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Home » Rob Schuham: Brand in Common at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Rob Schuham: Brand in Common at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Rob Schuham – TRANSCRIPT

It was about a year ago that I asked myself, “What would I try if I had no fear?” Now, I’m a bit of a risk-taker in general. I’ve sort of grown up doing different kinds of sports, but I never really posed that hard of a question to myself, because I never really thought about fear before, so it never came up for me.

It’s kind of a heavy question to ask yourself if you’re just a marketer. I mean, that’s all I really am. I grew up inside large ad agencies. I ended up starting a few of my own. Both are still growing and vibrant and doing well. I think there are some people in the audience here today from one of them at least. I was having a lot of fun. I was pretty inspired. I was working on brands like these, doing some really amazing things, some breakthrough work. I was actually doing some programs that I thought were kind of giving back to the world.

One of my companies, I was working on the Pepsi Refresh project – some of you may be familiar with it. With another one, I was working on the Cliff Bar Two Mile Challenge, Ford’s Green Drive program, in addition to all the other stuff that we were doing. And I was having a blast. I was traveling around the world; I was seeing different places; I was having all sorts of different experiences. This actually is a picture of me at Wukesong Arena in Beijing the season before last, when I was cheering on the Nuggets at a Nuggets vs Pacers exhibition game. This says “Go Nuggets.” This is actually what I punched into Google Translator, and I’m really not sure what it says. It could say, like, “Chilled Lizard Beaks” for all I know. Somebody will let me know at some point in time.

But shortly after this trip, I had one of those crazy moments – actually, it wasn’t really a crazy moment, it was a very sort of rock-me-back-on-my-heels moment. One day I was home, and this kid comes in the door, and he said, “Dad, I hate marketing.” And I was like “What?! You kidding me? You seen the roof over your head?” You know.

But my next reaction was, wait a second, this is great! My kid’s going to go to the beat of his own drummer, he’s going to walk his own path. He’s going to do what he wants to do. He’s not going to get into marketing just because his old man does it. But it was bothering me a little bit, and I asked him to unpack it. And this is what he said. He said, “Dad, it doesn’t benefit anyone except for the companies selling things. What’s it doing for the world?” Whew. He’s 14; he’s, like, never said anything like this before.

And I’ll tell you, it was a real “ouch” moment for me. And even though I’d been doing a lot of this stuff for a lot of big brands out there, and sort of checking the boxes and doing the right thing, and then, you know, cruising off on trip number 47 of the year, and whatever. It clearly wasn’t quite enough.

So I asked myself, what could I do with some of these marketing skill-sets that I had developed over the last, like, almost quarter of a century, and more importantly, what could I do with sort of my knowledge of brands? And what could I do that, in addition to doing these things for these giant corporations, which were all important and represented incremental gains, and as Hunter identified – I don’t know where she is – you know, hypocrisy is a start, but often, some of the things that we did for these companies became enculturated and actually became real, live, living, breathing programs that people rallied behind.

But was it enough? And around that time, Alex and I were getting together, and we had been voraciously devouring books and information and data, and sort of noticing around us at that time when we were starting Fearless Cottage that we’ve really hit the edges of our ecosystem, and you’ve seen this demonstrated tonight several times. “What was frugal is now wasteful. What was once smart is now dumb. And what was once business as usual must become business as unusual.” Now, don’t get me wrong I’m a capitalist. It’s the most powerful force on Earth. And it’s lifted billions of people out of poverty.

But we know it’s in crisis. This slide’s an interesting one to me. I mean, it really shows you how the seemingly impenetrable and bulletproof middle class of America has been turned inside out and upside down over the last three years during this economic crisis which we’re still battling our way out of.

A moment on corporations: Now, we’ve heard a lot about Walmart. And Walmart is not necessarily the big behemoth, bad company anymore; they’re getting sort of harder and harder to hate. But Walmart I’m bringing up right now because I think it’s important to note that Walmart is a 408 billion dollar company. It’s actually at a size where it rivals nations. In fact, Walmart is the 19th largest economy, give or take one or two standings, if you’re comparing it on a GDP basis to other countries. That means that Walmart alone is larger than 175 other countries. It’s insane. Bigger than Norway – that’s about 381 billion in GDP.

But look at Royal Dutch Shell. Even at 285 billion dollars in sales a year, they’re actually larger than the United Arab Emirates. So it really gives you an idea that corporations are becoming as powerful as governments, meaning that corporations need to start making better and better decisions. And if you’re that big, don’t you have some sort of societal obligation in some way, shape or form? I’m so glad that Matt Groening was brought up in a video before. I just spoke because it will give us a frame of reference here – a little sandman action.

But coming off that last slide, the question that we asked ourselves is, can you really give back in a meaningful and scalable way if you’re only about capitalism-driven competitiveness? And think about it: You’re a Fortune 500 company; you’re a Fortune 100 company. How much of your net worth as a company, how much of your time, how much of your energy can you really give towards social obligations? You can’t give much; you’re under tremendous shareholder value; you must show profitability over time; you must show growth. So is a corporate responsibility department enough? Probably not. But it’s a start.

