John Rooks is an ambitious guy. He thinks the institution of marketing is broken, and he has the fix. (The thing is, I'm pretty sure he's right.)
John is the founder, president and creative principal at The Soup Group, a consulting and marketing agency headquartered here in my city of Portland, Maine. He is the author of "More than Promote: A Monkeywrencher's Guide to Authentic Marketing," in which he lays out his philosophy of using marketing budgets to tell a company or product's story and also to do something good for the world.
John came up with the idea for the White Bike project, a test run of an idea to place a bunch of bikes around Portland for use by anyone who knows the code that opens all the separate locks. He led the Soap's work to craft a long-term strategic plan for Clif Bar and its massive stakeholder engagement project with Interface, the global green carpeting giant. He tells me that his latest project, Authenticating Real, "measures the authenticity gap between what companies say and what they actually do in order to improve their business performance."
I got to know John after following him on Twitter and calling him up out of the blue one day to grab a beer. He's one of the most original green thinkers I have met, and I usually walk away from a meeting with him with some cool new perspective on something.
He is married and lives with two children outside Portland. Here are seven questions answered by John Rooks.
MNN: What's wrong with marketing?
John Rooks: Everything. I have an abusive relationship with marketing. I yell at it that it’s no good and will never amount to anything. It stomps out and slams the door. “FINE!” I yell.
I’m not an artist, but I imagine my relationship with marketing is not unlike that of a textile artist and the textile. My goal is to bend marketing, twist and manipulate into something else — something that it is not necessarily supposed to be or comfortable being.
My goal is sustainability. Marketing is not sustainability, but it’s the only tool I have. At its best, marketing points at sustainability. It says: “Look! Over here!” I want marketing to be the Thing Itself – to be The Real.
I look at marketing like a skater looks at an empty pool. I see the potential for it to be something other than an eyesore.
Portland, Maine, doesn't jump out as a likely place for a eco-hip marketing agency to be. How did the SOAP Group end up here?
On the contrary, it’s perfect (New Governor #BadForME LePage aside). We have access to amazing artists, designers, storytellers, craftspeople, etc. We get to be inspired by nature. We have weird people, smart people, hard-working people and passionate people.
But here’s what we don’t have: a lot of clients. Ninety percent of our clients are elsewhere. What SOAP does doesn’t translate for most Maine businesses. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of call for large-scale “What We Do” in Maine right now.
I still wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Which large company is doing it right? And by doing it right, I mean, what companies are spending their marketing budget in ways that not only tell their story but also make the world a better place, all without greenwashing? Are there any?
It’s a cliché but: Patagonia’s got the formula dialed in pretty tight. Their Footprint Chronicles is a great instance of transparency and of pushing the dialogue. You can dig into the site to understand the negative impact of a backpack’s environmental footprint, but what you get is an understanding about the complexity of it all and a peek into the community where the backpack is made. They push the conversation (what’s a footprint?) deeper than most companies and engage in what some would consider radical transparency.
What's the difference between green and greener?
Green is good. Greener is next. Green is a fixed. Greener is moving.
A green company can be inauthentic (doing good things for the marketing halo for example). Green is CSR [corporate social responsibility] for your company. Greener is CSR with your company.
“Green” can be co-opted; A moving target can’t. We need to embrace it — green or sustainability or whatever we’re calling it — as a moving target and hang on. The companies that understand and plan for that will thrive.
Does the world need saving?
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?
The “earth” will likely be fine — it will find stasis on its own. “Will we be around to enjoy it?” might be the question. We will, in some mutated form or another, I suppose.
Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?
I don’t know her very well, but I’m a HUGE fan. She runs a nonprofit in Boston called Seeding Labs. Seeding Labs gathers used lab equipment from the basements of universities and corporations and gets them to scientists in developing countries. The impact is impressive.
(Shea's note: I invited John to make up and answer his own question here) What does real sustainability look like?
Great question! I think most of what passes for sustainability is bolt-on. Real sustainability integrates corporate goals and sustainability goals and aligns them. Most CSR programs are noble distractions — good things to do, but end up distracting companies from their potential.
My latest project, Authenticating Real, tries to answer the question by measuring the Authenticity Gap of corporations.
That was totally self-promotional and contrived. And authentic. I’m ashamed.
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