Prototyping the Future of Ethical Investing

Mathew Groom
Oct 24, 2017 · 9 min read
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We started talking about superannuation…

…and ended up sitting on the cold concrete floor of the Sydney Opera House foyer for hours, pinning dozens of poop emoji badges to ribbons of fabric as laughing clowns looked on.

How did we get here?

So we were working with Australian Ethical. They do superannuation — you know, the money that gets taken out of your pay and invested into a retirement fund.

Australian Ethical is a bit different because they make sure your retirement money gets invested in good companies. Now, if you were thinking ‘shit, I didn’t even realise my super gets invested in companies at all’, don’t worry — your secret is safe with us. In fact, you’re a long way from alone. We didn’t either when we started this, and therein lies the problem.

When we started, we had a lot to get the word out about: the fact that your super is invested in businesses; that (collectively) your super is powerful enough to impact how those businesses act; that those businesses can do terrible things to the world; that avoiding those terrible businesses can actually make financial sense in addition to moral sense.

We certainly couldn’t complain about having a vague brief. There was a lot to do. And as we were about to find out, we needed to have material out in the world in an alarmingly short period of time.

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The Festival of Dangerous Ideas — or ‘FODI’, if you’re one of the cool cats who knows all about it, is where we started. If you don’t know what FODI, here are the cliff notes:

1) it’s a bunch of (mostly) clever people doing big talks about controversial topics, a smart festival of sorts

2) it’s held annually at the Sydney Opera House

3) Australian Ethical is one of the sponsors

(Hopefully you’re starting to see where this is going.)

The conversation didn’t go exactly like this, but it might as well have:

Grace (from Australian Ethical): We want you to put together an activation at FODI for us.

Us: You know our team has never done anything like that before, right?

Grace: Yes.

Us: And that we’ve only done a handful of events before?

Grace: Yes.

Us: And we don’t actually have a brand for you guys yet?

Grace: Yes.

Us: And we haven’t ever told your story before, and never set the scene to even make them understand your story?

Grace: Yes.

Us: And you know it’d be a bad idea to lean hard on your current brand, given that you’ll be changing it very soon?

Grace: Yes.

Us: And that we’d have to find a way to make it align with FODI?

Grace: Yes. Think you can do it?

Us: Yes.

What can we say? We’re big on having a ‘show as you go’ process, letting the client in on the creative development, avoiding big ‘ta-da!’ moments. It was only fitting that we take that a bit further, and road test a brand in the wild. With real people. FODI was a great opportunity to test the brand before investing fully in it.

A brand prototype. Yeah, we thought, we can do that.

How hard could it be?

Here was the plan:

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Okay, so that last one might seem like a bit of a leap. Carnivals are havens of escapism, right? You go there to get away from the realities of life.

But we’d subvert that, make it an anti-carnival — a place where consequences are revealed instead of forgotten. Instead of escaping reality, carnival goers would confronted with the impact of their investment choices immediately. While it might be nice to not think about something, we weren’t going to let that happen. Attendees would play laughing clowns, duck pond fishing and toss rings. Their performance (and some luck) would determine the outcome of the player’s moral impact on people, planet and animals. And if the player was digitally disinterested they’d get (sustainable, recyclable!) bookmarks that represented their outcomes, which they could use as entries in a competition to win a $2,000 Australian Ethical managed fund (another financial thing that probably needs better explaining).

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There. Sorted. Except…

Now that might look all well and good in a table, but — as we discovered — life is a little… messier. Not everything went to plan…including:


We had planned a wall would ask participants ‘how do you feel about your ability to impact the world?’, and they would respond by taking a small emoji badge that reflected their feelings. The idea was that we’d be able to get an idea of attendees collective sentiment by seeing which badges went first. Like a badge graph, right?

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The thing is, that required getting 1,500 badges properly placed onto bits of ribbon that would then go up on the wall — and we did not understand how long that process would take. Surprisingly, we’d never done such a thing before.

On the afternoon before FODI, we were sitting on the floor of the Opera House foyer pinning badges as fast as we could. But it wasn’t enough. We had to call in reinforcements from the For The People office and the Australian Ethical office — and even then, we only just finished before the Opera House staff kicked us out at 8pm.

