On the buses: supermodels and hyperbole


Brazil is in trouble.

And not the kind of trouble the foreign press would like to think. You’d think we were all under siege over here, afraid of riots, muggings and vandalism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, we are careful of our stuff and ourselves, yes things get stolen, yes, people get hurt, but it is not the all out warfare that is projected in the foreign media. It’s not all the manufactured tranquil of Zona Sul either, but that’s another blog.

In my opinion, Brazil is under threat from the car and from marketers and businesses selling outdated aspirations. (I know it sounds worthy, but stick with me here).

There was a bus strike in Rio yesterday. For anyone who’s never caught a bus here, it’s a frustrating and death defying experience. First you have to work out where you catch your bus (there will be no clues or information on the bus stops), wait between 30 minutes and 60 seconds, negotiate a cumbersome turnstile, operated by people who never have change, then spend around 45 minutes desperately clinging on to whatever isn’t nailed down as the bus driver re-enacts scenes from ‘Speed’. It’s not for the faint hearted. In fact, part of being a true ‘Carioca’ is, in fact, the ability to moan with great passion about bus drivers, traffic and transport.

It wasn’t great, we were lucky enough to borrow a car and be able to afford taxis. But not everyone can do that. In fact, people got very frustrated with the fact that their main method of transport was inaccessible, meaning they couldn’t get to work, care for their families etc. Some of these people vandalised buses, many of them switched to their cars and contributed to awful traffic conditions today too. Most of you who live in London are probably thinking ‘Yeah, well you should have been here for the Tube strike’ but this is a bigger problem than you might think. You will still get on your train/tube/bus to go to work next week (cursing maybe, but you’ll do it) and you’ll still do it five years from now (unless you move to Bath, Somerset, or Florida, none of which have much of a public transport system to speak of). But, judging by the evidence we see today, Brazilians won’t if they can help it…. and there are a lot more of them than there are of you.

According to CEBEDS, most of Brazilian’s rising middle class dream of owning a car. This was true for Gen X in the States, a car represented freedom and the ability to travel and connect with others. However, millennials in the States and Europe have largely rejected this consumption dream, preferring to stay connected through their Smartphones. As Jonah Hill observes in the hilariously satirical ’21 Jump Street’: Liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant. If I was just born ten years later, I would have been the coolest person ever!” This can’t happen in Rio, the infrastructure simply isn’t there. Traffic congestion now obstructs over 130 km (81 miles) of the city and in 2012 represented a loss of Us$14 billion, according to a survey by FIRJAN. And don’t get me started on the asthma inducing air quality. Traffic is strangling Brazil’s cities and causing billions of Reais in losses.

Driving itself is a pleasurable experience and owning a car is necessary and desirable for lots of people, it’s just that if everyone owns one and drives it at the same time in a place that can’t cope, there becomes a problem. Who’s to blame? Advertising and the media can take some of it. We know we get signals on how to behave from those around us, just as we do from advertising and the media (it’s called ‘peripheral processing’). To pick up magazines, or watch the television, you’d think that everyone in Brazil was rich, white and owned a car. In a place where people are less cynical towards brands, marketers and the media have a potentially enormous impact on the consumption patterns of the populace. The ‘Rolezinho’ movement want their piece of the pie and we don’t seem to have learned anything from things like the London Riots. Coupled with the unreliability of the public transport system, no wonder people dream of having a car.

Rant over, but I do think Brazil is in need of some better advertising guidelines and some good behaviour change campaigns (more on how to do that here). New road building, extensions to the Metro, bus lanes and things like the ‘Bilhete Unico’, (a time rather than trip based Oyster card type system) or apps like ‘Moovit’ have made things better, but change needs to go further to reverse the trend towards car ownership.

In his TED Talk, Sweat the Small Stuff, the polemic Rory Sutherland asks:

“Why is it necessary to spend six billion pounds speeding up the Eurostar train when, for a about 10 percent of that money, you could have top supermodels, male and female, serving free Chateau Petrus to all the passengers for the entire duration of the journey? You’d still have 5 billion left in change, and people would ask for the trains to be slowed down.”

