starts with content. On the web, content is analogous to real estate in the real world. The more content you own (and the higher the quality) gives you more power to throw around on the web because it shows expertise and drives an audience. It’s the reason why everyone reads Russell Davies’ blog and not mine. Social networking websites, I feel, don’t encourage the creation of content, rather they encourage you to categorize yourself based on content you consume like those favorites lists and so on.

Since there is little content on social networking sites, it’s closed off to search bugs from Google- though it may also be due to IT magic. However the point is that Google is the gateway for information and if content from SNS websites can’t be retrieved then it’s useless. This is the information age and power is partly derived from having open access to information.

And lastly, the point of SNS websites is not to make new friends, but to keep in touch with the ones you already have. We did a survey at R/GA once to measure behaviors on Myspace and Facebook and we found that making new friends was ranked near the bottom when we asked what they usually do on those websites. The way we use these websites infers that SNS websites don’t necessarily have the reach and influence to be a democratizing force all on its own. However, that doesn’t mean we can change that behavior so that we can use it to garner power.

中国嘻哈, Mainland v. Taiwan

I remember listening to two guys talk about hip hop a while ago, it seemed like it was a huge soap opera with feuds and smacking talking and everything. And Chinese hip hop it’s no different, except this time it’s Mainland v. Taiwan.

It started when a traveling basketball team from Jiangsu, China was playing some teams in Taiwan. Apparently the game got physical and one of the Mainland players threw a badass elbow that gave the Taiwanese player a bloody nose and a black eye. Afterwards, the guy didn’t apologize and a lot of people got pissed off. Here’s the coverage from Taiwanese TV.

Right after, 大支 , a pro-Taiwan rapper know for doing a lot of his stuff in Tawainese, released a track about it with all the standard Chinese disses relating to family and nationality. Very important cultural cue for what’s valued in this culture:

你媽是漢奸你爺爺是走狗你爸爸是賣國賊 你就是漢奸走狗賣國賊
Translation: Your mom is a Han (Chinese) whore. Your grandfather is a dog. Your father is a traitor. That means you’re a Han whore dog traitor.

And for good measure, he has a line in there about how the China national team jacks off Yao Ming. This sounds way more impressive in Chinese in front of a beat, I promise. Get the track here.

And then from here, there is this epic back and forth between Mainland and Taiwanese underground hip hop artists. And what started as unsportsmanlike conduct is turning into a huge chest thumping match based on nationalism.

Click here to go to a blog that has documented the entire thing.

Business Drawing Lines of Power

A long time ago I casually threw out the thought that business, not governments, will draw the lines of power in the future through distribution and branding and such. I just finished the Blackwater book for a class project and think this idea needs more attention.

The idea that a private company can build an army that has the capacity to take out a couple of countries by themselves is no joke. Blackwater started off as strictly military mercenaries working in Iraq and now they’ve rebranded themselves into a security company offering their services to areas in distress (Darfur) and to companies that have vested interests abroad (oil companies).

The second function is much more interesting than the first one. When I originally was thinking about business and power, I was thinking cultural and economic power – hegemony and such. However, the fact that they can now hire armies to do their bidding, it takes it to a higher level of creepiness, it takes it to the level of colonization.

I’m going to say that this is a bad thing. And I think you know why.