At FoodPro23 (Hosted by BC Food & Beverage Association) I dared a full-house of industry professionals to revel in the unreasonable, to recommit to their passion and purpose and to do things differently. I dare say it hit the mark. You can stream or download the full 20-min presentation here and you can read my full transcript below.
Bob Stamnes, Co-CEO of Ethical Food Group, FoodPro23 | June 15, 2023
Sometimes being reasonable can be a bad choice.
It's June, 1989 with no money and no clients I started my advertising agency out of a condo in Falls Creek [Vancouver]. My grandmother has just passed away, leaving my parents a small inheritance. They lent me $25,000 to start Glennie Stamnes with my business partner, Rob Glennie. Over the next 10 years, we grow our agency to 55 people, including an office in Winnipeg. We win major awards and clients working with some of the biggest and best brands in Canada and beyond. I am on top of the world running the business of my dreams.
In late 1999, I find myself in our boardroom with my lawyer, a senior accountant from KPMG and two of our board members—Molson has centralized its business to Toronto, our Citizens Bank client (part of Vancity) has closed its doors because they can't meet their bank charter obligations, we're at the beginning of the dot com bust and every web job we have has been put on hold… and to make matters worse, Virgin drinks, who we've launched nationally in Canada, has just stiffed us for a half a million dollars. That makes me in the short span of just three months, $2M in debt.
Our accountant looks across the boardroom table at me and says, “Bob, you have to declare bankruptcy.” I am physically and emotionally paralyzed, the room is spinning, and I blurted out, ”I can't!.” He leans back in his chair, puts down his pen and says, “Bob, you don't understand. You have no choice. Be reasonable!”
Well, everything seems to be moving in slow motion for me at this point, except for my heart. My parents who are marginally middle class have their house up on my line of credit, I have my house up on that same line of credit, if I declare bankruptcy, my parents will lose their home and I'll lose my home. My life savings and my credibility are on the line. I think about our staff and their family and their livelihoods. This is going to be a very bad family Christmas dinner.
I reflect back on all the accolades that we've received over the course of these last three years:. Gold for Advertising Effectiveness at the New York Festivals, record sales that we helped Toyota achieve, new business won like the Vancouver Canucks, the Vancouver Grizzlies, and WhistlerBlackcomb. We earned this business because we were a company that chose to be and did the unexpected, the unconventional, the unpredictable. It was right there in our positioning line: It's different here.
Right then and there, I decided to commit and recommit to what has worked in our business. My team and I put together a unique promotional business plan, developing campaigns for our clients exclusively with those major media suppliers that we owe money to. We don't beg for forgiveness. What we do is develop strategies and promotions that up to that point were unheard of within our industry. What I don't do is declare bankruptcy.
This gets harder. My life becomes a living hell. Some of the suppliers decide to play chicken with me and my offer. Other suppliers threatened to go directly to my major clients like Toyota and Elections British Columbia. Two very long, hard and painful years later, after going from 55 people to now only five people plus myself, I pay off my loans, we get outta debt, and in the process, I earn the respect of my colleagues, my clients, those suppliers, and what remains of my staff. A few years later, my business is more successful than I ever could have imagined.
So how did this happen? How did I go from groveling for my existence to now operating a business that helps brands succeed and create a better world?
I decided and dared to revel in the unreasonable.
If you want your business to survive the worst of times and flourish beyond your wildest dreams, in the best of times, you're going to want to have your own relationship with the unreasonable.
Sounds easy, right? Just be unreasonable and everything will be great. Wrong.
You know, in our world, in our society, from a very early age, we are taught to conform, to not rock the boat, to blend in. But yet far too often in our end industry, the food industry, we need to stand up and stand out. Yet we don't. Why?
Because we live in the age of average.
We see this virtually every day, played out in every scenario from the cities we live in, our homes, the cars we drive, the coffee shops we visit, the books we read, the media we consume right down to our toothbrushes.
So why does this matter? Why does this matter to you? Well, unless we have mountains of money to spend in promoting our brand, we simply cannot afford to live in the age of average. We must be unreasonable. So what does unreasonable look like anyway?
Here's three brands that either PS&Co. or the Ethical Food Group have either created, supported, or invested in.
We rebranded the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs to simply The Forum. The Forum is all about diversity and equity and inclusion, but we rebranded the Forum as Women Kicking Ass.
Smart Sweets. You're gonna hear from Tara in just a little bit. I first met Tara when they were seven people and they needed office space and they moved into our building. I watched that brand grow from those seven people to 50 plus people sampling everywhere and anywhere they could, kicking sugar, not candy—reveling in the unreasonable.
Ethical Food Group investment Humble Potato Chips. You know, if you took all of the potato chip bags in the landfill, they would circle the globe 32x. Jeff and Alicia decided to create the world's first and only plastic-free compostable potato chip bag, reveling in their own unreasonable.