I’m not necessarily suggesting we get zunga wearing hotties to fan us on buses (not the ‘necessarily’ in that sentence), but even a bit of bus driver training, regular fleet servicing and an end to the tyranny of  bus turnstiles isn’t going to change the idea of the ‘car as a status symbol’. Maybe glamourising car sharing is the answer, or having luxury priority buses (these already exist, but I would want a little more luxury for RS$15 a trip), or installing phone chargers and entertainment systems on some, or up playing the fact you can stay connected through mobile devices. I don’t know, but people would, if we asked them (my survey of Gringos and housemates doesn’t count) and, judging by the statistics, it’s important we do.

*Ahem, thanks. Climbs down off soap box*


Behavior change: the epic adventure

Our five point framework for behavior change joy
Our five point framework for behavior change joy

Well, not quite, but being involved has been epic. I helped write and launch the first practical behavior change framework for any emerging economy this week at Sustainable Brands 2014 in Rio. It’s been put together by myself, Pablo Barros and Fatima Cardoso of Eight Sustainability Platform with input from partners like Futerra and is a five point process for creating behavior change that’s tailored for Brazil.

Brazil is at a critical time in terms of attitudes to sustainability (both social and environmental). Although Brazil has the highest number of ‘Advocates’ and ‘Aspirational’ consumers (who are potential supporters of sustainable initiatives), there is a big gap between intention and action. Beautiful, emotional mainstream marketing and behavior change campaigns exist (such as Sport Club do Recife’s ‘Immortal Fans‘ campaign), but many still fall into the trap of being boring, rational or not based on consumer insight. The timing is critical as progress on social and environmental issues needs to be demonstrated to make the next stage of consumer awareness normalisation (such as in Scandinavia) rather than cynicism and apathy (such as in the UK or USA).

The framework draws from learnings and methodologies from the US and UK and applies them to the Brazilian consumer and context. It is intended to help brands and governments create campaigns to close this gap. I was lucky enough to be involved in writing it and hope you enjoy. Feel free to comment, heckle or ask questions. There’s a ‘contact me’ box on the ‘Hire me’ section of the site.

Download the report here.

Notes on arriving in the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’


Rio truly is a cidade maravilhosa: a vast sprawling metropolis of every type of building imaginable clinging to dramatic topography. Beaches straight from picture postcards are topped by dizzying rocks and peaks; smart marble fronted apartment blocks overlooked by thrown together favela buildings. Decaying colonial grandeur, riotous colours, formica and grime, Rio’s reputation as a city of contrast manifests itself visually as well as culturally.

Botafogo beach has perhaps the most beautiful view: a vista over the yacht club, historic Urca and the famed Sugarloaf, all topped off with stunning white sand and blue sea. On the first day, I head there, and lie on a practically deserted beach feeling rather smug (and wondering where the rest of Rio’s 6.3 million inhabitants are). It turns out that this stunning beach, this picture postcard view, is the most polluted beach in the city.

For the first month I am overwhelmed: lost, shy and often frustrated. With horror stories ringing in my head, I walk nowhere after dark and rarely use my smartphone in public. Without basic knowledge about which apps to use, no local knowledge and little sense of direction, I explore the city badly, feeling twinges of homesickness for London: a city I could navigate blindfolded. Then there are the cultural differences: Rio is a city of approximations, a journey may take 10 minutes or an hour depending on traffic, your change will always be rounded up or down and a tolerance level of 30 minutes surrounds any arrival or departure.

Perhaps the most striking thing is the language barrier: prior to arriving, I had been learning Portuguese for about a year, (with a long suffering tutor). This, (coupled with my awful Spanish) in theory should have allowed me to communicate at least enough to procure a taxi and coffee. Sadly, nothing can prepare one for the Carioca accent: a fast lilting singsong that bears little resemblance to the clipped Paulista accent I’ve been learning from. Few people speak English and I am dumb, unable to speak nor understand, left cursing my lack of preparation.

