Simon Mainwaring: We First

I was intrigued by the outreach for Simon Mainwaring‘s new book, We First. It’s not your typical social media book and I wanted to learn more from Simon about why it matters.

Q: What are the drivers behind We First? What are the key factors that make this an important book to read today?

One of the most important drivers of We First is the arrival of the social business marketplace. A fundamental shift has occurred in that consumers now have a platform through which they not only have a voice but also can join their voices together and become a chorus for change in how business operates. This change is directed squarely at brands because consumers now realize, thanks to information available on the Internet, that the traditional custodians of change—governments and philanthropies—are stretched to their limits due to historic debt and a lack of resources. Consumers are therefore looking to their brands to play a more significant role in social change.

As a corollary to that, we are also witnessing a growing awareness of the fact that we now live in a world that is an interdependent, hyper-connected global community. If 2008 taught us anything, it was that what happens on Wall Street has an impact all around the world. In the same way, social media connects us all together, anywhere in the world.

Together, these two forces are driving a shift into a globally social business marketplace – and that has an enormous impact on business, on consumers, on marketing, and how we build a brighter future for ourselves, for our country and for our businesses. This makes We First an important book to read for anyone involved in business strategy, marketing, advertising, branding, as well as consumers and social activists who are interested in learning how they can impact social transformation through their actions.

Q: Social media is certainly popular, but mainstream media still has much more reach and ability to influence. Why did you decide to focus on social media?

I chose to focus on social media for many reasons that reflect the two audiences for this book. First, on the consumer side, social media is now more important than mainstream media because consumers control social media. The tools of social media belong to them and every consumer can be a producer, content creator, curator, or distributor. Through social media, consumers bypass the mainstream media; I call it “citizen media” or “the Wedia.”

Second, social media taps into a powerful force far more effectively than traditional media: our emotional connections with others. Social media allows all of us to engage in our shared humanity and reawaken our empathy for each other. It enables us to experience the lives and experiences of others in real time, so that we cannot neglect the realities of poverty, injustice, and disparity of wealth that our system of capitalism creates in the world.

As for corporations and brands, social media is becoming more important to them than traditional media, too. First, it creates a worldwide focus group of millions of customers around the world. Through social media, brands can engage their customers in far better ways to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships that are perfect for building goodwill, brand loyalty, and purchases. Of course, social media is also a threat to brands because there is no room to hide from consumers. Any brand that is not transparent, accountable and authentic in their communications will be subject to consumers using social media to criticize and destroy their reputation.

So, in short, I chose social media because it is the dynamic that connects consumers and brands far more effectively, meaningfully, and purposefully than traditional media. It is the most important form of communication that will determine the media landscape of the future. 

Q: Your promotional video opens with a strong condemnation of capitalism – yet its purpose is to sell the book. How do you reconcile this apparent dissonance?

It sounds like you are asking me the question about why I am selling a book if I am so against capitalism, as if I should just give the book away or publish it on a free web site. The short answer to that is that books are still one of the primary forms of delivering ideas and intellectual content to people, and even books cost money to produce so there has to be some type of cost involved. I am also delivering my message using many other sources, some of which are indeed free, such as my web sites, YouTube videos that I have posted, and other media too.

But this question also asks why the book and video are so anti-capitalism? To that, my answer is that this is a misunderstanding of both the video and the book. Neither one condemns capitalism per se, but they are a rallying call to reengineer or redesign the engine of capitalism so we can use this great economic system for better purposes. We First is not anti-capitalism or anti-profit; as a movement, it is about how we must learn to use capitalism more intelligently to build greater prosperity for the entire world. The We First ethos seeks to condemn only the worst excesses of capitalism, such as the greed and short-sighted profit-making that led to the meltdown of 2008. Profit-for-profit’s sake and purposeless profits — these aspects of capitalism are the cause of an enormous disparities of opportunity and prosperity among people both in the developing world and here in the United States. We First seeks to raise our awareness that we must learn to practice a different type of capitalism, one that more wisely spreads greater prosperity to more people.

