• 11.18.11

Reinventing The Brand To Sell Social Impact (If No One Dies First)

I AM, a new responsible business focused on bringing value to both producers and customers, is starting off with a bang: Its founder is staying on a treadmill until they make their fundraising goal.

While thousands of people are protesting Wall Street and its vision of American capitalism, others are experimenting with new economic models to fill the void. One of those is I AM, a new approach to brands that helps them develop commercial solutions to social problems. But to kick it off, its cofounder, Will Baxter, is employing a type of stunt marketing that could have been plucked straight from a brainstorming meeting at a major ad agency: Don’t Let Will Die. He’s walking on a treadmill, without stopping, until they raise enough money on Kickstarter to fund their first product.


Will, of course, will not die. But he might not make it the entire time, and he’ll probably feel like dying, though he has finished an Iron Man. He’s already been on the treadmill for about 24 hours, and may have to make it to Tuesday, the day the Kickstarter campaign ends, if the funding goal is not met. He says: “It was pretty tough this morning, I went through some pretty dark moments, Now I’ve just a had a leg massage which loosened them up a bit. I’m finding the hardest part is keeping my legs in motion. But no sign of stopping.”

For the whole time, he won’t sleep (the record of going without sleep is 11 days, so four days shouldn’t be too much of a problem). He will eat and drink as he walks, with a plan he’s worked on with a nutritionist: sports drinks, breakfast sandwiches, bananas, pasta, and chicken. It’s a slick marketing campaign to fund a business that hopes it won’t need many slick marketing campaigns to have an impact.

Nike and other mega-brands have built billion-dollar businesses based on the perceived strength of a product, usually manufactured by others (albeit to their specifications), and massive advertising budgets that secure their place in the public consciousness.

For I AM, brand value is created by tangible positive impact rather than traditional advertising and marketing. It will act almost as a Fairtade-like brand, rather than a certification, covering a host of different products from laptop covers to clothes. Cofounded by Baxter, a former PWC financial advisor in Melbourne, Australia and fashion designer Nadja Vorman, I AM will sell and market products in the developed world that are sourced and sustainably manufactured in developing countries. The first line are yoga bags and straps produced by traditional Mayan weavers in Guatemala.

The firm, structured as a for-profit, sees the efficiencies and structure of private enterprise as an engine for social benefit. By striking a balance between efficiency and sustainability, rather then simply maximizing margins, I AM says it can create value–and perhaps justify a premium over Chinese-made commodities–for anyone who makes, buys, or uses its products. That’s not something fully captured in a cost of production metric. Baxter doesn’t plan to stay small. I AM will build Guatemala’s first large-scale natural dying plant if its first line is successful. To that end, the company is reinvesting at least 50% of its profits into the communities as part of its business and branding model.

It’s not an entirely new concept: Firms such as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, and others try to define themselves, in part, by strong corporate responsibility programs. But I.AM believes it can make social impact closer to the importance of price through its responsible brand. If it doesn’t back up that promise, it’s likely to undermine what makes it a viable business.


I AM’s first venture is a Kickstartercampaign ending next Tuesday. And yes, until then Baxter is live-streaming his (somewhat crazy if committed) attempt to stay on a moving treadmill until the money is raised.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.