Alex Bogusky is co-founder and the former creative director of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, widely regarded as the most influential advertising agency of the past decade. Mr. Bogusky is now the founder and chief insurgent of FearLess Cottage, a consumer advocacy group with special focus on health and nutrition. Nutrition Business Journal visited the cottage in Boulder, Colorado, to hear first-hand about the rapid empowerment of consumers in today's economy.
NBJ: Would you characterize your recent career shift as moving away from brand advocacy and toward consumer advocacy?
Alex Bogusky: I like that. It took me awhile to understand that I was less happy in advertising. I really enjoyed it for a very long time. When I did leave, it took me a good six months to figure out what should come next, to try to come up with my common denominator. When I most enjoyed advertising — and this goes way back, prior even to the truth campaign against tobacco — I always felt that the brand should be on the side of the consumer. That's what I'd wish for in my clients. I'd want them to behave like they were on the consumer's side, and if they weren't, I would try to impose that behavior on them. I played that game for most of my career. More recently, I found myself getting annoyed when companies weren't behaving that way, and even more annoyed when they pretended to it. Some companies pretend to have the consumer's interests in mind, when the exact opposite is true. That exists specifically, and most importantly, in the world of food.
NBJ: What's precipitating this change in consumer power?
AB: Data. Knowledge. Corporations have traditionally controlled the data much more than individuals, but there's a shift underway. The data is now in the hands of any consumer who wants it. Another powerful and complementary shift is unsponsored mass media. Look at peer-to-peer media, social media. This goes way beyond simple communication. It's not just the fact that I can talk to you, but now I can talk to you and the entire globe can listen in. You can create your own mass media. So that's 40 percent of all the media we consume now, and that's a big consciousness shift. I think of the obsolete notion of secret ingredients in food. Remember secret ingredients? Secret ingredients point to the old power. The new power is in transparency.
Advice for supplement manufacturers: be transparent
NBJ: In the supplement industry, products are often marketed with proprietary ingredients as a point of differentiation. How would you respond to that?
AB: That'll trip you up. That's what keeps you from being a consumer advocate. If you prescribe to your solution more than their solution, the conversation is instantly politicized. It's no longer honest. The people that are really doing well now are the people pushing the conversation into a completely transparent space. These are the people saying, ‘Here's our supplement. Here's exactly how it breaks down. You may have some ideas about new ingredients and blends, about things we're overlooking. Can you help us? Can you join us?’ I would not want to be caught flat-footed on this one. If I was in any kind of business, I would be moving towards transparency, aligning my business with the consumer. I'd make what the consumer wants me to make, not what my company thinks is right.
NBJ: How do you best achieve transparency with ingredients?
AB: Ingredients are not a simple story. We're lucky that ingredients are even listed. I feel fortunate for that. You could go one category over, to the cleaners you spray around your home, and that wouldn't necessarily be the case. But even there, some companies are making good decisions by listing ingredients and promoting transparency. Go category by category, and you can see where the momentum is. It's not in the secret blend. The momentum is with the maker saying, ‘I am going to go to the nth degree to tell you everything I know about what's in here, where it came from, who worked on it.’ There will be blind spots, however. You can't be 100% transparent right now. If you're Levi Strauss, and you want to be transparent to your customers — they do, they're actively working on it — you can't tell your customer whether there's child labor in their jeans because you don't know, because the world cotton market gets dumped into one bucket. If you go organic, you would be able to say it's organic, it's fair trade — all the things you'd want it to be — but organic is too small in the world of cotton to meet Levi's demand.
Empowered consumers target food
NBJ: Why is this new, empowered consumer emerging in nutrition?
AB: There are selfish reasons, but I think it's a new understanding of selfishness. I think that what these empowered consumers seem to have in common across many causes and industries is the understanding that they are connected. So they don't look at it as climate — it's my climate. They don't look at someone else's gene pool — it's my gene pool. I think the new consumer is just trying to integrate all of this disparate information. It used to be just cost. The reason why there is so much traction in healthy food is because food is the easiest thing to be selfish about. If I eat well and locally and sustainably, it sends ripples out that change everything. If you could get 6 billion people to eat locally, sustainably and in a healthy way, you wouldn't need to do anything else. What's really interesting is the way our very healthiest choices also happen to be the most responsible, and that's why this space is taking off first. Health, as a concept, doesn't really change as you go from my health, to my family's health, to my community's health, to my country's health, to the health of the globe.
