The times, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, definitely seem to be changing. It is remarkable to have observed a growing number of global brands stepping into the political arena over the last few years. In the past larger brands have been especially cautious about the causes they support, often choosing uncontroversial areas, side-stepping issues they regard as divisive, and avoiding politics altogether (at least overtly; lobbying behind the scenes is a different matter altogether).
Consumers though, especially the younger audiences—Millennials and Gen Z—are increasingly looking to brands to take a stand and to engage in social and environmental issues. “Brands are so embedded in our lives now, people look to those companies with whom they feel connected to stand for something, to use their platform to make a difference,” observes Lisa Farr Johnstone, co-founder, and mission-lead for OPTIMIST Drinks, an LA-based non-alcoholic beverage brand. “It certainly helps inform my consumer choices across the board. The feminist rallying cry—the personal is political—has morphed into ‘the purchase is political.’ I don’t mean political in the limited red versus blue sense here, I am talking about the ‘body politic,’ society as a whole. I will avoid many products specifically because I know the company’s record on the environment, or on workers’ rights.”
Just as important though is choosing brands and products that actively do good, that make a tangible difference to society. The brand she has created with her husband is very much purpose-driven. OPTIMIST Drinks has a clear mission centered on mental wellbeing. They describe their first range of products, and the publishing platform they are creating as ‘tools for optimists’, and regard their brand as part of the wave of new sustainability which encompasses people and the planet. She talked us through some of the key steps in the process of establishing a mission-based brand in the new ‘roaring 20s.’
Decide you want to make a change. Then do it.
People often ask what came first, the product, the brand, or the mission? For OPTIMIST, it is almost impossible to say. It’s the chicken and egg conundrum. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that there was never any doubt that OPTIMIST Drinks would have a mission at its core.
I spent the past decade working in the curious space between the for-profit and non-profit sectors. In the first decade of my career (working at one of London’s top advertising agencies, AMV BBDO), I worked on several fantastic global brands who ostensibly had missions or tangible givebacks, but often the alignment to causes beyond the brand and product seemed to feel retrofitted or post-rationalized.
I left to study for a postgraduate degree in international development and environmentalism, and after completing my MSc, I spent two years running partnerships for (RED). This non-profit organization harnessed the power of global brands to raise awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS programs (and now also COVID-19). (RED) is a uniquely interesting initiative—it was a brand in its own right, and had enough appeal and power to attract other brands to their cause and have them do the heavy-lifting, rather than being a grateful recipient in the relationship. At the time, it was groundbreaking, and something of a power shift. The cause though was not central to those brands, it wasn’t embedded in their DNA, it didn’t permeate their corporate culture, it was limited to a specific product range. An afterthought.
We wanted to do more, have a more meaningful impact. I think that is the best starting point. Acknowledging we should all be change-makers, in some way. We all have a role to play in building a better future. It seemed evident to us that tangible products and companies have more potential to make a meaningful impact than ephemeral ‘brands.’
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Look inside and out to identify and define your mission.
The past few years in the US have been tumultuous at best. As a family, we have taken to the streets for racial equity, for gun safety, for climate change, for women’s rights, for LGBTQIA rights, for public education funding, for democracy. It felt at times like the world was imploding and as parents that was a particularly heavy burden. What world were we leaving for our children? What were we doing to the planet?
The psychological impact of this manifested in anxiety, stress, insomnia, and we found ourselves wanting to be as healthy as we could, both physically and mentally. It became increasingly clear that we needed to look after ourselves in order to look after our family and see a way through to a better future. Drinking less alcohol was a key part of that ‘self-care’ if you like, and we began to see we weren’t alone, that we were part of a growing number of ‘sober-curious’ people experimenting with their drinking rituals, reducing or giving up booze altogether. The flip side of that decision however was that often when not drinking, you feel excluded from social situations. You go out less, you connect less with people. We then read research about the numbers of young people rejecting alcohol outright (over 40% in the US) and coincidentally, the rising wave of mental health issues among that same group, with an increased sense of isolation and loneliness.
It became obvious that non-drinkers needed a genuine alternative to alcohol, a beautifully crafted drink that didn’t feel like a downgrade and wasn’t full of juice, sugar, gums, and additives. Something inclusive that ensured they weren’t missing out on opportunities to connect and interact. To laugh and hang out, and be together. They could choose to add their own buzz if they wanted to. It’s about choice.
Be expansive but keep bringing it back to the mission.
We are very motivated to help engender change across the board. The environment is obviously a big concern for us as is social justice and creating an ethical company that treats people with dignity and respect. The more we explored the idea of mental wellbeing, the more we recognized the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate issues. We talk about products, and our publishing platform as ‘tools for optimists,’ things that will help sustain people, encouraging them to come together, to learn from other’s experience and insights, to practice active optimism on a daily basis, to envision a better future and develop the resilience needed to make it happen.
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Beyond our mission around mental and social well-being, we chose to work towards B-Corps status as a means of demonstrating that our entire company is being created with people and the planet in mind, and holding ourselves accountable.
Every decision we make as an organization is guided by our mission, and our commitment to heal not harm—individuals, our employees, our partners, our drinkers, our society, our planet. And to enjoy ourselves as much as possible while we’re doing it.
Build a community with shared values.
As soon we had identified the product concept and our mission, we sought out experts in the various fields. We trusted our personal tastes but knew very little about the art of distilling and the creation of crafted, blended flavor profiles. Similarly, we were fortunate enough to have worked previously with Dr. Drea Letamendi, a psychology professor who runs the Student Resilience Centre at UCLA and persuaded her to help us develop our messaging and help identify non-profits partners with whom to work. She also agreed to come on board to co-host our podcast, Optimist In Progress, where she offers insights and tips on ways to support mental wellbeing, and optimism practice, distilling complex psychological research into palatable ‘sips for the psyche’.
Since the non-alcoholic category is nascent, there are many other companies in similar positions to us. We don’t regard other brands as competitors; we will all rise together as we build out this category and educate people on the choices that are becoming available. The market potential is huge. Connecting with these other brands, trying each others’ drinks, sharing learnings about anything from FDA approvals to optimal packaging for shipping, to keeping morale up on funding calls is definitely making this a more enjoyable journey.
We seek out partners in every aspect of our business who share the same values as we do. It is important to have honest, open, and ongoing dialogue, and we consider the people who choose to drink our products to be a key part of this broader community that we are creating. Social media makes it incredibly easy to be accessible, to connect with our customers, to listen to feedback and to have genuine conversations. I handle all the customer service at this point and I absolutely love to connect with people, even those who aren’t feeling our products. We are proud of what we have created, and we believe in the product and potential, but without creating a community around us who share the mission, it’s a private goal. With our community on our side, our mission around mental wellbeing has the power to take flight and really engender on an individual and societal level.
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