Your Image Is Everything. Everything Is Your Image.

Posted May 17, 2011 by johnbeske
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Rainforest Action Network protest against Boise Cascade, July 2001

Bonnie Raitt (center with red hair) and others Rainforest Action Network supporters, July 2001 (I'm third from the left in the bottom row with my wife Marla by my side)

If the entire discipline of marketing could be distilled down to a single word, that word would be “image.” A lot of activists and anti-corporate types dislike this word because they feel it implies a contrived veneer covering up something more ordinary (or more sinister). But the concept is a lot more basic than that. Every company, every organization, every person has an image – the way that we are viewed by the outside world – and one of the biggest mistakes many new small businesses make is to fail to maintain control over that image.

Your image extends way beyond your logo or advertising campaign. Your image includes the way your company addresses criticism, the way your receptionist answers the phone, and the way your company truck drives through traffic. In these days of Twitter and Yelp, when literally everyone can publicly voice their opinion of you, it is critical to understand the importance of controlling the way you’re perceived by your customers and community.

The big companies all understand this, and they collectively spend billions of dollars each year carefully telling you exactly who they want you to believe they are. McDonald’s projects themselves as wholesome and delicious, Target as inexpensive yet really fun, Abercrombie and Fitch as the height of teen rebellion, Starbucks as your comfortable little neighborhood hangout. These perceptions don’t just happen. They are the result of a lot of intelligent and clever people spending their careers fretting over every last detail of their clients’ images, from the hairstyles of the actors in their TV commercials to the background colors on their packaging (early in my career, when I was designing retail campaigns for General Mills, I learned that Big G Cereals “owned” Cheerios yellow and Wheaties orange, and that those colors were not to be messed with by anyone. Period). 

For a green company, maintaining your image is further complicated by the fact that you have to be able to do everything as well as or better than your non-green competitors, while everyone from your harshest critics to your most ardent fans will be watching you like hawks to make sure you’re staying true to your (and their) environmental and social justice standards. Just like college English professors have to be careful to avoid any grammatical faux pas lest they face ridicule from their students, a green entrepreneur faces judgement for everything from the carbon footprint of their supply chain to the choice of dish detergent in the company snack room. Meanwhile, the company’s products have to fight for shelf space with the products of larger and more established companies that often don’t face the same level of scrutiny.

The good news is that because everyone is now a critic, it’s harder for companies to greenwash than it used to be. Most green consumers are pretty sophisticated about figuring who’s real and who isn’t, and if you’re real (and your products are good) you’ve got a better shot at their loyalty than the ones faking it.

One of my greatest teachers on the value of image for small business was a scrappy little rescued Jack Russell terrier named Eddie with whom I shared my life some twenty years ago. Eddie stood less that a foot tall and weighed all of 14 pounds, but he felt little kinship with the similarly sized toy poodles and shih tzus. He identified with the dobermans, shepherds and yellow labs that ran in packs through our neighborhood dog park, and he had a special trick that appeared to buy him some respect from the larger dogs. Whenever it came time for the important dog ritual of marking territory, Eddie would back up to a tree and climb up with his spindly back legs until he could go no higher. Only then would he pee. His message was that a big dog has just been here, so you’d better take him seriously.

We took Eddie’s lesson to heart a few years later when I worked at the pioneering environmental communications agency, Sustain. We were a small but determined shop, and our clients were nonprofit groups battling for people’s attention against much better funded greenwashing polluters. We often had to get our back legs pretty high up the tree to get respect from the big dogs.

A lot of our clients were every bit as scrappy as we were and some even more so. One of the most successful and most Jack Russell-like was the iconoclastic (the word iconoclast meaning literally “destroyer of images”) environmental group, Rainforest Action Network (RAN). By the time we got involved with them, they were in the middle of some serious image wars against some pretty tough opponents. One of these was Boise Cascade, a lumber and paper company that was actively involved in unsavory forest practices including chopping down virgin and old growth forests to make lumber and paper. RAN, a group that exists to protect old growth forests, ingeniously attacked them by going straight for Boise Cascade’s image. They organized letter writing campaigns and staged demonstrations, not against Boise Cascade directly, but against their most visible clients – Home Depot and Staples office supply, tarnishing their images by association and causing them to discontinue Boise Cascade’s offending products.

