The Hero Trap.

An interview with Thomas Kolster.

From a global perspective – Zofia Bugajna-Kasdepke talks to world leaders in the communications industry.

THE HERO TRAP. How to find yourself in a post-purpose world?

You argue that Simon Sinek’s famous “why” is secondary to answering “who” is your brand helping become and “when” will that change occur? That is a bold statement!

Simon Sinek created a methodology based on questioning the meaning of a brand’s existence and defining its mission. It was a decade ago when brands started addressing social and environmental issues and taking responsibility for their actions. Inspired by the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, I wrote a book entitled “Goodvertising”, where I showed how to create advertising as a force for good. My new book is not about community, but individualism.

Rebuilding society or finding answers to complex environmental questions are noble goals, but when brands pose as Mother Theresa or Gandhi, they find it difficult to live up to those standards. This dawned on me when I myself had to change something in my life – how am I supposed to commit to big ideas if I can’t take a small step on an individual level?! This is how I came up with “The Hero Trap”, a book that focuses on measurable results. The key question here is how can a brand help me be more creative, eat healthier or live sustainably – in a way that I can actually notice?

By talking about the goal a brand sets, we’re naturally talking about high matters; the point, however, is how it engages people whom we’re addressing. If we’re saving the oceans, are they saving them too? How are we helping people do it?

The word that I best remembered “The Hero Trap” for is “betterment” (non-materialistic self-improvement). Did COVID-19 give us an opportunity for such betterment or did we focus on securing our basic needs instead, giving up idealism by necessity?

The pandemic has created a completely new type of pressure on companies – we’re dealing with an immediate threat to health and life. In my methodology, the key question is, “Who are you, as a brand, helping me become?” Only today it should be, “How are you helping me survive?” So the point is not to say, “We’re doing this and that, donating this much money”; now the important thing is who will help us maintain a social distance or make us part of the community again, when lockdowns are making us feel alienated and longing for closeness and safety. Now is when brands, if they really want to, can play a big role in our lives. While working on the book, I realised that many of the most valuable brands are transformative ones. If you claim your company is good for the world but you’re not 100% sure about the role you’re playing in people’s lives, you will fail. “The Hero Trap” is a warning for the industry – do it right!

Will the pandemic accelerate change in brand management? What trends will we see soon?

Events related to COVID-19 are something that you can’t ignore. If we don’t start delivering real value and pursuing our goal rather than just talking about that goal, we won’t get anywhere. This is why my latest book discusses a post-purpose market.

It’s no longer about buying things or buying status; now we’re aspiring for self-realisation, experiences, curiosity, creativity and learning new skills. And this is a real turning point! It was during lockdown that most people realised this, whether in Poland or Denmark. Our industry also needs to understand that the best things in the world are not things.

Look at how our perception of cities has changed. Cities used to serve consumption, now we’re thinking about them in the context of the surroundings that we live in and want to shape.

This is where we want to spend time and be together. We build outdoor gyms and jogging paths and open parks. A modern city is supposed to help us become mobile and healthier, and participatory budgeting helps us become fully-fledged citizens.

This is the key lesson for marketers: admit that brands we manage have a transformative role to play in people’s lives and can play it in many different ways.

Could you give us a few examples of such brands?

I’m not praising Red Bull for what they’re doing in terms of the environment, but I think they deliver really well on the role they have to play, motivating people in so many areas of activities, interests and even hobbies. It’s no longer about the blue-red-and-silver can but how they forced me to force myself!

Another example is District Vision, a brand that theoretically sells running glasses, even though it actually offers something completely different, namely a whole idea of running as an activity that lets you get away from everyday reality and focus on the joy that “conscious” running brings. And you know what? It works!

This brings us to the heart of the matter – you have to ask yourself the right questions instead of navel-gazing. This is why more and more companies are changing their business models, concentrating on improving the quality of people’s lives.

I agree that the time of “actor brands” that grab the spotlight is up – now it’s more about collaboration and actually working with people. How should we rebuild the strategic process to really help people change for the better?

Try to go through these basic questions: WHAT are you offering? HOW are you making your product or service delivery unique? WHO are you helping your audience to become? WHEN will that change be possible? This process helps define the transformative brand promise and not end up with an unattainable goal like saving the world.

You’re criticizing the “mass-movement mindset”. What do you propose brands do instead of extensive activities?

Just look at today’s marketing mix, which I call the idea reference engine, and you’ll exclaim, “Hey, wait a minute, we actually no longer have any control over the brand!”. It’s a little like raising a child – let me use this analogy even though I don’t have kids myself; at a certain point, you feel that your child is a teenager, confident enough to go out into the world and become part of it independently of you. I encourage thinking about the brand as a platform for creativity and fun because this translates to people’s real contribution to products and services.

At the same time, you need to remember that this level of decision-making power on the part of consumers is a challenge for many mature brands. It was put really well by Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at P&G. Even though the company has been researching and innovating for more than 180 years, people today are more likely to trust the opinion of a guy renovating my basement than that of a clinician. This phenomenon, which is linked to social media, is already 15 years old. And it really shows this fundamental change for doing business, the whole decentralisation.

