Stewardship: Brand Equity for Tomorrow’s World.


It’s a curious fact that Swiss watch manufacturers have grown rich by suggesting it’s better to inherit their products than trying to purchase them.

“Don’t buy a watch for your son; he’s going to inherit yours,” whispers one classy display ad. “You’ll never actually own one; you’re just passing it on,” simpers the caption below the photo of a father helping an impossibly well-groomed son do his homework.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the undoubted power of these ads as the snobbery that comes with inherited money – or even the near-universal desire to own a working antique whose value appreciates yearly.

The underlying psychological appeal is important for every one of us. Switzerland’s canny marketers have tapped into the enduring power of stewardship, which drives our individual and collective behaviour in more ways than we can conceive.

You don’t buy a Breguet to know what time it is. Truth is, a $20 digital watch does the job better. We know Breguet have been making watches since before the French Revolution, and today even its modern watches fetch astonishing prices at auction. That counts.

What the ad really tells us is: “Passing on a gift is the best thing you can do with your life”. In fact, stewardship is rapidly becoming a universal value, underlying not just the world’s most desired brands, but the evolving social consciousness of humanity as a whole.

Understanding the power of stewardship is a required skill not just for luxury brand kings. It’s also a necessary attribute for leaders and future-focused executives taking their business to a much higher level based on values. The level where corporate social responsibility and sustainable growth are no longer just labels, but the keys to creative and durable human endeavour.

Stewardship forces us to recognise we’re not the centre of the universe and that we will die: we’re simply links in the chain reaching toward future generations. Our duty is to “pass on” what we hold or inherit. While heritage is backward-looking and reflexive, stewardship is future-facing and dynamic.

From a business communications perspective, this all sounds counter-intuitive. You’d expect that, in a world driven by “me brands”, “just do it” personal gratification, and the pressure to accumulate dizzying quantities of personal stuff and personal experiences, stewardship would be a loser.

Yet in terms of brand equity, it’s proving a winner.

“Pass it On” is the powerful battle-cry of the British chef Jamie Oliver, whose TV campaign to improve nutrition habits and reduce obesity in America, the UK and elsewhere, has made him a hero to many, and villain to some. Jamie’s stewardship drive is for human health through better nutrition.

His “Breguet watch” is a handful of simple recipes that give ordinary people the ability to produce healthy food for their families. The introduction to his ‘Ministry of Food’ cookbook contains a contract in which readers promise to pass on every recipe they learn. In a memorable TED lecture, Jamie described his battles to slim down America, reducing heart disease and obesity through the “power of food.”

There’s nothing wrong with straightforward philanthropy – and charitable donors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have taken it to previously unimagined heights. But the “giving” is still quite distinct from the “getting”. After all, the Nobel Peace Prize was financed by dynamite sales. So there’s now a more holistic concept doing the rounds, called social good.

Rather than trying to solve the problem of the “CSR tail wagging the corporate dog” as companies invent good and green things to do to please stakeholders, social good goes to the next level. It comes at least partly under the aegis of the UN’s Global Pulse initiative and seeks to revive the (largely forgotten) Millennium Development Goals, with the help of social media tools.

Thinkers such as Simon Mainwaring are preaching the benefits of business collaboration, not competition. “We need an entire army of companies to work together to build a better world within the next few decades,” writes Mainwaring. While acknowledging the abiding power of competition, ‘social good thinking’ seems to be pointing to a world where the fundamental duty of corporations is stewardship, if tomorrow’s ten billion consumers are to have a chance.

So a new generation of stewardship thinkers are now tapping into a vein that has been worked for decades by the environmental movement – with some astonishing results. If you want the “meta-meta” definition of global stewardship, then read on.

For years, Greens preached about intergenerational equity and the need for each of us to leave the world a better place than when we found it. Though the cause was worthy, it was (like much environmental thinking) just a bit dull. That was a pity, because good stewardship arguments lay concealed in this discourse.

Suddenly, though, everything has changed. The global concept of intergenerational equity at planetary level has a sexy new name: the Anthropocene. It was invented in 2,000 by the chemist Paul Crutzen and made the cover of the Economist May 28th, with the strapline: “Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.”

The Anthropocene means that mankind’s activities are shaping and changing the world on a scale comparable with the events that ushered in great geological transformations across aeons of time. The planet is becoming a man-made garden – or cesspit. In fact humanity’s actions are bringing our own age, the Holocene, to a premature conclusion.

Anthropocene-based analysis shows how human intervention changes the gaseous composition of our planet. Today, 40% of all the nitrogen in the proteins we humans eat comes from artificial fertilizers first developed in the 19th century. Without this nitrogen, half of us would die.

Now we are wreaking similar changes in the earth’s composition of another vital gas – CO2. And if a post-Holocene world is to sustain 10 billion inhabitants, we’ll need to vastly increase the amount of available energy — perhaps by dramatically increasing the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere.

Anthropocene thinking finally and irrefutably gives the lie to climate change denial and buttresses the “precautionary principle” which in turn is based on the stewardship idea – now clad in new scientific respectability.

This is important. Just like buying car insurance to protect you against future accidents you don’t know for sure will happen, you prudently take out a policy – rather than ranting that accidents won’t ever happen to you because you’re a responsible driver.

In the exactly same way we can’t avoid taking out insurance against human-induced climate change by changing our ways – precisely to stop the car-wreck we trust won’t smash our grandchildren. Now we know that human activity changes the world, let’s use that power to change it for the better.

So what am I doing about all this stewardship business? What will I do about brand equity? I don’t own a Swiss watch – and so I guess my son won’t either.

Yet under Britain’s curious property laws I do “own” a tiny fragment of an ecosystem more delicate, complex and precious than the rarest Breguet watch. I treasure this tiny piece of planet earth, and dream of passing it on better than I found it.

It’s a trout stream. Or more accurately, a chalk stream – a miracle of alkaline fertility that sustains a dizzying hierarchy of life, from invertebrates to the grey fuzzball family of young swans and the azure flash of the darting kingfisher’s wing. Generally, it suits me to join the others moaning about environmental degradation, farm waste and water abstraction in this, the worst drought in 30 years.

But my river contains more plump, healthy trout than I’m willing to talk about, just in case like me you are a dedicated fly-fisherman. There’s an American short story by Richard Brautigan, written in 1961. Trout Fishing in America features a surreal scene where the author finds a trout stream in the back of a junk-yard, stacked up in sections behind broken cars and abandoned cookers. The sections cost $6.50 per foot. He sees the living water and his soul is nourished.

I feel just the same as I stand midstream in my waders, scything the ranunculus waterweed to create tiny pools and eddies from which the trout will come flashing up to take a passing mayfly. Or I’m thinking about the water voles as I repair the bank, trim vegetation, or just remove the trash that others have thrown in upstream. Work done, I might just get some time to fish.

So my stewardship isn’t passing on a Breguet watch to a son who (for the meantime) doesn’t fish either: it’s rescuing a few short sections of trout stream from the junk-yard of daily life. And making ready to pass it on.

Richard House

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