I'd like you to spend a moment and look at this quote behind me. [Insert Quote] This quote is very relevant. Why? Because it reminds me of many of the food entrepreneurs here in the room today. And there is that word again, unreasonable.
So right now, I'm gonna help you revel in the unreasonable, and I want you to help yourself in what your own unreasonable looks like.
We have created three Brand Commandments, an easy to use guide to elevate your brand to the next level.
Brand Commandment #1: Make Creative Your Constitution.
There's a reason why we insert the word Constitution into our brand commandments. Number 1, the definition of the word constitution is a body of fundamental principles and you must make creative one of your fundamental principles, part of your operating system. Like a line item that says creativity on your P&L. I wanna share with you how one brand has made creative their constitution through a very simple foundational positioning line.
(Wholly Veggies - commercial)
Ha ha. You just ate vegetables. A very simple positioning line. You know, creative does not have to be time consuming. Creative does not have to be a massive media campaign. Creative does not need to be expensive. Think about creative as it relates to your website. Think about creative as it relates to your email signature. Think about creative as it relates to your Instagram feed. Cost effective production with a simple positioning line.
So, how do we make creative and brand commandment number one our constitution? By being funny. And if you're not funny, by being seductive, and if you're not seductive, be outrageous, or, as I'll show you shortly… outraged.
Brand Commandment #2: Change What's Normal.
(Rest in peace bacon - commercial)
THIS™—that's the name of the brand. They did a mock funeral in downtown London, complete with mourners—changing what's normal.
You know, it's really important that we get the packaging right, that we get the brand right, that we get the last six feet right in the grocery store, but far too often we don't think outside of the grocery store, about taking our brand outside or thinking about how we're going to externalize our brand, beyond our website and beyond the things we need to ensure that our e-commerce site is working as well as it should.
So how, how do we do that? How do we change what's normal? By changing what's cool like THIS did with the funeral for bacon. By changing what's normal, by changing what people aspire to do. If your brand had to go out this weekend, what would that look like if you had to promote your brand outside of the grocery store? Think about changing what's normal.
Brand Commandment #3: Go For The Ego.
You know, there is lots of research out there which will tell you that consumers want to do the right thing, that they want a better world. Yet there's a disconnect between what that perception is or what they want to do and what they actually end up doing. And there's lots of reasons for that: price, availability, lack of awareness (You know, I saw that B Corp label on the bag but I'm really not quite sure what that means). There’s a growing skepticism and cynicism amongst consumers that brands are deliberately greenwashing.
Well, a brand that has avoided that trap and has gone for the ego, and is well known to everyone in this room, is Liquid Death. Liquid Death has created a brand going for the ego that people now wear like jewelry or purse. By going for the ego and not focusing on sustainability and going down the rabbit hole of telling people all the reasons why plastic is bad and aluminum is better for drinking water. That's obviously resulted in phenomenal growth and sales for Liquid Death.
Think of a brand like Tesla. Even though it's doing good for the environment in terms of electric vehicles, people are buying those cars because they're hot, because they like those vehicles.
So when you think about your own brand, go for the ego, because ethical isn't good enough. Ethical is simply table stakes and what we need to do. But go for the ego and don't worry about explaining the complexities of sustainability.
You know, we used these three brand commandments in creating our own brand, the Ethical Food Group. I mentioned Tara earlier, when they were operating in our building, I realized that they needed help beyond the things that we do—marketing, communications, creative design, media—and brands who want to make the world better need help with sales, manufacturing, distribution, merchandising, insurance, finance, and most often times capital.
We formed the Ethical Food group with like-minded companies that have the same principles and ethics as the brands that we're supporting. Through our partners at ZGM, Alberta's largest communications group, we partnered ourselves in PS&Co. to form the Ethical Food Group— values-based brands, founders and investors supporting regenerative farming, sustainable communities, and low to zero carbon footprints. Our vision is to create the Proctor & Gamble of sustainability.
(Ethical Food Group video)
That is not your typical food company commercial. We were delighted to be able to premier this campaign to you here for the first time today and show you how we walk the talk by reveling in our own unreasonable.
So for you to revel in the unreasonable, use our three brand commandments: Make Creative Your Constitution (be funny, be seductive, be outrageous, or as you just saw, be outraged), Change What's Normal (change what's cool, change what's normal by changing what people either aspire to or what people experience) and Go For The Ego (ethical isn't good enough, those are simply the table stakes. Go for the ego. Don't worry about explaining the complexities of sustainability).
You know, whether or not you are in an unfriendly boardroom faced with very tough business decisions, or you are running the business of your dreams… commit and recommit to what works. Use the three brand commandments and watch your business succeed like never before.
Revel in the unreasonable. I dare you.
Thank you very much.
Note: You can stream or download the full 20-min presentation here.