Conversations are impossible, people speed up and by the time my brain has caught up with what I think might have been said, it has moved on. I find the only time I can join in is when the conversation is directly about me or I am directly controlling it (a very self serving and surprisingly nerve racking task). For someone as talkative as me, this is both torturous and infuriating. As someone who both ‘loves words, and the possibilities of words’ (as Steinbeck put it) it’s now that I start to really appreciate the power of language. For it’s one thing to be able to talk about what you are doing now, tomorrow or last week and a very different one to be able to talk about what you think, believe and feel. As I struggle with the transactional, it seems like a big ask to ever be able to speak this complex language properly. Yet for reasons of sanity, self expression and pride, it must be done.

It’s worth it though, this great and flawed city: I have never seen, nor will see again, anything to beat a sunrise or set over Ipanema beach, or the view from Cristo Redentor. The charm, passion and sheer eccentricity of the inhabitants goes a long way towards taking the edge off even the long waits, creaking infrastructure and mind boggling bureaucracy.

So there you have it after five months of near silence. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer awesomeness of Rio de Janeiro. The challenges, contrasts and complexities of everyday life are like a language you need to understand before you can even begin to open your mouth. Shrouded in confusion and written in a strange alphabet, these realities take time to truly understand but are all the sweeter for the struggle. I am finally starting to be able to work with, instead of against it.

One person I meet shares a love of Charles Bukowski. We try and talk about why in English and I can see he is struggling to express himself, so we switch to Portuguese and I don’t understand. The group joins in and the conversation slips away from me, borne off in a cloud of ‘gíria’, unmastered tenses and one too many bottles of beer. But it’s no longer an issue, simply an indication of the road that still lies ahead.


Well, it’s been a long time hasn’t it?

*Blows dust off keyboard*

I had started this with the intention of it being regularly updated with bitesized chunks of info, thoughts and general stuff. Who knew that moving to a new city, learning a new language and working for yourself for the first time could be so absorbing? Lots of new stuff coming: as a teaser, there’s going to be a John Steinbeck vs. Channing Tatum post, as well as one on small fried things that aren’t scotch eggs. In the interim, here’s a photo of Ipanema at sunrise, taken from the top of Vidigal favela. It’s supposed to signal new starts/leafs and draw a line under the guilt I feel about being so neglectful of this blog.

Até em breve……


Nature needs you: are you man enough?

In Sydney Harbour… the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has energy right to call us back. (Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs, 1980)

I like to think I am a pretty outgoing person with the kind of repertoire of ‘banter’, comebacks and stock jokes that act as social currency in the UK. Yet, there is nothing like receiving a surf lesson from a strapping, suntanned Australian bloke to make one feel utterly useless. An uptight, London office worker with no balance who’s afraid of a ‘tiny’ wave, this stock humour is reduced to smiling, nodding and trying not to get too much salt water up my offended nose. Mike, our surf instructor has clearly spent his whole life outdoors and, judging by the puffing of chests and macho gamesmanship from the French 20 somethings in our group, I am not the only one he makes feel inadequate.

After Melbourne’s laid back cool and small town feel, Sydney is a real contrast. At Circular Quay, you’re greeted by the Sydney Opera House on one side and the Harbour Bridge on the other. The city’s two most famous icons ostentatiously displayed, so confident in itself it’s getting the clichés over with before you even start exploring.

The view from Manly ferry

Melbourne cultural ‘signals’ are taken from hipster foodiness, vintage fashion and cycling. Restaurants in hipster Fitzroy and Collingwood advertise organic and vegetarian food, locally sourced and prepared with pride. Fancy bicycles abound and you can even hire Boris Bike style steeds from stations around the city. Yet venture outside of these areas and there is a definite sense of a bubble, of a ‘them and us’. Head down Brunswick Street in Fitzroy and you’ll find local groups campaigning for investment in a new toll road to be diverted to improve the train system. In working class St Kilda, they’re objecting to plans to remove car parks and pedestrianise the high street, therby improving the tram service. This ‘hipsterisation’ has been the recent cause of protests in Berlin, and bad feeling in Hackney. Green living often gets lumped into this lifestyle with communications used to present a premium and identify tribes within groups of people. However, by getting too sucked into signaling of certain lifestyle choices, it can never appeal to the mainstream and ultimately politicises or stigmatises important issues and choices. In a country led by the recently re-elected arch conservative Tony Abbott, it’s a dangerous game to play. When OgilvyEarth conducted their Mainstream Green research in the UK, they found that 75% of the population thought that green was for crunchy hippies or rich elitist snobs, I wonder what the numbers would look like here.

