A couple of months ago, I went to a piano concert by Igor Levit in Hamburg. While listening to Beethoven’s beautiful classical sonatas, my mind shifted into a meditative state, and I had a clear vision. I saw another world that looked very much like ours, with one crucial difference: We human-beings lived in 100% alignment with Mother Nature.
I mean by this that you couldn’t see any crowded streets, big skyscrapers or ugly industrial buildings. This world was built so that all the necessities we needed, like places to sleep, transportation, etc. where underground. And all facilities we needed for our everyday life like offices, restaurants, and cafes were above ground but in the form of treehouses, hill houses and caves. We found a way to co-exist with nature without destroying it. And of course, one other thing that was not included in this world were billboards.
Can you imagine a city without billboards or business signs?
An urban landscape with absolutely no advertising displayed anywhere? This is precisely how it was like in my vision. But it is not only a utopia. It is already happening in some places around the world. Gilberto Kassab, the former mayor of São Paulo, passed the ‘Clean City Law’ in 2007 and banned all outdoor advertising.
In the beginning, there was a big uprising by local businesses, and the law caused some sort of panic. As you can imagine, the local business owners were afraid that it would negatively affect their companies. But interestingly, this is not what happened. The ‘ad ban’ actually encouraged many companies to reassess their advertising and be creative in finding new ways to reach their target market without covering up the city’s beautiful architecture.
They realized that to reach their customers, they had to create an emotional connection and build a strong community around their brands. Many started viral campaigns on the streets and began to interact directly with their local customers. They understood that interaction is the most crucial thing in creating customer loyalty and tapping into people’s emotions, loves, and interests.
And by the way, São Paulo is not the only place where billboards are not welcome. In Paris, rules were introduced to reduce advertising on the city’s streets by 30 percent, and the Indian city of Chennai banned billboard advertising completely. The same goes for Grenoble in France, where commercial advertising is prohibited in public places in the city’s streets. Several hundred advertising signs were replaced by tree planting and community noticeboards. And also, several US states are billboard-free, including Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska.
If you could choose, what would you prefer for your country or your city? Living with or without billboards?
When it comes to me, I would be more than happy to live in a clean place and enjoy the architecture and nature. Unfortunately, in Germany and most places in Europe, this is not the case yet. But although billboards and outdoor advertising are still allowed, many entrepreneurs actively decide not to include them in their marketing strategies.
For our podcast ‘The 4ChangeMakers Show', Fernando and I interviewed a couple of impact leaders and CEOs of B Corps and social enterprises working towards the SDGs. And what most of them have in common is that they say they envision a world without billboards and even go as far as not spending a single Euro in paid advertising.
I would like to share some of their strategies with you to help you integrate that concept within your social business:
1. Educational Communication
Little Sun is a social business that produces portable solar lamps with the mission to bring affordable light to over 1 billion people worldwide without electricity. We talked to CEO Felix Hallwachs, who shared with us that they no longer have a marketing strategy. They moved away from traditional marketing a few years ago because they think it is not supporting their mission. For Little Sun, communication is its own impact category that enables you to fulfill your purpose by educating your target market and activating them to change how they deal with issues related to e.g., the climate crisis. They do it by building different strands of communication like ‘campaigning for a better world’ and ‘educational workshops’.
2. Building a Community of Ambassadors
Tony's Chocolonely is the leading chocolate producer in the Netherlands whose mission is to end slavery and child labor in the cacao industry. What is super exciting about this brand is that it managed to become the market leader in the Netherlands and spread its chocolate to various markets like UK, Germany, and the US without using any paid advertising. Ynzo Van Zanten, Chief Evangelist of Tony's, shared with us in a podcast interview on what marketing strategies they focus on. They knew from the very beginning that they wouldn’t accomplish their goal of 100% slave-free chocolate without support. Because of that, they started building their community of ‘Serious Friends,’ people from all over the world who connect deeply with their mission and want to spread their story by word of mouth. They created a Tony’s Toolbox to supply their serious friends with videos, information, and recipes with their friends and family. They also regularly launch partitions which they spread via their community.
3. Create Unforgettable Experiences
Another core part of Tony's Chocolonely's marketing is to create extraordinary moments for their target market. To spread the word about their chocolate bars in the US, they did a ‘Bean to Bar’ road trip across the country with a ‘Chocotruck.’ In the truck was a fun and hands-on exhibit where visitors could learn about inequalities in the cocoa supply chain, and they would show how chocolate can be made differently. They also had a team in the truck that would speak with the people directly and answer all their questions to build an immediate relation.
4. Power of Collaboration
Abury, a fair trade brand based in Berlin that offers handmade accessories from different countries and cultures worldwide, is a fantastic example of how to leverage cooperations. Founder Andrea Bury shared with us a campaign she ran a few years ago together with Fleurop and Dr. Hauschka for Mother’s Day. They created a small video about what they learned from their mothers and posted it on their social media. People could then comment and share their own learnings to win one of the Mother’s Day packages that included a flower bouquet by Fleurop and a bag filled with Dr. Hauschka’s products. Of course, those two brands shared the campaign as well with their followers, which gave Abury easy access to some unexplored part of their own target market.
5. Event Marketing
One other important part of Abury’s marketing are the so-called FABtalks they organize in various cities around Germany. It is a talk-series to combine fashion talks and business networking. FABtalks brings together startups, established fashion brands, bloggers, press, and other multiplicators within the city they are hosted in. Those events are an excellent opportunity to grow the media coverage of Abury, make useful connections, and use them to spread the word about their impact and the change they want to create.
If you have ever eaten a chocolate bar of Tony’s Chocolonely’s, you have noticed that it is unique because every piece has a different size, making it impossible to divide it equally. The reason why they designed it like that? To illustrate the inequality in the cocoa chain and make people aware of it in an unusual way. Because of this, their chocolate bars immediately become a discussion piece when opening it, and their packages support this even more because it contains interesting facts about modern slavery and the production of chocolate. Because their bars are so useful in opening up conversations and creating awareness, Tonys Chocolonelys doesn’t use any regular business cards. They simply hand their business contacts a bar with a personal sticker that contains the contact details.
Those examples are just a handful of ways on how to be creative in marketing and build strategies in a way that enables you to build a deep connection with your target audience and create value for them by education or experiences. If you have more examples of unique “billboard free” marketing, you are more than welcome to share them in the comments section :)
Written by Sina