And it’s not a bad start. But can you really, really achieve the kind of scale and meaningful sort of give-back that you need for society? Not really. So we started to ask ourselves: Maybe we can get away from competition. Maybe we can get away from competitiveness. Maybe we can start to look at it in reverse.

Maybe we can start to think about it from a collaborative fashion. And that’s when the ball really started rolling for us. You see, social challenges require socially-minded behavior. Progressive brands like Whole Foods, Patagonia – thank you Casey wherever you are – and Starbucks are indeed unlocking shared value by collaborating with their stakeholders. And they’re redesigning many aspects of their business and we just saw that.

But they’re brands, and don’t forget, I’m a brand guy, Alex is a brand guy, this is what we study; this is what we are experts in. We look at brands themselves, and we say they are still limited by the legacy of an old design. So how can a brand and its brand value be shared in some way, shape or form? Not so much the organization, but the brand that the organization is standing behind. This is an interesting chart Google – about a decade old. This is a market cap value slide. If you look to the right, where that lighter bar is, that lighter bar actually represents brand value. It’s intangible, but it’s measurable on a market cap basis. Look at Coca-Cola, it’s been around for 120 years. Fully half of its market cap is brand value.

We see gold in that value. We think that brand value is incredibly valuable – just to repeat it. If you start to add up all the Fortune 500 companies’ brand value, it probably amounts to trillions of dollars. But where is it going? It only accrues to the company and its shareholders. Not to society. Not to the environment. And certainly not to future generations.

So we asked ourselves, could unlocking a brand be a game-changer? So, we’re a group of designers, we’re a group of creatives. And in our studies of brands, we looked at the very, sort of, symbol of the brands themselves. And one of the most locked aspects of a brand is this little thing called a trademark – the TM, or a copyright.

And we said, hmm, is there something we can do with that trademark that might unlock the brand? So we came up with something called CM. Simple. It stands for “collaborative mark.” Now, what is a collaborative mark? If you’ve seen some of these TED slides earlier, the TED shows, you saw a little thing called “CC,” or Creative Commons. We decided to rip a page out of that playbook.

And the idea there with Creative Commons is if you’re an artist or a designer, and you have artwork, and you want to sort of release it to the world without charging royalties, you can do that under the aegis of a CC mark. So we asked ourselves, what if we did that with a brand? What if we opened it up? Could we start to have that brand feel a little bit more collaborative? And then we said, why not? Told our attorneys we were going to do it. They scratched their heads, sent us a lot of bills for studying how to do this thing. Didn’t really give us a great answer, but it was good enough for us.

So, tonight – and actually we’ve already introduced this a little while ago – I’m going to show you the world’s first collaborative brand, and it’s called “COMMON.” And we’re really excited about it. Now, what is a collaborative brand? I’ll give you a frame of reference for it. Our goal with this collaborative brand is to start unlocking brand value. Much like TED has sort of loosened the reins on its brand, first by developing a robust website and letting people download talks for free – I think there’s now been about 400 million TED Talks viewed, so it’s significant what the TED brand had been able to do. And then recently what they’ve done is they’ve unlocked the notion of the live experience.

It used to be that, you know, only 1,200 people could actually experience a live TED. And now here we are at TEDx; there are 1,700 people in this room – actually it’s probably about 1,200 by my count because I was in the event business. Some of them have left, they missed the speech. Too bad for them. But TEDx is a great example of how this is done.

Virgin’s another one. Virgin’s played across multiple products and service categories. “Virgin” the brand really stands for a set of expectations – consumer expectations and a set of values. And when you experience a Virgin plane flight, when you talk on a Virgin Mobile phone, when you’re in the UK and you’re drinking a Virgin Cola, you actually sort of get that same experience as you move across different product and service categories. Virgin has 300 companies right now. And this is something that we actually look at, both of these brands, and we say, wow, this can be done. This can be done in a really powerful way, and this can be done in a really scalable way.

So what is COMMON again? It’s common purpose, it’s common goals, and it’s common values. It’s a brand to encompass products, businesses and those values of the common community. It’s a brand that’s going to be community designed, community owned and community directed.

When I say community owned, this is where it starts to get really interesting. We’re going to develop a co-op. So our COMMON community, it’s all going to be involved in a co-op in some way, shape or form so that everybody in this COMMON community that is involved in this brand can actually benefit from it in some way, shape or form. And that might be in the form of a dividend check, but more importantly, it’s going to be benefiting society as a whole. Nobody’s going to try and get rich off this brand.

What we really want to do is create a brand that’s for the people and for society. And ultimately what we want to do is give creatives and social entrepreneurs the chance to design and rapidly prototype new ventures. And the way that we see this going is that underneath this brand, we’re going to spin off hundreds if not thousands of small companies, each one to solve a local, small problem.

