Can peace be a product?

When working on a new project what I always enjoy the most is the researching part. Reading through books, articles, blogs or just surfing the internet to get some inspiration and see what others are doing. Lately because of RebrandPeace, I have been doing a lot of that, and while browsing, I came across a novel, Peace Inc. Honestly, I didn’t think that a review of a fiction would be the starting point of our theoretical work on how to rebrand peace, but I was quite happy with the find as in my mind, rebranding peace and making it a worthy concept (again) can be done only by popularising and mainstreaming it. Thus, it makes complete sense to see what products of popular culture have to say about peace.

Peace Inc., a Novel by Vijay Balakrishnan is about an immigrant called Bob (without a surname) trying to reinvent himself while chasing the American dream. He is struggling to set up his own business, a multi-cult greeting card venture, but eventually runs out of money while still owing two grands to his graphics designer, Grace, a Korean girl. Long story short, he eventually comes up with a new idea, ’selling’ peace, and manages to convince Grace to convert the outstanding dues to ownership in the new company… and here comes the fun part.

Although our motivation is completely different from Bob’s, meaning that he wants to make money out of peace by selling the idea, the lifestyle, the desire to live in peace, we both face some of the same challenges, for example: How can you market something that „is not a thing… you can’t market an idea, a, a condition” – as Elena, Bob’s girlfriend puts it. But Bob thinks he knows better and snaps at her ..duh.. “Freedom? Equality? Justice? Science? Reason? Democracy? Fascism? Communism? Capitalism? Nationalism? God? None of those are things and they’ve been marketed pretty damn well!”. His plan is to create a website for peace-loving and seeking people, and to sell peace branded ‘souvenirs’ like T-shirts, condoms and some ‘cute stuff’. He figures that people committed to peace (whatever that means by the way) will connect with each other, forming a shared identity and express their devotion to the cause by spending money and buying the products of a brand that captures the essence of peace. In his word “people will value peace only if they pay for it” – he is creating demand by paring peace with his brand.

Bob is in an easier situation than us as in reality he just wants to sell products and services and peace is just the coating. His business model could work with climate change, environmental protection, etc. For him, branding peace serves the sole purpose of making his products attractive to peace-loving people. They designed their logo, the revamped peace sign to catch attention and give ‘visual’ coolness to the weary concept.[1] In contrast, our case is a lot trickier because our product is peace itself. In other words, our profit is people being more conscious about the preconditions of peace and actively contributing to creating a less conflict-prone world.

While reading Vijay’s book and working on this blog post, I wondered whether I had seen in my life any marketing and product promotion for a sociable/charitable cause that had the same scale and volume as what is usually done for a product of a for-profit company. There must have been quite a few, right? Well, without reading up on the topic (and my notes from university), I can hardly remember any, and those that I actually do remember cannot be really compared to the practice of the for-profit sector. A promotional campaign is only good if it’s memorable in some ways… and I recall plenty of for-profit adverts. So, it seems that companies are doing a lot better reaching me than NGOs – let’s be honest, no big surprise there as they have usually a huge budget to work with while non-profits don’t, and buying ad time and creative minds can be pretty expensive (there is a lot to say here, we will, I promise).

In the last few weeks, I made a simple empirical research: wherever I went in London I consciously tried to pay attention to the ads on the streets (it was quite an effort because I usually read on my way). There are all kinds of ads out there, plenty promoting theatre shows, movies, new albums, clothes, investing, Apple’s new iPhone, travel agencies, surprisingly, lately I have seen many MADE adverts and there is a Jack Daniels campaign, which I believe, shares a new story of the company’s history every month(?) – list could go on. Shockingly – but not unexpectedly, there aren’t a lot of awareness raising ads. I saw just a few in the tube carriages, above the seats, and the most memorable was a fundraising campaign for lonely elderly people to have somebody to talk with once in a while. I had to conclude my mini-experiment by realising that social ads are not a common sight on my daily routes in London, and if I see any, they are almost exclusively fundraising campaigns.

It’s entirely possible that charities try to reach the public via other channels, for example via TV or online ads, and the reason why I am not seeing these is that I am simply not the target group. First of all, I never watch TV and secondly as I work in the humanitarian sector and generally open to sociable causes there is no need to have money spent on reaching me. Needless to say, my personal empirical experience is not enough to make any far-fetched assumptions.

Now getting back to the campaigns I do remember: When I was still in primary school, on the limited number of state-owned channels that we had in Hungary I can recall seeing many so-called ‘public service advertisements’. I cannot actually recollect the messages, but I guess they covered some basic stuff as smoking is bad for your health, don’t drink and drive, etc…’. The ads always ended with a sign and voiceover saying ‘…you have just seen a public service advertisement’ – which I found really strange and amusing. I couldn’t understand why they had to explain the purpose of the ads, it was kind of obvious: messages for the whole society to benefit from…

The second campaign that lives vividly in my memories is Dove’s real beauty campaign, which seemed to truly advocate for social change, but in reality, it was just a clever marketing initiative. The campaign was based on a study commissioned by Dove about self-image, how beauty is perceived by women (’The real truth of about beauty’). It found, e.g. that ‘only 2% of women around the world choose beautiful to describe their looks’. It’s not that hard to guess how Dove, a company that sells beauty products to women could benefit from such a study. One responds to an ad better if a connection can be made with it, and by mapping out women’s self-perception, Dove was able to target the remaining 98%. As a result, Dove launched a campaign with ‘real women’ to show their natural physical variation, and linked self-confidence with their brand. In an ideal world, we might be inclined to have some moral and ethical reserves against this practice but this is how market economy works: if you want to maximise your profit you have to beat your competitors, and sometimes you can only do it by actually doing the right thing.

In the title, I asked whether peace can be a product, and I hoped that by the end of this blog post I would come a bit closer to giving an answer. Well, we are not there yet (by far), but one thing is for certain: it should be a product in a sense that we need people to buy into peace in order to make a less violent and conflict-prone world. There is much to learn from the for-profit sector thus this is what we will do in the upcoming months.


[1] Unfortunately, Vijay only gives us a short description of the new peace sign: ‘On the screen against a pale electric-blue background floats a golden traditional peace sign, but it doesn’t stay still, revolving on one axis, then another, tilting from one angle to the next, speeding up until it’s a blur.’

Further reading:

Definitely check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review – they have plenty of articles covering PR/marketing for non-profits, for example:

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