Australian social enterprise ‘ThankYou.’ leverages a mix of mythology, passionate appeal and social shaming to get consumers, their customers and competitors to buy, sell and – maybe – license the brand.
Is that brilliant activist brand- and business building? Or is the concept of a ‘brand with a higher purpose’ being abused to bully your way to growth?
Just Another Start-Up by Millennials?
‘ThankYou.’ was founded by a trio of Australian student-entrepreneurs in Australia in 20081. The company started by selling bottled waters but has since has expanded into Food more broadly and into the Personal and Baby Care categories1. ThankYou’s “naturally-derived” products2 look sleek and chic – much like the many other brands using modern-minimalist designs, which have hit the shelves over the past decade. It’s apothecary-inspired bottles and jars blend right in with the likes of Aesop, Aveda, Soapbox Soaps, Hims or Hers.
But then, the brand claims not only to quench, nurture, moisturize and revitalize but also to work towards “ending extreme poverty.3” Does it make ThankYou. special?
Well, it is certainly not the only one to declare an ambitious ‘higher-purpose’ or tag itself as a ‘social enterprise.’ Think TOMS, Warby Parker or… Soapbox Soaps. In fact, declaring to be ‘purpose-driven’ has almost become a must-do among consumers brands, a point-of-parity in their marketing4.
Robin Hood Marketing?
What is rather exceptional about ThankYou is that it claims to invest 100% of its profits into the cause5 and the often-radical tactics the organization employs to get to these profits – public shaming, in particular.
In their native Australia and then in New Zealand the company has developed a reputation for putting pressure on leading mass retailers for them to stock its products. ThankYou has released videos sarcastically thanking them for “changing the world” […not…] on social media; they delivered the message in stunts where helicopters flew giant banners over their headquarters and, most importantly, they encouraged people to write to reluctant retailers to convince them to join the just cause through multiple social media campaigns – It seems that most of the retailers targeted caved and listed the brand.
Consumption Against Poverty?
The core argument supplied to people by ThankYou goes something like this: Humanity spends $63 trillion on consumer products each year while there are 736 million people living in poverty. That’s an injustice which must be undone by “flipping the system.”6 To the brand owners that means making retailers stock ThankYou so shoppers can generate the sales ThankYou needs generate profits and invest in eliminating extreme poverty through its charitable trust. It’s a bit convoluted but could be summarized as ‘consumption against poverty.’ — Consumption of ThankYou products, that is.
Fund Raising To Compete?
And those products have expanded into new categories over the years through a series of creative, public appeals and funding campaigns rather than straight advertisements. In 2016, for example, ThankYou launched a book summarizing its learnings from the first years of operation. It connected the launch with that of its baby care range which includes body care products, diapers and wipes and with its expansion into neighboring New Zealand.
The declared inspiration and goal to change the fact that “one mom in developing markets dies every 90 seconds … and 2.9million babies do not make it beyond their first month.”7 The declared challenge was that big category competitors would fight their launch with costly promotions that would fill consumer pantries and prevent ThankYou from generating sales and staying on shelf.
The solution proposed by the founder trio in one of their theatrical-cum-educational videos (that look inspired by the early videos of Dollar Shave Club): “Pay what you want for the book … whether $25 or $25,000…” with the goal to raise $1.2 million to market the new product line in the expanded market. Or as co-founder Daniel Flynn tells viewers to “… soon save millions of lives and fund the future.“7
A Spectacular Ultimatum?
The video garnered more than 550 thousand views and book-related ‘donations’ exceeded the funding goal after a few weeks (people paying an average $35 per book 8).
Inspired by these successes and more recent, significant profits generated from the sale of hand sanitizer during the pandemic crisis, ThankYou has decided to turbo-charge its reach and scale by employing their unconventional and sometimes coercive tactics on a global level: They are giving the world’s leading consumer goods companies an ultimatum in what they must hope will become another spectacular, world-awaking social media stunt.
In a video mixing emotional appeal, brand myth-making9 and what feels like a ransom request, Daniel Flynn talks to viewers about a letter his company sent to P&G, Unilever and nine of their biggest competitors. In the letter the ThankYou team gives the two Consumer Goods giants two weeks (the video cuts to a timer ticking away) to have a Zoom meeting with them and start negotiating a Global ThankYou brand licensing deal… or else.