Boise Cascade responded by lobbying for the termination of RAN’s nonprofit status on the grounds that RAN’s demonstrations constituted an illegal form of civil disobedience. This move enraged many in the environmental community, particularly the rock star and RAN supporter Bonnie Raitt, who countered by offering to fund a very public civil disobedience in Boise Cascade’s headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Itasca.

At this point, our group, Sustain, was brought in to help with media and logistics, and we spent several days in planning sessions for the big event. On July 25, 2001, as Sustain’s video cameras rolled, Ms. Raitt and a carefully chosen group of celebrities and environmental, social justice and religious leaders (including my wife!) staged a telegenic press conference and protest where they ceremoniously trespassed on Boise Cascade’s property for a few moments before they were arrested and loaded into police vehicles. As they drove away, I raced the videotape to a downtown editing studio to prepare our footage for the evening news. Bonnie and company spent a few hours in jail and then straight into the pages of Rolling Stone and People, while the video played on CNN, Entertainment Tonight and MTV.

A few months later, Boise Cascade announced that they were changing their name to Boise, and they introduced a whole new logo and image. They also cleaned up some of their practices, so Home Depot and Staples would carry their products again. A giant corporation was humbled and compelled into a new direction by a small group of scrappy activists and a rock star.

So when you’re pondering the image you want to want to project to the world, you might want to let yourself be guided by the image of little Eddie backing into the tree to let the big dogs know he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Community in the new green world.

Posted May 10, 2011 by johnbeske
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I’ve always been fascinated  with concept of community. We’re social animals, and most of us feel most comfortable and confident when surrounded by people we know and care about.

Our communities have traditionally been made up of our families and close friends, our coworkers, the folks in our churches, schools and neighborhoods. We say “hi” to these people in the street, we meet them for coffee, we gossip with them in the office. These communities are important, and I hope you have some of them in your life.

Now, though, thanks in part to social networking technologies, we are creating whole new communities with people who share our interests and ideals. Now our friends, confidants, and allies may be scattered all over the world – people we may have never even met in person, but with whom we communicate on a regular basis through a myriad of new technology channels. Or they may be right in our own hometown – people who think like us and share our values and dreams, yet people we may never have met if not for Facebook or WordPress or LinkedIn. These communities can manifest themselves in something as simple as a meetup at a local restaurant or as bold as the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

There are thousands of these shared interest communities around the world that are all organized around making their lives healthier and their futures brighter. Some groups are working to clean up a local waterway or turn an old factory into a neighborhood center. Others are lobbying to protect wild spaces or family farmers. Together, all these communities are creating a beautiful vision of a place I call the New Green World.

I am a graphic designer and marketing communications expert by trade. My role is to help green companies and organizations share their stories and present their best image to the world. I’ve been doing this for years. I love what I do, I’m good at it, and I feel very blessed to be able to spend my life doing something so fulfilling.

I’m also a bit of a community organizer by avocation. I work on a lot of different issues, but I mostly consider myself to be a sustainability activist, which is to say that I really want to live in a healthy and compassionate world that’s going to be around for a long time, and I’ve committed myself to do whatever I can to make that happen. I am a part of several different communities that are contributing in their own ways to the New Green World, and I’ve even helped start some of them.

This is a blog about communications and community and how one the former can help build the latter. Communications is what I do and community is what is necessary to create the world we all want to live in.

In the coming weeks and months, this blog will examine different ways to communicate across communities. We’ll discuss how to promote green products and services. We’ll explore effective ways to share your ideas and make them grow into realities. We’ll show you great ways to tell your own story and put your best face out to the world.

If there is a message you want to share or a community you want to find or help grow, please stick around. I also invite you to subscribe, comment or whatever. Let’s see if we can start a little community here.