Branding is a thing typically left to corporations with the money to invest in coordinated marketing plans, but Jerry Stifelman and Sami Grover don’t believe it ought to be that way. The Change is the name of their firm, and they are bringing brand-building services to nonprofits and “good-for-the-world” businesses.
Visitors to the company website are immediately confronted with the motto: “The truth is your best tool.” Making use of an organization’s conviction, personality, and sense of mission are key to brand-building in their view. They conceive of their free-market activism as apolitical, and feel right at home working with folks whose politics might not mesh perfectly with their own. Such a stance caught my confused eye here at Groundswell, and I invited our friend Marc from Osocio to participate in interviewing Jerry and Sami, in order to get a better picture of their work and their approach.
Osocio: What brought you to designing for good-for-the-world organizations?
Jerry Stifelman: I was doing a lot of work for youth-oriented brands like Puma, labels that derived their appeal from a sense of authenticity. I’m good at authenticity, because that’s what turns me on. To create something I find some core truth that works for me. Yet when that truth is overlaid onto a brand that’s essential mission is to sell stuff at the highest profit –it becomes uh, what do you call it, oh that’s right, a fucking lie. I started to think about this around the same time I started becoming hyper-aware of all the problems we’re facing in the world. And SUV’s had a lot to do with this. Being surrounded by SUV’s really set me off. I did a lot of SUV flyering at first.
Sami Grover: I’m no designer, at least not by background. My educational background is in language and linguistics, and my professional background is in publishing, but on the marketing side. I’ve always had an interest in sustainability, both on a personal and professional basis. I found The Change as I was moving to The States (for love). I’d just started writing for TreeHugger, and was looking for ways to align my professional life with good-for-the-world causes on a more full-time basis. Luckily Jerry seemed to see the need for a full-time sustain-a-geek and brought me onboard.
Groundswell: Do you see your work as part of a wider social movement?
JS: I see it as part of a wider movement in general– bigger, I think, than a social movement, which I tend to think of as a very self-conscious effort. The way I put it is that there is a crisis of survival in the developing world. There are serious issues of hunger, AIDS, and increasing natural threats due to climate change. Meanwhile in the West, there’s a crisis of meaning. All these people who supposedly have everything — McMansions, nice cars, flat screen TVs, Dyson vacuum cleaners– they’re all on anti-depressants. They and others are thirsty for meaning — that’s why yoga classes, kanji tattoos, meditation seminars, Barack Obama, and commerce that seems to do good, and stuff like that are so popular. I think that these two crises — one about survival, one about meaning — can only be solved when they interact. And the interaction is happening all over the place, more and more.
Disagreements abound over what changes we want to see and how we can bring them about, but at least on a macro, values level, there seems to be some kind of convergence going on.
SG: Definitely it’s part of a movement in the sense that there is a shift occurring. I’m increasingly meeting people from all walks of life, with all kinds of political persuasions, and all kinds of professional backgrounds, who are coming around to the idea that there is more to life than profits and pension plans, and who are beginning to realize the full extent of the environmental destruction we have reaped. Now that’s not to say there is one movement, in the traditional sense. Disagreements abound over what changes we want to see and how we can bring them about, but at least on a macro, values level, there seems to be some kind of convergence going on.
Groundswell: The Change focuses on free market activism. Is this an intentionally political stance?
JS: I’d say it’s an intentionally apolitical stance. Commerce is the biggest aggregator of human behavior. It’s a big part of how we relate to and share with each other. Even anti-corporate organizations like “Are you generic” and “Adbusters” convey via commerce. For us, it’s about having an impact. And that’s where we feel most likely to do it. The way we put it is that in a free market world, change needs to come from the demand end.
SG: Until we can come up with something better, we live in a capitalist society and we need to learn and use the ways of that society to effect change. That is not to say that we can change the world through shopping alone – we’d all be better off if we bought less, shopped less, drove less and lived, voted and protested more. But for the time being most of us will still continue to buy products and use services within the market system. The more we can encourage people to support responsible companies, the more we can create a space for change on the political level too. Beyond simply encouraging more “ethical consumerism” though, I do believe that branding and communications can play a role in adding value to each experience – if we truly stop and savor that cup of coffee, or covet and appreciate that organic, handwoven clothing, maybe we can learn to not buy 15 more of the same. That may sound slightly counterintuitive, but materialism is not necessarily a case of too much love for material things, but rather a lack of real love or appreciation for the things we buy, or the people who make them, leading us to only want more and more crap.
The Change for Stand-Up.org – More from this campaign.
Groundswell: Spirituality informs most of your team’s approach. How do you think that plays out in your work? Or, how does the variety affect the organization?
JS: It affects us in that everyone who works at The Change is really into it. For Rachael and Chelsea, that motivation to be part of the change we wish to see in the world definitely comes from their conviction as Christians. For Sami, I think it’s more about issues of morality and simply intelligence — there’s so many smart, innovative ways to make this world better — it’s stupid to make it worse. For me, it’s part of a warrior ethic. But in terms of the work itself, I don’t think there’s any effect — because the tone I set as creative director is to root everything in the truths of the client – or as we say, our accomplice. I hate HATE ideas that are simply clever. We do stuff that BELONGS to the brand. Aside from our ethical ideology, that’s the biggest thing that sets us apart from our professional peers.
SG: I like the idea of my belief in intelligence being a spiritual conviction Jerry. Ultimately we all believe that there is goodness to be found in all human beings, and that goodness can be unlocked by strong communications that resonate with people’s values.