Now, can you imagine if we started to daisy-chain and link all these companies together? Across a country? Across a planet? What that could possibly accomplish and what that could possible achieve? We think it could be tremendous. So what are we right now? COMMON is a community of designers, tinkerers, strategists and culture jammers. That’s a building in North Boulder. It’s where we all huddle on our air mattresses. Not really. But the idea behind COMMON is that we like to think a little bit wrong. Because it’s our argument that this linear siloed thinking is precisely what got us human beings here in the first place.

All of this siloed thinking – nobody can argue with me that this siloed thinking isn’t what led to what’s going on right now at Fukushima, what happened in an offshore drilling rig, things where people just didn’t ask the right questions or have that kind of thinking that led to things like building a nuclear power plant on a fault line with inadequate power supply back-up systems. Or drilling a well at depths where human beings couldn’t reach it in case of a disaster. It’s like no, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not about A to B. We are about A to Shoe. And it’s this kind of thinking that we think inspires great leaps, and great leaps are what leads to things as preposterous as a collaborative brand. So ultimately what we want to do is create an open-source living network for an entirely new brand of capitalism.

So how are we going to do that? It sounds good. Now, the question is, can we take theory and put it into practice in some way, shape or form? So what I’m going to show you is our website, which actually launched last night. Which we’re very proud of. I just saw myself on there – I didn’t even notice that It’s great.

What this website is going to be is a place for COMMON community members to gather, digitally, be inspired, discuss things amongst each other, but importantly, to pose problems that people can form workgroups forum to actually start companies to solve each one of those problems. And once those problems move through a certain part of our system, they’ll actually be eligible for one of our three start-up accelerator events. And we have three formats, and you can actually see some dates up there right now because these are real, these are happening. And we have three start-up accelerator formats.

The first one is called COMMON Pitch. And for those of you who have ever been to a Techstars event, or a Y Combinator or a DEMO event, imagine all three of those things mashed together – with a dance party at the end. So that’s what our intention is behind this. Twenty-plus entrepreneurs get five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of celebrity judges or experts, sans Donald Trump. And then there’s also a live audience in there as well. And it’s all going to be real-time voting, and then winners from that particular event can be eligible for one of our other two events, one of which is called a COMMON MBA program, which actually stands for Maniacal Business Attack, and it’s a three-day hyper-accelerated rapid prototyping event, where you go in with an early stage idea and you come out the end with hopefully a fully-formed company.

And then the other one we have is called is called COMMON Project. This is a two-week program where people are actually – and this is about 15-20 people, all of whom apply, all of whom are accepted in some way, shape or form, obviously, hopefully from hundreds of people – and your parachute dropped into a high-social-need area. And what happens there is you actually have an even earlier stage company, perhaps even a zygote of a company, if you will, and you actually identify problems, form solutions on the spot, and then push it out the back end, and hopefully you have a business after that. So that gives you an idea of what those programs are COMMON Project – our first one is called a $300 House.

And it’s with a partner of ours named Christian Sarkar. And if you can imagine the idea of creating a firm-walled structure to address a need of about a billion people who live on a dollar or less a day, and sustainably produce it on a local level, and on a mass level, and push it out, you can address something that is very, very significant for these people, and we’re very excited about this one, so this will be our first one and we’ll show you how to apply in a little bit.

Another program that we’ve been working on is called Coffee Common. We debuted this at TED about a month ago. And this was actually with a partner of ours, Stephen Morrissey, who founded Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago. And this was a mash-up and a collaboration of baristas, world-famous baristas, baristas who actually won contests – I didn’t even know there were barista contests – and they were put together with micro-roasters and a voice of the grower. And the idea here is to have this collaboration that was supplying free coffee for TEDsters, who obviously had high caffeine needs at the time, and then actually put a little bit of an epicurean wash against this and see where it goes.

And where we’re seeing it right now is being written up in all sorts of – in the New York Times and in Good magazine, and it’s actually starting to get some traction. And we think what this will end up resulting in is a tour, pop-up retail, potentially a permanent retail, but in general, we want the conversation about this troika of micro-roasters, baristas and growers to keep going because we think it’s important, we think it’s going to instruct other categories.

And the last one I want to show you is something called Common Cycles. This is the first subject of our MBA program, and that will be happening at the end of this month. And Common Cycles, it’s not about a bike, it’s actually about a bamboo bike. And what’s important about this bamboo bike is that it’s beyond just a manufacturing proposition. It’s actually about lifting a small, rural town in Alabama out of a cycle of poverty by taking this manufacturing solution, pairing it with a retail solution, but most importantly, an agribusiness solution. And what happened was, a couple of people who were into bikes went down to this town, formulated something really interesting, and decided to build a company out of it.

It wasn’t branded at the time. It’s going to be COMMON branded now. And it was so inspiring to the Alabama state government that that state along with a few others allocated 800,000 acres of bamboo growing across three states. And these are the kinds of solutions that we think are going to be incredibly powerful.

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