To underscore his demands, Flynn appeals to viewers to post “I’m in, are you?” and #ThankYouToTheWorld on their social media platforms, tagging P&G and Unilever and to “talk to your mon, call everyone. Use what’s in your power…”
The stated objective is to “…take down the true goliath, the $63 billion consumer system that makes the rich richer and leaves the poor behind” by making that system produce and sell ThankYou branded products and pay license fees to the Australian start-up.
How is one to evaluate this company and its actions? Are we looking at very creative, if somewhat aggressive Young Turks and their ‘activist brand’ testing the limits of how far and fast they can drive consumers, commerce and competitors towards adopting their selfless mission?
Or are we witnessing some greedy founders abusing humanitarian crisis by harnessing the empathy and social media power they can generate and turning them into a cyber bullying device?
Do the social causes and ‘complete commitment’ to them – ie. “100% of profits donated” – justify the aggressive means? Or is it misguided to apply different standards to ‘social enterprise’ versus their ‘commercial’ competitors – can blackmailing never be good?
So, how do you assess ThankYou? – A social enterprise ‘Ueber-Brand’ in the making?10 Or a company that abuses the moral license people might be willing to give to those that do good?
Footnotes and Further Reading
As you shape your opinion and prepare to comment (you are encouraged to do so below!), consider that social enterprises like ThankYou are money-making companies. ThankYou’s staff are not volunteers, the company made over $30 million in 2018 and it spends on advertising, promotion and all the other things that a consumer business spends on. In fact, a review of ThankYou’s 2017-18 financial reports by news.com.au11 shows that less than half of the company’s AUS $1.46 million in profits were transferred to its charitable trust – $698,296. Compare that to $4.56 million that went to the founders and their staff of less than fifty, nearly $580 thousand that were spent on ‘travel and entertainment’ and over $800 thousand dollars on ‘office expenses’.
1 – While Beauty Care seems to be their flagship business, ThankYou also sells water and has expended into the broader food (cereal, water) and baby care and categories.
2 — https://thankyou.co/categories/thankyou-nurture
3 – Watch co-founder Daniel Flynn tell the about the brand evolution and goals in this video by the company: https://youtu.be/Yx44cXeKC7s
4 – We talk about the ‘must for mission’ in our books on how brands can elevate themselves above the average product and gain our esteem and willingness to pay a premium. We call them Ueber-Brands. But as you will read in “Rethinking Prestige Branding” and “Brand Elevation”, what these brands DO and how is as important as the Dreaming and Daring in building-up the privileged position.
5 – Here is “100% for” explained by the company: https://thankyou.co/about/100-for
6 – Here is the more complete rationale provided on the company’s website: https://thankyou.co/about
7 – Here is the launch video ThankYou produced to introduce its ‘ChapterOne’ book fund raiser and Baby Care product line: https://youtu.be/Yx44cXeKC7s
8 – Here an interview with the founders on their launch fundraising success and unique social activism-based appeach: https://www.smartcompany.com.au/growth/how-thankyou-group-raised-1-4-million-by-asking-supporters-to-pay-what-they-wanted-for-a-book/
9 – Flynn frequently draws on the David-vs-Goliath myth drawn on so often by start-ups but flips it to show the power-of-the-people harnessed by ThankYou in an interesting way. Read in more detail how brands can leverage mythmaking in “Brand Elevation-Lessons in Ueber-Branding”. – Its all what you want to achieve through the myth and narratve Myth is a good thing as we talk in our book.
10 – JP Kuehlwein and Wolf Schaefer have coined the label ‘Ueber-Brand’ to describe brands that are able to create meaning beyond the material, seduce people and make them willing to pay a premium… or ‘donate’ their money. Here is a short summary of what drives the appeal of Ueber-Brands: http://bit.ly/UeberSummary
10 – Here is an article by The Sydney Morning Herald that links to the News.com.au review of ThanYou’s financial statements but also reports what the company has to say in its (forceful) defense: https://www.smh.com.au/business/small-business/a-thousand-tonnes-of-bricks-come-down-inside-social-enterprise-growth-20191107-p5386h.html
For more insights into what drives the success of purpose-driven brands read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands,” and other posts on this blog-cast.
To learn how to develop an Ueber-Brand yourself, read our guide “Brand Elevation – Lessons in Ueber-Branding.”
Both books feature plenty of case studies to illustrate the principles and process.