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In the 21st century, cities are one of the greatest ‘incubators for good’ that brands can partner with. I caught up with Ori Carmel, the Founder and Managing Partner of Sowen, an ‘international strategy consultancy focused on the intersection of economic value and utilitarian good’, for a stimulating conversation on how brands can pay their ‘civic rent’ (their contribution to being good community partners) and raise the ceiling of progress. Carmel’s 20-plus years of experience runs a wide spectrum, from military and government to Fortune 500 companies, including Twitter and American Express.
Afdhel Aziz: Ori, welcome! Please tell us, what is the purpose of Sowen?
Ori Carmel: Sowen exists to create, build and execute measurable solutions and initiatives that combine utilitarian social good with economic viability. We work across public, private, philanthropic and academic sectors to bring together the best each has to offer to solve the toughest challenges they face.
We apply a multidisciplinary approach that is underpinned with data and technology and is extended through expertise in public policy, economic development, audience and market research, consumer marketing and partnership development. We strongly believe that viable, long-lasting solutions must come from a combination of sectors and deliver both utilitarian good and economic viability. The former is unsustainable without the latter, and the latter meaningless without the former.
Aziz: Super interesting. So how did you come to start it – tell us a little about your journey?
Carmel: I have worked across public, private, philanthropic and academic settings. The one connective thread throughout has been a deep desire to understand, build and solve challenges that matter. I spent the first eight years of my career with the military and government agencies, and the past fifteen in the digital space across an array of organizations, from startups to Fortune 500 global brands like Twitter and Amex. I have seen what drives every sector, what makes them each unique as well as where and how they can align.
About two years ago I started to re-examine my own personal sense of “why” which directly led to the creation of Sowen. We launched this spring with a roster of powerhouses in the areas of data and technologies, marketing and economic development. We have a distributed network of subject matter experts and a working model that allows us to scale to the needs of the partner and the size of the project at hand. We now work both in the US and internationally with cities, charities, academia, and private sector brands.
Aziz: That’s fascinating. So, how do you see the role of cities in driving progress?
Carmel: The 21st century has and will continue to be defined by and in urban settings. I would argue that the role of a city impacts people significantly more than the federal government in day to day life. We see this role manifest in three main ways:
The Convener: Cities are the axis around which citizens, business and institutions most closely revolve. This means they have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to bring all three together for progress and growth.
The Thinking Brain: Cities are positioned to be the data powerhouses of impact. Sophisticated Public / Private partnerships can ensure cities have the data systems and tools they need to keep up with the economic growth of their businesses while protecting the privacy and safety of their citizens.
The Storyteller: The notion of identity will be a critical factor in a city’s ability to grow, attract tourists, businesses, talent, and investment. A significant portion of our work involves not just building solutions and systems, but also storytelling and critical marketing strategies.
Aziz: I love those roles. So what do you think the relationship between brands and cities could be like?
Carmel: Simply put? Symbiotic and interdependent. The role of the federal/national government has always been to provide the basic infrastructure of success for the organizations, populations, and individuals they serve. We think of this as the fundamentals, the floor, for every strong economy and society. The increasing role of cities is to enable the ceiling- the potential growth, prosperity and success that can be reached by people, companies, and organizations. The partnership between government and the private sector, now more than ever, creates the opportunity to break this ceiling altogether. This is where we get involved.
Aziz: That’s a very elegant analogy, ‘the floor and the ceiling’. So what 3 pieces of advice do you have for brands who want to participate more in paying their ‘civic rent’?
Carmel: Number one, that good citizenship is good business. If you understand audiences and people, you will realize that this is quickly shifting from an added value to an expected must. We consistently underestimate the role of emotions and feelings which govern 80-90% of our decision processes. It is only natural that consumers will be attracted to brands that align with their values and exemplify behaviors they can stand behind.
The flagship brand for this today is Patagonia, but we see amazing initiatives from so many other companies across all sectors. Coca Cola is reducing the carbon footprint of its truck fleets by 25% by 2020. Starbucks pays for employee college education and is hiring 25,000 vets by 2025. Lego is moving to a 90% recyclable model by 2020. Mattel is producing barbies that look like actual humans. People and companies are doing incredible work. If you don’t think that good corporate citizenship means good business, that’s fine. We are excited and inspired to work with people who do.
Number two, start with an authentic core business offering you can deliver on. Your biggest asset in the marketplace can also be your biggest asset in the community just shaped to serve a different need. This is the biggest key to developing sustainable and authentic “civic rent.” Just like customer discovery in business, do the data-driven due diligence of understanding social market gaps and see where your core business lines up with core challenges. What you may find in this stage of the work will define the long-term success and viability of the impact. This will help align both impact and authenticity.
And finally, number three, data is the anchor but it doesn’t end there. Not everything that can be measured should be measured. And not everything that is measured is meaningful. But in the current knowledge economy, having the right insight makes things much more manageable. Data within of itself is meaningless. It is far more important to draw the right insight and align meaningful action that connects between where you are today to where you would like to get to and apply that through a multidisciplinary approach that includes economics, marketing, policy and more.
We know that models, algorithms and artificial intelligence and deep learning are critical. We apply those every day. But there has to be a human element to long term, strategic and meaningful decisions, and execution that leads to a complete a picture, combining efficiency with elegance, and ROI with compassion. I am not sure we want to get to a day when this is no longer true.
June 11, 2019 at 06:06AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs