Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Inevitable Dissolution of POWER

After a day of DjangoCon and an evening of storytelling with a NASA sysadmin and a dangerously dressed Silicon Valley lawyer (who may or may not have been joking when she told us she likes heroin in moderation), Wiley and I started talking about politics, The Carrot Project, and the book he's reading.

He read me this excerpt about The Final Call (a newspaper published by the Nation of Islam), an attempt to change consumer behavior, and the realities of market economics:

The paper also carried a health section, complete with Minister Farrakhan's pork-free recipes; advertisements for minister Farrakhan's speeches on videocassette (VISA or MasterCard accepted); and promotions for a line of toiletries - toothpaste and the like - that the Nation had launched under the brand name POWER, part of a strategy to encourage blacks to keep their money within their own community.

After a time, the ads for POWER products grew less prominent in The Final Call; it seems that many who enjoyed Minister Farrakhan's speeches continued to brush their teeth with Crest. That the POWER campaign sputtered said something about the difficulty that faced any black business - the barriers to entry, the lack of finance, the leg up that your competitors possessed after having kept you out of the game for over three hundred years.

But I suspected that it also reflected the inevitable tension that arose when Minister Farrakhan's message was reduced to the mundane realities of buying toothpaste. I tried to imagine POWER's product manager looking over his sales projections. He might briefly wonder whether it made sense to distribute the brand in national supermarket chains where blacks preferred to shop. If he rejected that idea, he might consider whether any black-owned supermarket trying to compete against the national chains could afford to give shelf space to a product that guaranteed to alienate potential white customers. Would black consumers buy toothpaste through the mail? And what of the likelihood that the cheapest supplier of whatever it was that went into making toothpaste was white?

Wiley has always been worried about this. He thinks it's all about those mundane realities, all about fundamental economics. Farrakhan's message didn't fail because of ideological flaws. The old Buy American campaign didn't fail because of ideological flaws. They failed because of the practical realities of the marketplace.

The Carrot Project has to face that same marketplace. And, in Wiley's opinion, it can't rely on ideology.

And that's fair. And scary.

But it's a challenge we might as well embrace. It's something we think we're addressing, in a preliminary way at least, by featuring main stream brand to main stream brand comparisons, by helping people choose between Crest and Colgate or Pepsi and Coke. Will that be enough? Might it be a source of competitive advantage? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it's a challenge to keep in mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is the author of the book Wiley's reading, the man that wrote that passage above. Barack Obama. Not bad for a politician.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)


Dantaniel said...

Meh. I don't think The Carrot Project faces the exact same challenges. People can easily keep doing what's convenient for them, they'll just have added knowledge. It's not like you have to get a product out there, you just have to educate people about the products they're already buying. Maybe I don't understand the exact argument. And, keep your dang political views outta here!!!

P.S. Barack Obama '08. McCain/Palin for jailin. Dern criminals.

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Clay.

Glad to hear that you're not worried, but do keep in mind that we very well might be asking people to change. We might ask people not to buy Crest toothpaste anymore, even if they think Colgate consistently tastes terrible.

The fears are (A) that people just simply won't want to break their old habits and (B) that the companies that do the best things for the world will have to charge a little more for their products, and people won't be able to resist the cheap dirty alternatives.

As for politics, sorry to break that rule, but sometimes I can't help it. Especially when I find out that Obama has written (and written thoughtfully) about purposeful consumption. Gotta give him credit for that.

Thanks for the comment.