I had a tiny part to play in the B-Corp story, once upon a time, several years ago. I was drawn to B-Corps because of the quality of the people involved and the practicality of the solution. The solution (as I understand it and, cause I’m a nerd, written in pseudo-code) goes something like this:
If (we account for the negative externalities inherent in the profit maximizing ethics of business-as-usual AND leverage market structures to sell real value):
This solution has significant challenges.
- Transitioning from business-as-usual to business-as-a-force-for-good requires explicitly identifying and killing the negative processes of business-as-usual to create the positive processes of business-as-a-force-for-good.
- Business-as-a-force-for-good will require new ways of doing things and not just a repurposing of the tools that we have been using to dig the hole we are trying to get out of.
B-Corporation’s new marketing campaign — Vote Every Day — feels like a step in the wrong direction. A capitulation or, pun intended, a sell out.
Chemotherapy: Transition to business-as-a-force-for-good
In the early aughts (2000’s) salesforce.com was a brash upstart taking on Oracle. Salesforce.com’s competitive advantage was that it wasn’t software. The user wasn’t required to install and maintain servers and connect clients; instead, Salesforce.com was the first enterprise class, totally online, service. You just login. Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com, described this competitive advantage in terms of what Oracle would need to do to catch up. He said Oracle would essentially need to go through chemotherapy; kill every cell of the software business model and then be reborn as software-as-a-service.
The transition from business-as-usual to business-as-a-force-for-good will require exactly the same thing. As an example, we need to kill traditional marketing if we are ever to gain the trust of the consumer — trust which will be essential to sell a more valuable and more expensive product.
Catchy memes like “It’s not a cash register. It’s a ballot box” are anathema to this process. This particular meme — declaring consumption IS voting — is particularly insidious.
On Sept. 27, 2001 President George Bush had something similar to say:
When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.
This idea that shopping IS voting plucks a particularly harsh string today as disenfranchised voters are fighting to have their votes counted — disenfranchised voters who voted in record numbers as a repudiation of overt voter suppression and the resurgent forces of misogyny and racism. They were not buying cheese and paper towels. We cannot shop our way to a better world.
The Master’s Tools will not Dismantle the Master’s House
That said, I do believe we can use business to build a better world but we must use completely different tools. Audrey Lorde was right when she wrote:
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference— those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older— know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
I have included the context of Ms. Lorde’s brilliant insight because context is important. It is important to remember exactly why she said what she said. She was critiquing her allies. She was advocating for different tactics. It is certainly worth your time to read the entire piece and what I have taken from her words is that tools are imbued with the purpose of their creator.
Marketing is a fundamentally dishonest discipline. Marketing is the cause of tremendous amounts of time and money wasted creating and destroying trust — creating and destroying good housekeeping seals of approval. Capitalism is no longer a market based system for equitably delivering goods and services — maybe it never was — but at this moment Capitalism is uniquely unmoored from value delivery and the blame for this can be placed squarely at the feet of marketing. Sure, CEOs and the like set it in motion but marketers are the henchmen. To be more specific, the specific tool that has been used over the last several years to gaslight consumers is a weaponized version of behavioral economics. The wicked alchemy of behavioral economics is what Zuckerberg and his ilk like to hide behind their hand waving about Artificial Intelligence. Behavioral economics is the increasingly effective science of how to get people to do things that are against their best interest and the best interest of the planet.
We know how to be better. Nobel-Prize-in-Economics Elinor Ostrum taught us that if we build the right collaborative infrastructure we can both exploit AND sustain the world’s common pool resources; however, “those … who still define the master’s house as their only source of support” are trapping us in the negative feedback loops of the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons.
If we are to get to business-as-a-force-for-good we must reject marketing. I am not suggesting that we change marketing — tweak it in some substantive way — I am suggesting that we kill it. I have argued in the past for using decentralized technologies to better manage trust and verify outputs. I think this is a promising approach but really wonky and likely wrong in some fundamental way. What I know to be right is that we have to stop lying and the only way to do that is to stop marketing. In its place we need a system that tells the consumer what is intended and what is accomplished. Beto O’Rourke’s thank you letter is a good example of this in it’s narrative form. Likely the first businesses that do this will fail. That doesn’t make it wrong.
PS Just realized that this is a new B-Corp marketing campaign.