I also wonder what Mike, the Australian surf instructor would think of it.

Sydney's comms are witty and no nonsense
Sydney’s comms are witty and no nonsense

Sydney represents a different type of cool and a different communication style. Despite the beach bum image, it feels like much more of a big city. Fashion is sharper yet more mainstream (think skyscraper heels and bodycon), the population more cosmopolitan and the vibe closer to what I had expected from Australia. Cycle lanes exist, but only the bravest dare use them. To be honest, I see very little in terms of sustainability comms at all: bar some amazing pop up ‘barber’ shops for Movember and heavy handed information and public service announcement. The local movement is strong here and I do see one charming example of guerilla gardening. Mainstream comms overall are witty, straightforward and sharp, with a focus on making the viewer feel smart, practical and insightful (cutting through the bullshit).

The local movement and 'Australian' products can be found everywhere
The local movement and ‘Australian’ products can be found everywhere
photo 4
Lipton comms lampoon Coca Cola’s heavily branded approach

Which brings me back to some kind of conclusion. In a country where ‘common sense’, pragmatism and straightforwardness are prized so highly, it strikes me that the hipster aesthetic can’t appeal to the mainstream. There needs to be more than one story, including a ‘macho’ version of sustainability. Again, when OgilvyEarth surveyed people in the UK, they found that only 18% of people thought that sustainability was a masculine issue and I can’t imagine it would be too different here. From Yvon Chouinard’s version of a man battling the elements, to an innovation take for the slick urbanite, to labeling for the urbanite poser, to sourcing stories for the purist coffee lover, there need to be multiple stories that go beyond vintage clothes and organic food to engage everyone.

Man vs. nature, macho sustainability
Man vs. nature, macho sustainability

Melbourne: poached eggs and epiphanies


Melbourne is a huge culture shock after Hong Kong. It’s a sprawling low rise mix of wild west and Berlin cool with stylish and disarmingly friendly residents. Vegetarian restaurants, bars, vintage stores and endless coffee shops line the graffitied streets of Fitzroy and laneways of the City, reminding me of Hackney or Montpelier in Bristol. Coffee is a serious business, brunch is the most important meal of the day and the north/south divide created by the Yarra river is a cultural as well as physical one. The weather is like an April day in the UK, flitting from bright sunshine, to intense cold wind to torrential rain in an instant. It’s familiar and strange all at once, both reminding me of home and the furthest away from it I’ve ever been.

It’s easy to see why Melbourne regularly gets voted the most livable city on Earth. The city is navigable, public transport workable, working hours seem reasonable and compensation adequate. The pace of life strikes me as one of gentle hedonism: a contented slow burn, fuelled mostly by (delicious) filter coffee and organic poached eggs. With my experience of urban living being the London lifestyle of sleep deprivation, intense highs, grinding lows and chaotic humanity, it’s surprisingly hard to get used to.

Comms and marketing are intriguing. There is a simple, direct and straightforwardness that is artless at times and refreshing at others. Common sense and straight talking are clearly valued. Sustainability communications seem few and far between. Those that I see are from familiar sources: local campaign groups, restaurants or in parks and fall into the usual camps of too rational, expressing ‘dos & don’ts’ signaling a premium, failing to connect action and consequence or misdirected humour.

