In 2012, author Thomas Kolster released his first book, Goodvertising. Eight years ago, the thinking in the book was revolutionary, and the Danish branding expert traded on his insights from people like David Droga of Droga5 and Hannah Jones, then CSO of Nike, on stages around the world, preaching the gospel of purpose and impact.But today, the world is a much different place. Brands have become global institutions, replacing the leadership void of traditional structures. With this awakening and newfound influence, the idea of brand purpose, according to Kolster, is changing.In his new book, The Hero Trap, Kolster essentially smashes his original thinking and issues a crucial warning to brands. Beyond “goodwashing,” Kolster explores how brands try to overcorrect, knowing their station in the world, to become heroes—and unwittingly (or knowingly) being selfish in the process.Adweek chatted with Kolster about the new book, why his point of view and perspective have changed, and what the new brand playbook is.What did you learn since Goodvertising that made you decide to go this direction with The Hero Trap?
Kolster: I always wanted to prove the business case of purpose. But suddenly, there was something that wasn’t working. It was likely an evolution, but that was not how it came to me in the beginning. It felt like every brand was flocking into [the purpose] space. Now, every brand was suddenly pitching themselves as the Nelson Mandelas and Greta Thunbergs of business. Suddenly, what was very niche and difficult to find when I did the research for Goodvertising was all over the place.Three years ago, I was on a getaway to reflect, and I thought, “Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions [about purpose].” That’s where we got to today and, in many ways, goes against what I used to believe in.Interestingly, you’re honest about the change in your thinking.
I should be happy about the fact that the message of Goodvertising came true, but I think the methodology from the beginning was flawed because people aren’t buying into these big “whys” of purpose. What are the proof points of purpose? Brands can try to outdo each other on innovation, but that never works. When you ask yourself how many brands have actually played a meaningful role in your life—either made you wiser, smarter, more connected or healthier—there weren’t many. It was difficult to find those cases.For better or for worse, brands have become—and continue to replace—institutions. Are we setting precedents and outsized, unrealistic expectations?
These big global brands pit themselves as these world-saving heroes. As soon as you’re up on that pedestal and say, “We believe in diversity,” for example, you’re almost 100% certain to fail. Moving the goalposts is never just one thing. If you claim you are a sustainable company, it’s never only one thing. It does seem that people are becoming increasingly critical towards these companies, and the pressure on brands to act on [various subjects] is more urgent. The difficult part is how to do it now.You mention diversity. [P&G CBO] Marc Pritchard is in the book, and that brand has done some interesting things related to race.
It’s so dangerous to stand up as a brand and say, “We believe in racial justice,” because, again, how do you live up to that? The approach I like is saying, “Who can we become?” And I think that we have to look inwards and try to fight some of those biases and stereotypes, and I’d love brands to be out there to help me do that. If you look at a piece like “The Talk,” it made me look inward and think about what I could do with my biases. So I think that’s the needed approach rather than putting yourself high up on a throne.Continue Reading