Besides, let me point out that my book is doing exactly what I am asking others to do—to use capitalism as a constructive, positive, contributory force for good. For example, 10% of the proceeds that I derive from the book to “Girl Up,” a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that channels the energy and compassion of young American girls to help provide the needs of the hardest-to-reach adolescent girls in poor regions of the world. I invite everyone to support Girl Up here.

Q: How can companies adopt a We First mentality while not losing ground to competitors?

Adopting a We First mentality does not automatically lead to losing ground to competitors. Companies will still compete on the quality and design of the products and services they produce to win their customers. In a We First world, there are still winners and losers, and everything in between. But We First also suggests that we must reframe our notion of competition when being competitive makes no sense in terms of wasting resources or jeopardizing people or the planet by not solving our problems.

We can see this new thinking in various collaborations among some of the leading-edge companies, such as the Nike Green XChange and Patagonia’s Sustainable Apparel Coalition, where competitive brands are agreeing to cooperate and define mutually beneficial manufacturing methods for all of them to adopt because it serves the planet and people. We can also see it in the food companies that supported the First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity initiative, where all these companies recognized they have a vested interest in helping children develop healthier eating habits. These are examples of companies that recognize that they need to operate in a way that fits squarely into the reality of our connected global community. They are increasingly agreeing to work together to solve the problems that are larger than their own brands. In so doing, they earn the goodwill of their own community that in turn drives their profits higher.

Secondly, it is simply plain truth that some values are universal – and no brand can lay exclusive claim to them. They apply to society at large. So brands must not only do outreach with their core values, but realize their core values apply to problems and solutions far greater than themselves.

Q: What industries do you see moving first and last towards We First?

It’s not a question of which industries will be first or last at all. The determining factor will depend more on what economist Joseph Shumpeter called “creative destruction,” by which he was referring to the fact that any industry that cannot keep up with change brought on by new technologies will naturally fall by the wayside. There will always be change and those that cannot adapt to change will be the necessary casualties. We have already seen many casualties such as the music industry, home movies industry, publishing, newspapers and magazines, and even the advertising industry.

What I predict for the future is that creative destruction will be a function of the inability to adapt to social media. Those companies that fail to use social media to conduct social business will lose ground to those that do. So in this sense, what determines which industries will move first and which will move last is a question of which industries learn how to engage with their customers and communities most directly through social media. The companies that succeed in the future will be distinguished by the quality of their listening and their willingness and skill at encouraging their customers to co-create their brand stories.  

Q: Is a shift towards a We First mindset in business inevitable? How long before a majority of companies get there?

Yes, I believe it is inevitable for three reasons. First, customers are creating communities in their own right and this will continue to give them a greater voice and stronger leverage to influence companies and push them away from the old mindsets of Me First capitalism. Second, customers are already creating dialogues with brands, proving that cooperation and collaboration pay off for both sides. We are already seeing win-win situations where socially responsible brands are winning customers and building reputations based on their willingness to listen to their customers’ needs. And third, customers are hyper-aware of the crises affecting the world right now—so it is inevitable that they will look to the companies they support with their buying power to play a more active role in social transformation.

As such, brands need to overcome their hierarchical structures, their top-down leadership style and realize that they are now partners with their customer community that co-authors the stories they tell. This means that brands must seek to work more effectively with their employees, their consumers, and with other brands in other industries so that we can all create a more sustainable society in which all businesses can thrive.

I believe that the adjustment to a We First ethos will take a period of perhaps five to seven years. We are already in a period right now in which social business is being integrated into large companies that have the resources and foresight to change. At the same time, consumers are getting more sophisticated in terms of their use of social media tools, so their dialogues are getting more sophisticated, too.

Ultimately, I see a 5 to 7 year process in front of us, at the end of which I believe we won’t even be able to imagine the time when consumers only listened to television spot ads rather than having dialogues with their brands. 


Many thanks to Simon for sharing!

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  1. Great interview, Peter. Social media users are getting more and more powerful every day. Simon is right, and i like the word he uses “co-author” to describe how the consumer community is contributing to the storytelling of companies. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.

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