Harry as 'Crapman'!
Harry as ‘Crapman’!
Wipe for Wildlife
Wipe for Wildlife

So, here’s a summary of what I’ve learned:

  • Australian history is fascinating: After a couple of days weaving in and out of vintage shops and drinking delicious fancy coffee (Proud Mary’s reputation is well deserved). I head to the Melbourne Museum to learn something about Australian history (a topic which I am woefully ignorant of). The aboriginal exhibition is frustrating at first, assuming knowledge which, as a Brit, I just don’t possess and alluding to a sensitivity which I therefore can’t initially comprehend. Displays interview living aborigines on subjects such as culture, possessions and respect and captioned objects suggest an approach to both art and culture which hasn’t changed much over thousands of years. Those that feature in the exhibition are articulate and fiercely proud of their heritage. The horrifyingly recent reality of the ‘White Australia’ immigration policy and the ‘Stolen generation’ of Aboriginal children is an insight into the divisions within Australian society and are currently front and centre in Australian politics. It is obvious that Australia has its own issues and a rich cultural heritage that is very different to ours, no matter how similar the culture might initially seem.
  • 9bn people can’t want the same stuff: In the aboriginal exhibition, I find a placard that neatly puts into words the uneasiness I felt about the proliferation of Western brands in Hong Kong and the ubiquity of the hipster sensibility:

    “Each of our different family groups or clans have different totems. Gilgar Gundtij- our totem is the emu. So we don’t eat the emu. Our neighbouring tribal family group, the Kerrupjmara, their family totem is the diamond headed snake, so they don’t eat that, but they eat the emu. And of course, if we were hungry, we would eat the diamond headed snake..”

    To someone who loves the experience of different cultures, this convergence of tastes, desires and aspirations just feels wrong. Also, when coupled with the increasing population, the demand for the same things is presumably increasing resource pressures for products such as coffee. I know, from previous work that companies such as Nescafe and Cadbury’s have already predicted this and are taking action with programmes such as the ‘Cocoa Plan’. However, it makes me think that growth strategies that don’t respect and encourage cultural diversity are inherently unsustainable.
  • Points of wonder are being used as ‘epiphany moments’: Another enormous difference from home is the exotic, colourful and totally alien flora and fauna. A visit to the Yarra Valley Healesville Sanctuary means meeting wombats, Tasmanian devils (sinister with sharp teeth and blood red ears), dingos, koalas and evil looking snakes and the Royal Botanical Gardens are beautiful. Half way up Guilfoyle’s volcano, there is a sign showing a view over Melbourne when it was built, to be compared with now. It then attempts to link the development of Melbourne (and our human impact) to climate change. Back at Healesville, they try it too, with signs asking visitors to ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ and using the dodgy ‘Crapman’ to promote recycled toilet tissue. The parks and zoos are trying to use the wonder and excitement of discovery as epiphany moments: moments which change points of view or behaviour, which OgilvyEarth’s Mainstream Green research found to be really important in forming people’s points of view on sustainability.
    The issue here is that it’s not always executed well. The messaging I saw was still too rational and often too literal. Humour, such as the oddly named ‘Crapman’ doesn’t really work and aspiration isn’t always used correctly (no one wants to be a ‘tosser’ but then I doubt anyone wants to be a ‘Watersaver’ either). Australia’s natural beauty and unusual fauna presents such an opportunity to create these epiphanies, but need to inject more emotion and create a clearer call to action to be truly successful.
'Epiphany' comms in the Royal Botanical Gardens
‘Epiphany’ comms in the Royal Botanical Gardens

My own epiphany comes whilst drinking beer late on in the week and pressing my friends about livability. I express doubts about Melbourne’s pace of life, and probe them about whether it is ‘enough’ for them after London. Surely this is a utopia and not a genuine alternative to London life? In response to the questioning he sips his beer, sighs a relaxed sigh and responds that he would find it hard going back to London, oscillating between a 1 and a 10 all the time, knowing that life could be a constant 7 to 8. Would I swap crowded tube journeys, incredible nightlife, sleep deprivation, cutting edge galleries and mass of humanity for this fun, chilled, smaller town lifestyle? Yes, I probably would.

