How A Drug-Related Tragedy Inspired Transformational Thinking

In any good business, a story has to be told that resonates with the consumer. Natural High founder Jon Sundt talks about how he's using Madison Avenue techniques to bring drug-free culture to the forefront.

Jon Sundt lost his two younger brothers to drugs. They were very close, just one and two years apart, and the reality of his brothers' addiction to drugs was an ongoing struggle for Sundt and his family. Rehab didn't work; it was terribly expensive and totally inadequate. After Sundt buried his second brother, Eric, he thought long and hard about why they chose such a destructive path. It was clear they had bought into a lie that drugs were cool and celebrities and peers, through media and peer pressure, propagated the lie. The Sundt brothers wanted to fit in, they wanted to be "cool" and they thought, "if everybody else is doing it, we should, too."

Bombarded by mixed messages from today's media, kids are exposed to drugs earlier and earlier. Abuse and addiction are widespread problems and our youth are the most vulnerable. Drug abuse derails. It takes you away from your natural highs (like surfing, playing sports, programming, writing, etc.), and it takes you away from your ability to be successful. Sundt searched for a way to reach young people with a new message they would listen to before they gave into drugs and peer pressure. He thought about how to connect with them in a different way. To him, the answer lives inside of all of us: We're all born with a natural high, and it's each of our individual gifts. The challenge, and the opportunity, are to identify and pursue those gifts.

What is your natural high?

Close your eyes and imagine yourself doing an activity that you lose track of time doing--it feels so good that hours feel like minutes and minutes feel like seconds. That is your natural high. Sundt started Natural High, a drug-abuse prevention organization, to bridge the gap between the truth and the lies that surround drug use and addiction. It is focused on combating the false perception of the "cool" associated with drug use, and instead showcasing the "cool" associated with celebrities who live drug-free lifestyles. They are spreading a new message about living life on a high and working to create a new social norm, one that empowers youth to find and pursue what they truly love to do, their natural high. They produce a DVD series, an educational curriculum, and outreach campaigns focused on engaging kids and eradicating the drug abuse problem by working to positively influence youth and families to embrace their natural highs and say no to drugs.

Natural High has grown from a group of a few passionate individuals working out of Sundt's garage to a full-fledged nonprofit organization with a huge footprint. Today Natural High is one of the best drug prevention programs in the country and is currently working with 13,000 (and growing) schools in all 50 states, reaching over 6 million youth. The program reaches the hearts and minds of youth in a profound way, and reading the letters and emails from hundreds of students and teachers all over the country brings tears to your eyes. Of the many youth-focused social causes, those who hear the Natural High message in their classrooms are now making their own videos, pledging to live naturally high, and influencing their peers to do the same.

Doing Jiu Jitsu on drugs

How many times have you seen a celebrity story that glamorizes drug and alcohol abuse? It makes for juicy sound bites that get played over and over again. But what about the vast majority of celebrities and athletes who don't use drugs? Why don’t we hear those stories? What is the "naturally high" story that will sell? Celebrities are paid to sell soft drinks and endorse products, but they are never paid to say that "not doing drugs contributed to my success" or "if it weren’t for music, I would be using drugs." 

Sundt went on a mission to find these celebrities, these heroes, so he could send this message. He asked them to volunteer their time and be filmed talking about the positive choices they made and how it led to success. He called the success story "natural high." So imagine a young person looking at his hero who says to him or her, "I don’t do drugs, I do 'my natural high'"--that’s the positive message that needs to be shared. 

Celebrity ambassadors on a new kind of high

Action sports athletes have been obvious partners for Natural High since many of them 'get high' on their surfboards or skateboards. Over the years of trying to connect with youth across the U.S., the team at Natural High has realized how important it is to also enlist the help of traditional athletes, musicians, artists, dancers and more, who have a story and a charisma to share based on living life on their natural high--and most importantly celebrities that are drug free. Drug-free celebrities such as skateboard legend Tony Hawk, motocross legend Travis Pastrana, designer and author Lauren Conrad, skateboarder Terry Kennedy, surfer Laird Hamilton, rocker Cassadee Pope, WNBA star Lisa Leslie, NBA star Mike Conley Jr, and rockers Switchfoot and P.O.D., are the type of celebrities who need to spread the message and share their positive influence. 

Compelling content is key

Natural High's signature program is designed for educators nationwide, and the Natural High DVD series, which includes a film with drug-free celebrity messengers and a curriculum, is provided free to educators. They target youth in schools where they have an opportunity to capture their attention. By 2020, Natural High hopes to reach 12 million youth with its message, and a goal to leap beyond its organizational purpose and morph into a cool, hip lifestyle choice that youth know and embrace. Young people are the ambassadors of cool and if they choose their natural high it'll change our culture.

Can a natural high apply to business?

In any good business, a story has to be told that resonates with the consumer. Youth, families, and educators are Natural High's target market, and when they hear the story it resonates. They share stories that they identify with and when the people they admire are cool. Their "coolness" is infectious. It's the Madison Avenue technique: you don’t tell a teenager not to drink Sprite--you tell him how cool it is to drink Coke. Natural High is telling a story that it is cool to be drug-free.

What can other not-for-profits working with teens learn from Natural High?

Meet teens where they are in their lives. Embrace their voice while listening to their words and experiences. Think about your message and your messengers. Heroes, peers and teachers have a profound influence on youth, so invite them to into your conversation and enlist them to be your messengers.

What's the ultimate goal?

Our goal is to shift and change culture to create a true, new reality for youth. Natural High wants to create a reality where a young person would go to party or concert and when offered drugs or alcohol, he or she will say, "No thanks. I'm on a natural high." And everyone around will understand what that means and think that is cool. 

Are you living your Natural High? 

Shawn Parr is the The Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, IDEO, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie's Homegrown, The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen and World Vision. Follow the conversation at @BULLDOGDRUMMOND.

[Image: Flickr user Ross]

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