Groundswell: Does the client or the issue inform your design sense more?
JS: We’re brand strategy geeks — so it depends. If the client is the only one driving the issue, then the issue will probably become the brand. This would be the case with the I WILL EVOLVE campaign that we did for the Sierra Club or the work we’ve done for World Fair Trade Day. However, if it’s an issue coming at people from a lot of directions, then we’d tend to be informed more by the client. For example, if we were working for say, Amnesty International, I think we’d be looking for ways to express the issue while leveraging and expressing Amnesty’s heritage and persona.
A big part of what motivates me personally, and I think most of us at The Change, is connecting the dots. It’s not constructive if people just live in their issue bubbles.
SG: I tend to think they are often one and the same. We almost always look to talk not only about what someone is doing, but why they are doing it. And usually that comes down to deep-seated personal convictions and interests. The best thing about this approach is it’s much more effective too. Whether you’re a non-profit or a for-profit, your message is going to be more believable if you and your staff have a demonstrable, personal connection and passion with the topic at hand.
Osocio: Are you able to work for brands who’s political thoughts aren’t similar to your own ideas?
JS: It doesn’t matter if they’re similar — it matters if they can work together toward making the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic. For example, I’m very comfortable advocating a free market — but in my vision of a free market, we need to have some perspective about private wealth. So I could easily see working really well for something associated with socialism or anarchy.
SG: Hmm. I don’t think we’d be able to work with brands whose political thoughts are diametrically opposed to our own. If the KKK starts an organic robe store, we won’t be bidding for the contract. But I am 100% sure we work with brands whose views are not all the same as ours – from abortion to biofuels to vegetarianism to global trade, there are enough controversies in this world to ensure that we’ll never reach 100% agreement with our clients, or between ourselves, as to how to make the world better. We have turned down clients in the past though – often this is not just because we disagree with a specific element of their business or operations, but also because we lack confidence in their ability or willingness to think through what they are doing with an ethical mindset, or to talk about their decisions openly and transparently.
Osocio: What do you think of the quality of nonprofit campaigns?
JS: Usually, not so much. In my experience, nonprofits tend to be even more risk-aversive than corporations — which leads them to focus on the meticulousness of their message, as if success would be measured by a powerpoint presentation demonstrating how they hit on every bit of their message. But the biggest risk in any kind of public communication is the risk of not being noticed. That risk they tend to ignore.
…the biggest risk in any kind of public communication is the risk of not being noticed.
SG: Variable is probably the best word I can think of. And that goes for many for-profit entities that are trying to change the world too. I think many of us who believe in positive change care so much about “our issue” that we spend our time lecturing, or even preaching, as to why others should come over to our way of thinking. Sometimes that kind of polemic approach works, but more often than not, it falls on deaf ears. What works better (and this goes for arguments in your local bar as much as it does for non-profit communications) is to look for places where your issues intersect with people’s existing, more universal values.
Osocio: Reading your mission: It seems that fundraising is the main target for the Change Brand. Isn’t awareness the most important starting point?
JS: If by fundraising, you mean making companies grow — I’d posit that the growth we’re provoking is largely stimulated by awareness that we’re creating. The most common way for people to act on their awareness is economically. Even a choice NOT to buy something is an economic act.
SG: I think I may understand your question slightly differently to Jerry – I presume you are referring to our argument on the website that non-profits “are de-facto brands that face fund-raising competition from other likeminded organizations.” I would certainly agree that awareness and education are often as important, if not more so, than fundraising – and that may be good reason for us to update our copy (Jerry and I will be sure to discuss that later). But in terms of brand strategy, awareness and education at least as competitive an arena as fund raising. Whether you are trying to inspire someone to write to their senator or to write a check, you will still be competing for mind-space and dolars both with other non-profits, and with the general noise of a busy, commercialized world. Anything you can do to both distill your message and to distinguish yourself as a trusted and engaging messenger is going to be crucial to your success.
The Change for Fair Trade Resource Network. The Change designed the logo, website and promotional materials. More from this campaign.
Groundswell: What do you think of the emphasis on sustainability in design being the focus of questions about design ethics? Are we on target or focusing too narrowly?
JS: If the point of bringing one’s vocation as a designer in line with one’s ethics as a human being I can’t see that as being too narrow. All the bad shit that humans do in the world is usually permitted by compartmentalizing. A churchgoing man who loves his children and teaches them the golden rule is frequently the same guy who runs the power company that struggles against EPA regulations intended to make the air safer for children. People put their ethics in a box and take ‘em out when it’s convenient. So I think focusing on behaving ethically in all areas of life is key to being part of the solution, not the problem. It underlies everything we do at The Change.
SG: I’d agree with Jerry. But I’d add that if “sustainability” is seen as too narrow a focus for design ethics, then the problem is most likely a too narrow definition of “sustainability”. Sustainability, for me at least, is about much more than just environmental protection, or even economic and social justice. It is about finding a whole new way to relate to each other and to the world around us, so we as a species can become the best we can be. That’s the best chance we have of sustaining ourselves (i.e. surviving).
Sustainability, for me at least, is about much more than just environmental protection, or even economic and social justice.
So for me, sustainability incorporates environmental concerns, it incorporates efficiency, it incorporates fairness, and justice, and charity. But it also incorporates pleasure, and fun, and taste, and respect, and transparency, and originality, and rock n roll, and so much more… The list really is endless.