Places to visit (that I can remember the names of): Vegie Bar, The Night Cat, Proud Mary, Huxtaburger and Huxtable, The Tyranny of Distance, ‘No Lights, No Lycra‘ (it will change your life)

On Brand (boom boom)

My next blog was supposed to be about the week I’ve spent in Melbourne. It’s on the way, but has been rudely interrupted by everyone’s favourite Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk (his words not mine) who has been causing a great deal of commotion this week for his New Statesman article and Newsnight interview, encouraging people not to vote, but to take action into their own hands and form an ‘inclusive movement of the left’.
Brand covers a wide variety of topics, from privilege and consumerism, to resource scarcity and economic meltdown. His compelling arguments and master wordsmithing have struck a chord with some and infuriated others, leading to descriptions such as the ‘Jeremy Clarkson of the left’ (my personal favourite). Like him or not, Brand is a master of public relations, a scintillating orator and obviously in possession of a keen mind. So, I thought I’d try and pull out a few nuggets on what sustainability marketers can learn from this latest tyrade:
  1. Framing is all important: When people talk about politics within the existing Westminster framework I feel a dull thud in my stomach and my eyes involuntarily glaze.” Not everyone cares about sustainability, in fact, most don’t at all when it’s framed as sustainability (don’t understand), waste (too boring), the future of our planet (too overwhelming). Just because Brand doesn’t care about the politics in it’s current form, doesn’t mean he doesn’t want the system to change. By reframing political reform as a social movement and using himself (pop culture icon that he is) as the messenger, Brand has created a connection with a topic which, he admits, most people (himself included) are ‘disenchanted’ with.
  2. Joyful relevance: “Serious causes can and must be approached with good humour, otherwise they’re boring and can’t compete with the Premier League and Grand Theft Auto. Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.” What sustainability marketing should be all about: mainstream appeal. Not everyone aspires to be a part of Friends of the Earth, or the Labour party, and we know from consumer research that sustainable behaviours are often seen as too difficult or time consuming. Making sustainable behaviour desirable (and not overtly about sustainability) moves it up the ‘to do’ list by creating a ‘pull’. References: Veja, Nike+
  3. What’s in it for me? “I deplore corporate colonialism but not viscerally. The story isn’t presented in a way that rouses me. Apple seems like such an affable outfit; I like my iPhone. Occasionally I hear some yarn about tax avoidance or Chinese iPhone factory workers committing suicide because of dreadful working conditions but it doesn’t really bother me, it seems so abstract. Not in the same infuriating, visceral, immediate way that I get pissed off when I buy a new phone and they’ve changed the fucking chargers, then I want to get my old, perfectly good charger and lynch the executives with the cable.” Here, Brand beautifully encapsulates the problems of communicating big, overarching issues with little tangible personal impact (think climate change) and illustrates the  kind of selective hearing that creates a value/action gap. Communicating around or creating nudges which have a direct consequence for the audience group (like the change in chargers) will always have more impact than trying to connect people with an overarching, wooly concept.
  4. To become mainstream, you have to be inclusive: “When Ali G, who had joined protesters attempting to prevent a forest being felled to make way for a road, shouted across the barricade, “You may take our trees, but you’ll never take our freedom,” I identified more with Baron Cohen’s amoral trickster than the stern activist who aggressively admonished him: ‘This is serious, you c***.'”  (Sorry mum). You just have to say the word ‘hipster’ in a room of people to get a negative reaction from someone. The status driven, premuimised, holier than though take on sustainability cannot become truly mainstream. It creates divides, and lends itself to becoming a fad. We need complementary approaches that normalise, reward and make sustainable living affordable for all to widen its appeal.
 There is much to disagree with in Brand’s post, but much to take from it too. He willfully ignores the power of brands and consumer spending as a form of democracy. He also selectively disregards new market models which are starting to subvert the traditional ‘shareholders first’ mantra (the social enterprise boom in Brazil, co-operatives and transformational business models such as Unilever’s). I’m cooking something up to write about that shortly. I agree with Brand that marketing can create complexity and confusion which leads to apathy, but it can (as he has done) create conversations, direct passions and distil feelings into clear points of view. Therefore, we would do well to pinch a few learnings from his headline grabbing antics.
Next blog on Melbourne shortly…..