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Sunday, September 18, 2011

We First

We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World

By Simon Mainwaring

Published by Palgrave Macmillan.

ISBN: 978-0-230-11026-7

This review was first published on on 13th September 2011


A social media expert with global experience with many of the world’s biggest brands —including Nike, Toyota and Motorola—Simon Mainwaring offers a visionary new practice in which brands leverage social media to earn consumer goodwill, loyalty and profit, while creating a third pillar of sustainable social change through conscious contributions from customer purchases. These innovative private sector partnerships answer perhaps the most pressing issue facing business and thought leaders today: how to practice capitalism in a way that satisfies the need for both profit and a healthy, sustainable planet. Mainwaring provides case studies from companies such as P&G, Walmart, Starbucks, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Nike, Whole Foods, Patagonia and NestlĂ© as well as a bold plan for how corporations need to rethink their strategies.


Simon Mainwaring's book, We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, is the kind of book that makes you think. What's even more daunting, it drives you to form an opinion. I read (and review) many sustainability books and most are the kind you just agree with. They tell you how to be greener, or more social, or create more shared value, or how to put a sustainability strategy together and why. They are informative, enlightening and often very well-written. But they don't really require you to form an opinion because most of the content is rather non-controversial. You either agree with "sustainability" or you don't and the book you read reinforces your own start-point.

We First is different. After making the case for sustainability, author Simon Mainwaring goes on to suggest how companies should make a contribution in a way which engages consumers for good and even form a "Global Brand Initiative" through which brands can collaborate to build a better world. At first glance, given the state of capitalism today, these ideas are rather utopian. All this makes you wonder if Mainwaring is making a serious contribution to the sustainability discussion or whether his proposals are so prophetic that, just maybe, they are the next phase of sustainability that is waiting to happen.

In his book, Mainwaring introduces concepts such as contributory consumption, "a new paradigm for free market capitalism" in which every purchase incorporates a contribution to society. Mainwaring himself writes, "Many corporate executives might reject it as fanciful or just plain silly," but counters with the notion that it is "nothing less than the logical extension of current forms of corporate social responsibility, rooted in economic pragmatism and marketing logic."

Others might say, however, this is somewhat divorced from the current thinking, which is taking sustainability to a shared value business model that does not rely on the goodwill of corporations or consumers but a fundamental change in the way products are designed, marketed, distributed and sold? This is a fascinating debate and, as I read We First, I felt compelled to give these concepts and proposals some serious thought.

But let's back up a little. We First gradually leads us towards these concepts. The book starts with a view of current ills of capitalism and the growing impact of social media and consumer activism, followed by an exposé on why capitalism must move from selfish pursuit of profit to the empowering and engaging pursuit of purpose ("Consumers want a better world, not just better widgets") and how corporations should leverage this massive social movement towards a more just system.

Creating sustainable capitalism, then, should be developed based on economic, moral, ethical, environmental and social domains. Walmart is Mainwaring's poster child for this worldview through "the company is still transitioning to a true model of sustainability in the way We First proposes." Ultimately, Mainwaring says, "capitalism should be both enduring and life-giving." All this should be based on a strong bedrock of values.

Mainwaring then introduces three pillars of change: government, philanthropy and the private sector, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each, concluding that the private sector must take its place alongside government and charities, as it has vast resources that are needed. It's here the argument for consumer activism starts to emerge. Companies, after all, only exist as long as they have consumers. The growth of the Internet ("the single most important driver of corporate responsibility") is enabling citizen media to have a voice.

So far, much of what we read in We First is similar to what we can read in other pro-sustainability literature. The author now turns to the role of brands. Citing Pepsi Refresh as the new model of the transformation of brands and business, Mainwaring goes on to define how brands can engage consumers and involve them in "meaningful cause investments." There are of course many examples of cause marketing that have been wildly successful, though I believe this is far from mainstream today. We First proposes that mainstream it should become, and more importantly, that's what consumers want.

Achieving "Brandhood" means sharing stewardship of the brand with the community, engaging in philanthropic activities and being socially responsible. "Consumers are now in a position to co-create – with corporations – the world we want to live in." Social media can link brands and consumers to good causes and socially responsible shopping options. Ultimately, We First proposes a social contract between brands and consumers with a 10-point charter made up of positive commitments that represent "We First" capitalism.

The logical outflow of this social contract is contributory consumerism where both corporations and consumers donate to good causes as they consume, leading to the development of a Global Brand Initiative, a federation of brands that work together to advance CSR and charitable donations.

Mainwaring says: "The evolution of revolution is contribution." We First capitalism, as proposed, engages consumers in partnership with corporations to ensure consumption in the new capitalism has some element of contribution to society.

So that's the proposal. Like it? Believe it can work? Worth fighting for? Is this the same as creating "Shared Value" from a business-model-driven kind of sustainability strategy or is it an enhanced, modern form of Social Giving 2.0, wrapped in a framework of engagement and collaboration? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

As you are contemplating these questions, I recommend you read We First, which presents many examples of approaching-"We First" actions by corporations and interesting arguments for We First capitalism, which, even if the utopian state is not achieved, certainly offer corporations, and consumers, new ways of thinking from which we could all benefit.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my website
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