Q5: Thomas Kolster on how to avoid the hero trap [interview]
by Carey Finn. Known as “Mr Goodvertising”, author and ex-adman Thomas Kolster speaks to us about his new book for brands, The Hero Trap. The Denmark-based creative behind the Goodvertising movement offers suggestions for how to avoid falling into the “hero trap” when working for the good of people and society.
Thomas Kolster: This is something I have observed from my first book, Goodvertising, through to my second book, The Hero Trap: Again, again and again, brands pitch themselves as these world-saving superheroes. There’s a lot more competition with all these brands screaming “we care” and, sorry for this analogy, but it does seem like the guy who kicks open the door to a bar and shouts “I’m the world’s best lover”; at some point, someone is going to find out that is not true. The same thing applies to brands that try to take the do-good throne, and stand on a pedestal and say they’re going to save the world. Obviously, it is different from market to market, but it’s an evolution from [making a] societal difference to where I argue we are heading in the book, which is towards a transformational difference. [This is about] what you can do in people’s lives, rather than just talking about all the good stuff you’re doing.
Q5: Why do so many brands fall into the trap? How can they avoid it?
TK: To be frank, I used to believe in the current approach to purpose myself, and probably ran myself into the hero trap. But I think a lot of it has to do with how the markets have evolved. Basically, today, you cannot go into the supermarket without it seeming a bit like heaven: every brand is pitching themselves as these Mother Teresas or Gandhis, or Nelson Mandelas. [As a result] the authenticity wears thin, and it becomes difficult to know who to trust. How do you really prove that you care?
A lot of brands have fallen into the trap of trying to be brand activists, to be more radical in their statements, which I think might be even more dangerous or difficult to live up to because, if you go out and say, “We are really strong believers in diversity,” it is so easy to criticise that because diversity and the demands from society to be diverse are moving goalposts.
So how can brands avoid the trap? What I found out [working on] the book was interesting, because I had to go up against my own earlier beliefs. Rather than a company pitching itself as the big agent of change, it should look to people as the agents of change. They can do this by asking one simple question: Who can you help people become? One of the companies that I think has done that really well is Discovery, and their purpose is to incentivise people to live healthier lives. This is a really clear North Star, which is much easier to deliver on.
Q5: Tell us how your book came to be — walk us through the process from the moment you committed to the project to the moment you saw it in published form.
TK: The interesting thing about this book was that, in some aspects, it found me. The book actually started with my own transformation, in a way. Each year I go on a retreat by myself for a couple of days, and [a few years ago] I was at a hotel in Spain, looking back at the past year, and the goals I wanted to achieve going forward. I realised how incredibly difficult it was to create the change that I wanted to see in my own life. And that’s when I started to think, hey wait, we are actually our own biggest barriers to change. How are we ever going to change society, if we cannot change our own behaviours?
This was the starting point, the moment that I started to question my previous thesis in goodvertising. I started working on models, looking to psychotherapy and coaching, because both disciplines are very goal-oriented, to find a formula that could help people on that change journey. Evidently, if a company is good at getting people to change, the company does become more meaningful — because it plays a meaningful role in people’s lives. I started working with brands and organisations, talking to a lot of leaders to understand and prove the thesis; I did some commissioned research which you can see in the book as well — it compares purposeful and transformational campaigns.
Q5: How can readers translate the ideas in your book into actual, concrete change?
TK: I see The Hero Trap as a tool. It has quite a few models that leaders in organisations can apply to create change. Using [the book’s path of] The Arrow, which asks four central questions — what, how, who and when — is a way to avoid the trap, and shape transformational promise. This is not a purpose, which is self-centric, but a promise about the change you can enable in people’s lives.
There’s another model in the book, too, called The Wheel of Transformability, which is about how power is changing, away from this mass production, mass marketing mindset that we’ve lived in for so many years. This is focused on how organisations can transform people into active participants [rather than recipients] across the marketing mix, with lots of benefits.
For me, it’s a tool, it’s a thesis, it’s an idea, and I do think that, if we can change ourselves, this is where we can change the world. What I’ve seen, and which the book demonstrates again and again from the leading cases to the commissioned studies, is that the organisations that ask this pivotal “Who can we help people become?” question are much better at building a business case. When you’re growing people, you’re essentially also growing the business.
Q5: If a brand could only onboard one suggestion from the book, what should it be?
TK: Everyone these days starts with “why”; this exercise makes you run into the hero trap. Rather, you should ask one simple question: Who can you help people become? By doing this, you turn people into the heroes of their own lives.