Moving from “Me First” to “We First”
Jan 24, 2019
Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a consulting firm described as “a community of brands and consumers using social technology to create shared prosperity and positive change.” He is a member of the General Mills Digital Advisory Board, the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School, Ad Age’s Power150, and is an Expert Blogger for Fast Company.
Mainwaring spoke to AMA recently for an Edge Wise podcast about his new book We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World. The following is an edited version of that interview.
AMA: What do you mean by “We First?”
Simon Mainwaring: We First exists in the collective. It’s a way of looking at the world. On a macro level, We First is built on the premise that we now live in an intimately connected, mutually dependent, global community. If you look at 2008, what happened on Wall Street impacted Main Street. It impacted Iceland, Greece, the EU, and stock markets in the Middle East. We really got a strong sense of how connected we all are through the internationalization of currency, through multinational corporations, and through the complexity of our markets.
On a micro scale we are far more connected than ever before through social media. I can talk to somebody in Portugal, China, or Brazil in real time, thanks to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, simply because it’s now available, effectively free, and accessible to everyone.
On a macro scale we’re very mindful that we now live in a global community. The micro scale, which is our daily experience, has been transformed by social media. We First looks at business, management, customer service, and employee engagement through the lens of this global community, this new found connectedness.
AMA: So social media gave rise to We First?
SM: Social media has changed the dynamics that have necessitated a shift in the way we look at business. For a long time, media monopolies, elected officials, your boss at work, and so forth, largely dictated what you thought, bought, wore—whatever you thought was cool. Now there’s a new channel out there that changes the power dynamic. Every customer has the opportunity to be a content producer, distributor, syndicator, and curator, to coauthor the story that a brand tells. Before, a company or a brand was like the celebrity of its community. Now, because this power, this voice, is shared between customers and the brand, a brand needs to be the chief celebrant of its community. The We First mentality is as a counterpoint to the Me First mentality.
AMA: In your book you state that social media will make our economy more sustainable. Can you elaborate on that?
SM: Social media is tempering a lot of the excesses out there. First, it tempers excesses by allowing consumers or connected citizens to have a voice. For a long time management has been able to hide behind the corporate veil. Now, as we’ve seen with the WikiLeaks scandal and the hacking of companies’ information, there’s no such thing really as privileged or confidential information.
Second, if you look at some wonderful reports out there, the marketplace context is one of great distrust, which is not surprising after 2011 and a lot of the revelations that came out.
Third, the customer base, the citizen base, is armed with all the information available on the Internet and has the ability to share it through social media. So you’ve got a more transparent marketplace. So we have a more distrustful marketplace, coupled with a more informed and connected marketplace which can respond. So companies really do need to be more accountable for their practices. Perhaps the greatest challenge to brands or companies out there today is to be authentic in the first place, to be transparent in operation, and then to be accountable—even if they do make mistakes.
AMA: Can you give us some examples of companies that are incorporating We First-type initiatives into their businesses?
SM: There are many that come to mind, but one great example is Patagonia. They recently led the way with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which was front page news of the Business Section of The New York Times. They have taken their own benchmark, a model of transparency which they call the “Footprint Chronicles.” It allows you to look at factors including where a product was made, how the fabric was made, where it was manufactured, how much trucking was involved, and so on, to determine its impact on the environment.
They have now expanded that to the entire outdoor apparel industry, including their competitors and large players like Wal Mart to the point that 30% of the global apparel marketplace is committed to the sustainability index. So that’s transformative as an idea and it is a map that can be rolled out across other industries as well.
There’s Nike’s Green Exchange in which they opened up their intellectual property to other companies like Yahoo and Best Buy. Why? Because they recognized that climate change is a problem larger than their own personal interest, and that everyone needs to work together to solve it.
We’re also seeing cross-sector partnerships. Hewlett-Packard, Nike, and Girl Effect are working with the Clinton Global Initiative. The State Department is holding Ted Talks. People recognize that they need to work together in a collaborative sense and across sectors in order to achieve the scale of solutions we need to meet the challenges we face.
AMA: Organizations seem to be changing, hopefully for the better. Going forward, how will companies have to evolve to deal effectively with the new marketplace?
SM: Companies will have to deconstruct, in a sense. They will need to be less hierarchical in nature. They all need to be more effective listeners. They will have to be better aligned with their core values and be more authentic in the way they communicate with their customer base. They will also need to be more consistent, because there’s going to be so much noise and clutter out there. If you try to be all things to all people, you will just sound schizophrenic and you’ll get lost in the mix.
Like any period of great transition (think back to the early nineties with the digital revolution and the arrival of the Internet) there are going to be those who take a fearful posture and those who recognize the situation as an opportunity. The period right now is incredibly exciting. We have a chance to really engage with our audience and customer community, to tap into a focus group of millions of people talking about your brand in real time. We have a chance to, on a professional level, make a more meaningful contribution to society, and on a personal level, to find greater fulfillment by doing so.
So rather than being fearful, we should look at the challenges we face as an economy, as a society, as a global community, and say, “This is the opportunity for us to step up.” Let’s all repurpose our companies towards building a better world that in turn will drive our profits. It’s a very dynamic, exciting time, and there are enormous opportunities out there for those who embrace them.