NBJ: One response to our broken healthcare system is a rise in self-care, including more reliance on dietary supplements and healthy food. How does the self-care consumer fit with your empowered consumer?
AB: Responsibility. If you're in the world of self-care, you're probably taking responsibility for yourself. But I don't think we can supplement our way out of the American healthcare crisis. It's much more systemic than that. The real solutions require responsibility, which in turn require some sort of participation. Right now, the vigorous participants in our food supply are industrial farming, genetically-modified interests, corn subsidies, various corporations lobbying for various regulations. Consumers make up two-thirds of the economy, but they don't know how to get involved. Corporations know how to get involved, and they spend a lot of money being involved. Labor is even in the game with the unions, but consumers? How are we organized? We're the largest chunk, and we're not very aware of our power.
What's really happening through the web and transparency is that we're self-organizing. That's another part of social media. If we self-organize around knowledge, around buying decisions that are sustainable, around taking that power and saying to corporations, ‘I'm going to do something with my power, with every single dollar I spend,’ then we'll fix the system. It's not political involvement. This is a capitalist system, and we play the biggest part. So far, the powers that be have succeeded in convincing us not to participate beyond one data point, price.
Adapting to the new consumer
NBJ: How can companies adapt to this new consumer?
AB: Here's the thing about a company. We know that it's an individual in the eyes of the law, an individual that's not liable and does not have to be as responsible as a human individual. Those individuals have souls. Companies don't have souls. We could argue about that, but there's obviously something different about a person and a corporate construct. The only way for companies to find a soul is to allow people to be as genuine as possible as they move in and out of those corporate walls. We have a corporate culture right now where, as you walk in, you look at the masthead or you look at the website and you get a pretty quick snapshot of what's acceptable to say. In any corporation, people not only know what they're allowed to say, but they kind of like it. There's comfort in that suggestion of a military, industrialized mindset. So we embrace those limitations culturally, but there are a few companies starting to make the walls more porous.
The notion of transparency about the things we make is one piece of this, but here's another: Can every individual in your company using social media honestly say what they think about your company without getting in trouble? Could you create that kind of culture? If you can, you're in rare company. Zappos, at times, has been close. Patagonia has a little bit of that in their DNA. They are very self-critical at a senior level, but when does dissent come from the middle of a company without it being grounds for dismissal? When it comes from the top, I applaud it. That's great. Real progress will be evident when we see genuine voices, even voices of dissent, come from every level. We need more companies to step up there, to set some amazing examples. If you set that example at your company, let me know — I'm trying to make a list.
When you allow people to be transparent within the company construct, then the company gets a soul. It's not the company's soul. It's the soul of every individual that works there. They no longer have to check who they are at the door and reclaim themselves on the way home.
NBJ: Can change happen at a political level?
AB: I don't see a real political solution in the short term. I think that system's on lockdown. The fact that we vacillate wildly from one party to the other, that tells me we're just trying to shake something loose. Yet, at the same time, there is a whole lot of change going on. Where is the change coming from? Why is it happening? We're not regulating it. We're not legislating it. Why is Walmart doing what they're doing? Why is this entire new organic space being born? It's being borne out of the consumer base. It's borne out of this pressure that consumers are putting back into the corporate world. Some corporations are excited by it and some are reluctant, but they're all responding.
As I try to map out this new world, the only path forward seems to be our capacity to become better consumers, and thus citizens, by putting real thought into every purchase. If you look historically, the former power always ends up working in service of the new great power. Corporations are beginning to work on behalf of humanity. I think that's the larger transition we're going through right now, and why I would suggest that every company get on the right side of humanity. Consumers are taking your place, we're taking our turn. If you stand in opposition to that, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Why Bogusky does not take supplements
NBJ: Do you take any supplements?
AB: My trainer used to give me a handful of supplements, but now I'm focused on diet. I'm working on becoming a better piscatarian and getting my nutrition from food. I find myself actually craving broccoli these days. That's a first.