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Where Other Advocacy Groups Fear To Tread

By Brent Schulkin March 14, 2013

Usually advocacy groups are very interested in partnering with us to do campaigns. But this latest campaign? This one made them nervous.

I like it when they get nervous. We’re here to disrupt the old way of doing things. If disruption is a lightning bolt, nervousness is the storm cloud that let’s you know you’re in the right place.

It started when our own Alex Gold had a conversation with Ricky, the owner of Yuubi. Yuubi is a sushi restaurant in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond District. They are known for serving delicious, high-quality sushi. They are not known for sustainability.

Now I’ve got a bit of an activist streak, and I think a lot about sustainability. If I had walked into Yuubi, I probably would have started talking about environmental catastrophes, the critical importance of avoiding overfishing and helping to protect our fragile marine ecosystem. This approach would probably cause your typical restaurant owner to nod and smile while ushering me out the door.

But Alex has a better approach. He walks in and starts talking about how we are going to do a group buying campaign to drive sales. Usually at this point a small business owner will assume that we are like Groupon, or other daily deal sites. But when Alex explains that we don’t do discounts, the merchant’s eyes open a little wider. When he explains that our community is happy to pay full price because they are driven by values, the eyes open even wider. By the time he describes the positive marketing value of doing a campaign, Alex has succeeded where I might have failed: He has the business’ full attention.

When Alex spoke with Ricky, he explained *why* Carrotmobbers care about sustainability. He explained *why* a sushi restaurant could have a big impact by sourcing more sustainable seafood. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Ricky got excited about making Yuubi a sustainable sushi restaurant. He was all for the concept, but his concern was that customers wouldn’t care, and he would end up losing money by investing in more expensive sustainable fish that no one wanted.

Did you catch that? That was it. That fleeting moment is the whole point of what we’re doing. Our whole theory of change is related to that simple decision point: “Will I make money or lose money?”

Sometimes advocacy is SEXY, with it’s sweeping pronouncements, bold leaders, radical actions, and grand moral victories. And I love it. But SEXY does not equal IMPACT. Sometimes impact is not sexy. I mean, did you see Allan Savory’s recent TED talk about desertification, rotational livestock grazing and holistic zzzzzzzzzzz? The potential impact on climate change is astounding, but even if he put on a silk robe and gave that talk while reclining alluringly on a rotating candlelit bed as sultry French supermodels gave the audience biodynamic champagne and backrubs, you STILL couldn’t make it sexy. My point is that an enormous potential impact is often hiding in the mundane, non-sexy business decisions of people like Ricky. It’s spreadsheets. It’s ROI, quantified. This is a far cry from yo grandmomma’s advocacy.

We pulled it off, and got Yuubi to agree to an awesome campaign: For 3 weeks they are pilot testing sustainable Arctic Char for the first time. They are going to see how many customers buy vouchers to support them. They are going to see how many people order Arctic Char. They are going to see if we’re right when we say there are people in San Francisco who care about this enough to go out to dinner at Yuubi. (If you are one of them, seriously buy a voucher.) They are setting 40% of Carrotmob sales aside, and those funds will go towards expanding the Arctic Char pilot, or possibly testing out another sustainable option.

So, back to the storm cloud of nervous electricity.

We reached out to some advocates that we thought would be interested in getting involved with the campaign, but we found that they were nervous or uncomfortable with this campaign.

Partially it was because Yuubi hasn’t built up sustainability cred yet. They don’t know our environmentalist lingo and secret handshake.

How can we be sure that they are worthy of joining our exclusive club? You mean we can’t guarantee that they will forever after only have perfect A+ sustainability? Why are they worried about practical business matters when I perceive this to be a moral issue? Plus, this campaign isn’t nearly SEXY enough. We all know that Tataki is the pioneer of sustainable sushi in San Francisco, they do so much, and it is soooo sexy. How could a few weeks of Arctic Char match sexy Tataki?

My answer to all of this is simple: Impact.

Supporting the businesses that are already the most sustainable is essential, and wonderful. But I don’t believe it can drive as much impact as our broader approach can. Some would argue that if we all only go to Tataki, the lesson for Yuubi will be that they need to embrace more sustainability to make more money. But that’s not the lesson. Failing to buy a voucher in this campaign only teaches Yuubi that they cannot run a successful business selling sustainable fish. There is a time and a place for purity tests. But in this case, your purity test will only sabotage our potential impact.

My nervous advocate friends, you had no problem getting on board when we did a campaign with Thanksgiving Coffee or Mission Cheese. Those were easy because they are so obviously sustainable businesses. No one was going to call you a sellout. Here, you don’t get to safely hide behind a legacy and a track record. If you want to drive impact on this new frontier, you have to stand up and say that you believe in this theory of change. Do you?

If this piques your interest, come drink a bunch of sake with me, talk about this, talk about sustainable seafood with a local expert, and then eat sustainable arctic char for dinner this Saturday at 5pm!

And if you read this far you damn well better buy a voucher!


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