When author, marketing activist and speaker Thomas Kolster launched his book Goodadvertising in 2012, he argued that advertising could be used for as a force for good. Fast forward to today, and Kolster has taken a hatchet to his earlier beliefs and warned brands about purpose in his new book entitled The Hero Trap – How to win in a post-purpose market by putting people in charge. “Try to fly like a superman, and you will come down like a tin of soup,” he warns.
Kolster calls it a “Hero Trap”. Most brands today are firmly on the social and environmental issues bandwagon like bees around a honey pot from oceans plastic to diversity, he argues. People are increasingly distrustful towards these efforts viewed as cheap marketing stunts meant to wow people into buying more. Drawing on top-line marketing case studies and in-depth interviews with the likes of P&G’s CMO Marc Pritchard, Kolster demonstrates how people are truly motivated to act when they’re in charge of their own life and happiness.
Here, Kolster, also known as Mr. Goodadvertising, catches up with Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye before the official launch of his new book, which is due out next week on 25th June.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Thomas (@thomaskolster), this book was three years in the making. You have put a lot of effort into it. What was the journey behind your new book The Hero Trap?
Thomas Kolster (TK): My last book came out on the back of the COP15 climate change conference in Copenhagen and the last global financial crisis. Yet, this time around I went through a different journey. Whilst on a retreat in Malaga, Spain, I had a think about creating low-carbon societies and how we could create ‘bigger’ changes in our lives to tackle the climate emergency. This was the starting point of my new book. I questioned why we were looking at organisations and leaders as the agents of change when essentially, we as individuals have to change ourselves.
I actually spent more extensive research on this book than my last one – two years as opposed to nine months. I looked in detail to coaching methodologies and psychotherapy to understand how to move people from inaction to action, from unfulfilled to fulfilled. My goal was to write a practical, hands-on book, one that’s not just left on the bookshelf to gather dust but was being applied again and again to transform people, organisations and leaders.
LG: What does post-purpose mean?
TK: My first book focused strongly on ‘purpose’. I argued that brands and leaders had to have a meaningful purpose for consumers to buy into their beliefs rather than focus solely on chasing profits. With my new book, I wanted to step aside from the notion that everybody was searching for purpose but not knowing why. I found that brands were focusing on consumers who were buying their products for the ‘sake of consumption’ and not focusing on shoppers who were buying products for a ‘better meaning’. Essentially, if we are to create change, we have to put people first. Organisations have to chart a different course, where they help people to follow through on their needs and their ambitions in life.
Post-purpose means a focus on how organisations can help individuals to be a better person and help them focus on their life goals. They don’t want to hear about brands trying to save the world. Instead, they want them to focus on answering questions like ‘what can you do for me?’, ‘what’s the tangible benefits that I can see?’ ‘Can I get smarter?’ and ‘Can I get more connected to my community?’
LG: What are you advocating for organisations to do in the post-Covid-19 era?
TK: I like to talk about a process called the transformational promise. It’s a promise from a leader to individuals to say what he/she can help with to enable changes in our lives. It’s much more tangible and operational than focusing on a purpose.
LG: There is so much activism happening these days, including climate strikes, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. What do you think?
We saw a lot of brands moving into these areas quite quickly. However, I don’t think it’s wise for brands to get involved in these movements because they can run into the ‘Hero Trap’. When are you diverse enough so that you can have a believable voice when you say Black Lives Matter? I actually think that brands should focus much more on the personal fight. Brands should be much more understanding about how they can help people overcome some of their biases. If we want to change the world, we have to change ourselves first.
LG: Who is your book aimed at?
TK: It’s about leadership and the leadership that is needed. It’s about how we create change on a large scale. This book is a broader one than Goodadvertising. I can’t run from being a marketing activist, but I would like a positive message to resonate to a wide range of people. It’s about each and every one of us deciding the lives that we want and how we can cherry pick the leaders who are helping us towards those goals. I had to make a transformation myself in this book and go up against my beliefs in the first book and say that my previous book was in fact a Hero Trap. This new approach is much more of a mission to be a catalyst for positive change. This book can be used as a tool to create positive change. Ultimately, I hope for the growth of more sustainable leadership and organisations.
LG: What exactly is the Hero Trap?
TK: Sometimes you see some organisations putting themselves up on a pedestal and saying ‘I want to change the world’. Yet, by doing this they are definitely going to fall down. People will criticise you. Patagonia can get away with it because it has a clear goal. Yet, I think it is difficult for other brands to copy this model because it is so difficult to emulate. If they try, they normally will run into the Hero Trap.
Earth Connection is a meal-kit brand that doesn’t fall into this trap. I interviewed the company’s CEO for the book. Earth Connection provides boxes on your doorstep packed with fresh food for you to cook your dinner.
With this brand, the customer has to make a journey with it, to understand the value of cooking, the value of vegetables and the journey of self-discovery. The company uses the approach of ‘believe in yourself and our world is going to be better’, rather than ‘believe in me and the world is going to better’. Essentially, brands should be asking how they can help their customers be heroes. Your brand is not the hero. Turn the people into the heroes.
LG: Where do you think the sustainability journey is now?
TK: I am an optimist. Our collective wisdom and humanity and our ingenuity will prevail. So, we can either look at the ‘glass is half empty’ or the ‘glass is half full’. I am a ‘glass half full’ person and I want spread the positive benefits of sustainability.
Thomas Kolster will be having a virtual, global book launch on Thursday 25th June with special guest appearances by global CMOs and CEOs from well-known brands, musical acts, and lots of fun (Copenhagen 15pm / Singapore 21pm / New York 9am / London 2pm). It will be streamed live across most social media channels. For more information, sign up here, thomaskolster.com.