Trewin Restorick on Telefonica's new brand ambassadors
Candyfloss and Haute Cuisine
This blog entry was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business hub.
I write the words ‘Brand Ambassador’ with trepidation. Last time I edged too near management speak some kind reader threatened to punch my lights out, until the Guardian deemed that such Prescott-style diplomacy was not fit for the comment section.
I completely understood these misgivings when I went to an event to hear from Telefonica’s two brand ambassadors. The world renowned chef Ferran Adria from El Bulli and the classical pianist Lang Lang. What I wondered could their involvement have to do with a company’s efforts to operate more sustainably? Surely it was simply an excuse for a corporate jolly. During the course of the evening I changed my mind.
Over 18 years I have watched as companies have gradually come to understand and grapple with the concept of sustainability. Most are still at the stage where they view the issue to be primarily about efficiency. As competitiveness increases and costs rise, making the connection between saving money and saving resources is an increasing no brainer and can be wrapped together to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability.
Whilst important, this will not get us anyway near the scale of carbon savings required. To deliver at this level, businesses need to fundamentally re-think the way they operate and develop new models that create profit without generating carbon. Achieving such radical change is difficult for large companies that are locked into quarterly financial reporting, that are risk averse and have systems painstakingly developed over many years.
What these companies need to change is a jolt to the system. Something that requires them to pause, take stock and rethink existing habits. Increasingly these jolts are provided through social media. Tesco's recently realised the power of this force with the furore caused by their involvement in the work placement programme. Pressure groups can also cause similar jolts. Greenpeace’s excellent campaign targeting Mattel’s packaging policies and featuring Ken dumping Barbie was a great example of a tactical campaign that caused a company to hurriedly change tactic.
Effective as these types of campaigns are, they are only likely to cause a slight change in the company’s approach and not the fundamental root and branch rethink that is really required.
Telefonica has taken a more sophisticated change approach with their Brand Ambassadors. For starters the credentials of the Ambassadors are hard to ignore. They are renowned leaders in their respective fields and have an independence and integrity that helps ensure their voices are listened to at every level within the business.
This integrity is matched with ideas that often run counter to mainstream business thinking. El Bulli was the most successful restaurant in the world, so much so that its decision to close featured on the front page of the Financial Times. Yet if you look at its history, most decisions it has made run counter to conventional business thinking.
How many businesses would decide that rather than maximise short-term profit by extending opening hours and getting as many bums on seats as possible they would do exactly the opposite and close for longer periods to allow more time for reflection and creativity? These periods of closure enabled them to create even more amazing dishes, including bizarrely using candyfloss on the menu. This creativity increased the allure of the restaurant, boosting demand and building greater profits.
Similarly, how many businesses would close at the height of their success in order to spend a couple of years meeting with creative leaders from different sectors in order to create a new centre aimed at sharing thinking and ideas with restaurants around the world? Again this is what El Bulli has done with a re-opening planned for next year.
There are indications that this counter-intuitive thinking is starting to have an impact on Telefonica. The company has launched 9 incubator hubs for young entrepreneurs which it has called Wayra academies. The concept is to take great new ideas into development and eventually market with funding and resource provided by Telefonica.
Anyone with a strong technology idea can submit it for consideration. The top 20 ideas will receive extensive research from Telefonica and up to €70,000 in return for a 10% state. The idea has the paw-print of Ferran Adria all over it. Telefonica believes that this direct involvement with inspirational new ideas will help speed up their transition to a more sustainable business.
Telefonica has undoubtedly started on a novel and interesting journey. Whether it is successful and replicated by others will depend on a number of things. Crucially the Brand Ambassadors will have to retain their integrity and passion, continually seeking to challenge their paymaster.
Telefonica will have to remain open to new ideas and ensure that the passion of the Brand Ambassadors is accessible across the whole company rather than staying within the higher echelons.
Finally, Telefonica will have to ensure that the Brand Ambassadors are primarily about driving change within the business and don’t become the face of an ‘authenticity’ PR campaign.