The Outcome: it all came together in the end. The badge wall was incredibly popular, and helped to attract and engage passers-by.

Lesson: Man, fuck badges. We need to more carefully plan (and account for) labour intensive activities. And fuck trying to put sharp things in ribbon and have them stay up for a weekend.


As we mentioned, we needed to understand the stories we were telling at each game, and these stories were multilayered. Take the duck pond, do you know what ‘aquaculture’ is? Because we sure didn’t. We had to do a (metric) butt-tonne of research, and then figure out how to distil Australian Ethical’s position that fish is a sustainable protein source over meat and that’s why they invest in Tassal, a sustainable aquaculture company in Tasmania into bookmark-sized copy. That sentence might take a couple of read throughs. We feel you.

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It didn’t stop there, though — we then had to go back-and-forth with AE’s ethicists Stuart and Ella, to balance good storytelling with properly representing both Australian Ethical’s positions and the facts at hand. As you can see from the break-out box over to the right there, it was a… complicated process.

(By the way, aquaculture is basically ‘water farming’ — so for example, you breed and raise the fish you harvest in controlled conditions, instead of catching them in the wild.)

The Outcome: While it was more work than we anticipated, it was actually really enjoyable — both digging into the issues, and learning how to work best with Stuart and Ella (especially since we’d be doing much more of that soon).

The Lesson: Learning can be fun!


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Festival-goers could play Fete of the World through paper bookmarks or a bot on Facebook. To start the bot experience, people had to open Facebook Messenger and scan a big symbol we clearly placed on the instructions. People read the instructions… and then tried to scan the emoji badges.

(Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Most people easily figured out how to use the bot. We were just a bit shocked by the badge-scanners.)

The Outcome: We had anticipated a bit of confusion, which is part of the reason we’d planned to have Australian Ethical on-site to help out — but ultimately the bot users turned out to be much more self-sufficient than we anticipated.

Lesson: People are sometimes unpredictable and/or don’t know what a badges are, but will embrace technology if it’s intuitive.


Those bot instructions we mentioned? They had to sit somewhere. We ordered wooden a-frames to mount them on, as we couldn’t stick/adhere/nail or otherwise attach anything to the structure of the Opera House. (Hello, heritage listing.)

The frames that arrived were much bigger than we expected. Like… comically bigger.

The Outcome: While we were plunged into sorrow when the frames arrived, it turned out that we were probably the only ones bothered by it.

Lesson: Check with the supplier to make sure the shit you’re ordering isn’t novelty-sized.

Despite troubled some communication between man and machine, amusing proportion problems and intense #badgedramas… we did it.

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The stalls worked. The incredible Australian Ethical staff manning those stalls were able to articulate the issues to the FODI crowd. We actually got people to think about super.

Of course, most successes are qualified successes. Here’s how we felt we did in key areas:

We didn’t feature the Australian Ethical logo prominently (for a few different reasons), and we found from anecdotal feedback that there was some confusion as to who was putting on The Fete of the World.

For people who hadn’t paid attention before, telling the Australian Ethical story in a new way absolutely helped clarify why the fund exists and why what they do matters.

Storytelling turned out to be a super great way of communicating the difficult (and sometimes dry) realities of superannuation. The lesson here was ‘more o’ dat!’.

There was some scepticism from the Australian Ethical team about how many people would opt to use the Facebook Messenger bot — but as it turned out, it was very popular (in part because it allowed more introverted people to enjoy the experience without having to talk to anyone). This expeirence gave us a confidence boost to try some more tech-intensive things on the coming Australian Ethical website.

We love prototypes at For The People — but this was the first time we’d tried to prototype a brand. And we loved it. Putting early concepts out in front of real people and road-testing user interaction… this was easily our favourite part of the FODI experience. We may be reticent to organise a complex event any time soon but we’ll be prototyping brands a whole lot more on the future.

— —

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So what was Australian Ethical x For The People x the Festival of Dangerous Ideas? Complicated. Enlightening. Manic.

But most of all, it was our favourite sort of project — one that allowed us to produce work that we’re proud of, while still kicking our arses enough to teach us a tremendous amount.

Thanks to Amanda K Gordon.

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