Won’t the constant expectation from brands that we improve something in ourselves make us tired and bored?

I’ve never met anyone who would say, “My health is perfect. My family life is ideal. My relationship couldn’t be better. Everything is all right. I don’t need help. I’m perfect.” Drawing the “Transformation Map”, I’m drawing on what drives modern psychology – the pursuit of self-realisation. I believe brands should support us on this journey.

I’ve noticed an analogy that is slightly overused in marketing but is fitting in this context. Each of our friends plays a different role in our lives. Some demand a good party and that’s cool. We call some of them to hear the truth, to be faced with a challenge. There are friends we call only to relax. We need each of them differently, and the same is true for brands.

My book is not about doing good in the world; essentially, it’s about matters that are fundamental when working on a brand – why a brand is supposed to be important to people.

You frankly admit that sometimes even a simple trick for doing something better, faster, more effectively or healthier can be transformative. You’re working with the best communication specialists around the world – how to rebuild the strategic process to start working well in the “post-purpose” era?

It’s about the way one perceives transformation itself as something attainable and complete.Let’s say I want to run a marathon. It’s impossible without preparation. For most people, it’s a challenge that requires time and breaking it down into smaller sections – first I run 5K, then 10K, 20K and so on. Sometimes I can change my route or skip a run when it’s raining – these tricks make it more enjoyable.

Today, the idea of life hacks lays a foundation for big business models. Take Blinkist, a brand that draws on a simple insight, “we still don’t have enough time to read books”. I myself can’t read everything that comes out, but I want to keep up all the same. Because, naturally, I want to project an image of a smiling guy who always keeps his finger on the pulse. The app gives me the gist of every book, I know its main points. And Blinkist makes me in a way smarter, and this is my little life hack. I love it!

I think that there are so many innovative ways to make small changes in your life that could potentially make interesting campaigns. These ideas are at our fingertips, just waiting to be put into practice. Boy, I need to do a webinar about it!

Absolutely! After your webinars, this question will probably be much simpler – why is it so difficult to create a platform that helps people change for the better?

Naturally, there still aren’t too many companies that do as good a job as I would’ve liked. There are many pointless brands whose mission isn’t clear. I really don’t know what role they play in someone’s life. And to think how many incredible things you could do! Let’s assume you’re a cereal brand – after all, your morning breakfast with the kids can be fun and exciting, this can be your family time. Or let’s put it differently – if there’s a guy who hates to wake up early, you as a brand can give him a little boost to get him out of bed. How? Take a look at District Vision – they reinvented running, and you can create better mornings too!

My methodology was inspired by coaching, psychotherapy and the understanding of how certain processes translate into our lives. Hence the conclusion that even though we know that a brand is really defined by people who love or hate it, people themselves rarely dare to define themselves. You need to help them with that – make them change their habits or look at something familiar from a different perspective.

The subtitle of my book is, “How to Win in a Post-Purpose Market by Putting People in Charge”, so I’m writing about how to win people and their creativity so that they can build the strength of your brand.

How do you see the CEE market? Do you know any examples of brands from my region that implement such transformative campaigns?

I’ve done many projects here and I can see a fairly big change occur in Central and Eastern Europe. Most importantly, it’s the departure from being a consumer alone and thinking about nothing else but status. Much like in Scandinavia, people in CEE are becoming more conscious and prudent. As a juror, I often see great works from your region – let me tell you about one of the recent ones I like really much. It’s a campaign for SPAR supermarkets created in partnership with artists from Ravini in Slovenia. It was a competition for small suppliers who couldn’t normally offer the scale to enter distribution in a big chain. The brand helped them present their products and stimulated small entrepreneurship – the suppliers had to trigger customers’ creativity to get their spot on the shelves. It’s fascinating that when you’re experimenting with opening your shops to local products, the local community is so responsive.

Your new book came out in the turbulent year 2020. If you could add another chapter, what reflections would you put in there?

That’s a good question! No one has asked me that before. Especially since right before the book was released, we had an intense debate on whether to add a chapter about the implications of COVID-19. I felt that it wasn’t necessary because many things I’d written about were amplified by the pandemic. The shift from status and buying to self-realisation and fulfilment, all of that has been accelerated.

What else would I like to add to “The Hero Trap”? Topics related to leadership because, at the end of the day, I think this is actually a book about leadership – how a leader should navigate the world to inspire people around and get them to act.

This is a strong last point for our conversation. I come from PR, so leadership and the personal transformation of leaders are especially important to me. How do you support leaders in the process?

If you can’t change yourself, you can’t change the world! I’m fascinated by how much depends on people, because first there has to be a marketing director who feels the change is unavoidable or a general director who will give the company the mandate to say, “We need to radically change the direction we’re heading”. The book wouldn’t have come out if it hadn’t been for my personal transformation. Today, I call myself a “marketing activist who set out on a special mission”. Which is to say, I simply care about people.

Zofia Bugajna-Kasdepke
Woman to Watch in 2022 on the Forbes Women Power Rising List (Poland). Heroine of the "Women of Success" series in the Vogue Poland magazine.
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