This is an extract from Tim Duggan’s new book Cult Status: How to Build a Business People Adore by Tim Duggan, Pantera Press, available now.
Strong communities are built around strong missions. A clear purpose is a magnet that attracts followers and helps to unite them under the same banner. It isn’t a new concept: there have always been defiant leaders who have used their positions to help others see their vision.
This type of leader used to be the outlier, but now the world is catching up with them. Some of these pioneers, the godparents of modern-day untrepreneurs, created companies with such firm values baked into the foundations that they are still going strong today.
The Body Shop
Anita Roddick opened a small shop when she was in her early thirties and raising two young children by herself while her husband was off fulfilling his lifelong dream to ride a horse from Buenos Aires to New York. Inspired by her travels in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific, Anita sold simple creams and hair-care products made with natural ingredients. To keep the costs down, she used minimal packaging, offered discounts to customers who brought back their containers, and gave people the ability to add perfume scents to products after they’d bought them. All of these behaviours were initially driven by a need to keep the costs as low as possible.
As the number of Body Shop stores grew, so too did Anita’s ambitions, using the power that comes with success to ensure all products were not tested on animals, didn’t contain synthetic chemicals and used refillable biodegradable containers. Anita was a refreshing and no-bullshit businesswoman, and within 15 years, The Body Shop had stores all over the UK. They now number more than 3000 stores in 66 countries.
‘She was the first person I ever saw who put business and purpose together,’ says Jan Owen, the former CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians. ‘She was the first person who went and worked the supply chain, which nobody had ever done on their products, and went right back to the source and worked with local communities to ensure that they got the profits back into their communities.’ In 2006, The Body Shop was controversially bought by French cosmetics giant L’Oréal for US$1.14 billion. Anita Roddick sadly died 18 months after that.
Ben & Jerry’s
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were both 27 years old when they opened an ice cream shop in a converted gas station in Vermont in 1978. As their company, Ben & Jerry’s, grew, they injected their strong values into the company mission, including donating 7.5 per cent of their annual profits to community projects. They called it ‘caring capitalism’ and created a three-part mission statement to guide their decision-making with the aim of creating linked prosperity for everyone connected to their business: suppliers, employees, farmers, franchisees, customers and neighbours.
They divided their mission into three parts – product, economic and social – with the central aim that all three parts must work together and thrive equally. That regular push and pull between all sides of the business was key to their success as they grew into a well-known global brand. In 2000, they sold the company to the multinational food conglomerate Unilever for US$326 million. After a few expected initial cultural challenges, the company has largely been able to maintain its strong social purpose, and even drive its parent company to adopt some of its core values.
Yvon Chouinard always loved the outdoors. He camped, climbed mountains and rappelled down cliff faces. In his early twenties he began selling the metal spikes that climbers drive into cracks in the rock to attach ropes to as they scale the walls. That soon evolved into gloves, hats and shirts, and in 1973 he founded Patagonia with a passion for the environment and genuine sustainability.
‘I knew that I would never be happy playing by the normal rules of business,’ he wrote in his book Let My People Go Surfing. ‘I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from those pasty-faced corpses in suits I saw in airline magazine ads. If I had to be a businessman, I was going to do it on my own terms.’
Patagonia now sells around US$1 billion of clothes every year. Instead of shying away from causes, they doubled down on their firm’s values. In the 2018 US midterm elections, Patagonia formally endorsed several candidates. When they received a US$10 million tax break they didn’t feel was warranted, they donated the entire amount to grassroots organisations fighting the climate crisis. That’s on top of the one per cent of annual sales they already donate.
Perhaps their most unconventional stance is that they actively encourage their customers to repair, reuse and re-wear their clothes, with a lifetime guarantee. ‘One of the most responsible things we can do as a company is to make high-quality stuff that lasts for years and can be repaired, so you don’t have to buy more of it,’ reads their website.
Yvon believes that everyone involved with a company, whether you’re a founder, employee, investor or consumer, is responsible for five key elements: the health of the business, the workers, customers, community and nature. In The Responsible Company he writes that each of these is equally as important as the others, and you need to balance all of them. ‘If you don’t have a healthy business, then you’re not going to be able to have much impact. Equally, if you don’t give a shit about your customers, then you’ll eventually end up as an irresponsible company.’
Pioneers like Ben, Jerry, Anita and Yvon were considered ‘hippies’ even ten years ago for considering their customers’ values as centrally as their own. They were ahead of their time because they cared about their impact as much as their revenue and about setting a strong mission-driven vision that attracted others who shared the same belief into their communities.