Allbirds founder Tim Brown may have left his football career behind years ago, but reminders of his midfield grit are still evident as he sits down for a chat with the Herald.
While most executives – and sports stars, for that matter – opt for an anodyne approach, with plenty of carefully rehearsed lines, Brown doesn't hold back when asked whether the sustainability movement is perhaps being overblown.
"People don't buy sustainable products," he snaps back.
"They buy great products."
This distinction is important to Brown because it strikes at the core of what many businesses get wrong at a time when it has become fashionable to sell products that are supposedly sustainable, organic and responsibly sourced.
Those things are all desirable, he observes, but they're rarely the reason why people are drawn to a product.
"We're not selling wool shoes, we're selling comfortable shoes," he says. "You need to focus on the benefit to the customer rather than the material you're using."
It might seem obvious to say that what you're selling has to be good, but it is becoming increasingly common to see major brands looking to cash in on a new breed of consumers, purportedly more ethical and responsible than those who came before.
"I see mistakes when people market their products as sustainable because it's missing the point and also potentially conflating the wrong message with your product," says Brown.
"Often the perception equates sustainability with more expensive and lower quality."
Those perceptions are changing, but it's important to keep the optimism in check and remember that McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Walmart and KFC were recently all included in the Financial Times rundown of the world's 100 most powerful brands. Which is to say, ethical, rational consumers may exist but they're far more elusive than the hype might have you believe.
The fallout this week following Air New Zealand's decision to drop newspapers from lounges due to its "commitment to sustainability" also showed that consumers are growing cynical as brands invoke the S-word in their communications.
Lessons from wool
The story of Allbirds, when viewed alongside the recent history of the wool industry, offers a good example of why holding the sustainability card doesn't automatically equate to success. While Allbirds' value has soared, the wool industry has suffered through a few tough decades.
New Zealand Merino Company chief executive John Brakenridge puts much of the recent decline down to complacency in an industry that imagined itself impervious to disruption.
"In the 1950s, the population was increasing, people were spending more on fashion and we thought that spending on wool would increase," Brakenridge reflects.
"In fact, the exact opposite happened. All of a sudden there were a whole lot of competitors and most of those were fossil-fuel based."
Coinciding with the rapid population growth was an explosion in synthetics, which offered durable items at a fraction of the cost. For cash-conscious consumers, the choice became obvious.
"The wool industry went wrong because it was nowhere near customer-centric enough," says Brakenridge.
"We've been so busy producing products that we've become really poor at considering end consumers and the narrative that goes with those products. New Zealand is nowhere near sophisticated enough at developing the marketing narrative at a consumer level."
A big bonfire
Brakenridge sees this disconnect playing out all the time in the form of generic industry-wide advertising campaigns that try to present New Zealand as the leading country in a specific field.
Such campaigns include the Woolmark initiative, which New Zealand previously shared with Australia, with the aim of pushing the wool industry at a global level.
He says such campaigns simply don't work because no amount of telling someone that something is true will make them believe it.
"You may as well just take the money and burn it in a big bonfire," he says.
"If you have a look at where real success in a category comes through, then go to Switzerland and look at watches. They're about 5 to 6 per cent of watch production, but nearly 50 per cent of value. That's so much about the narrative.
"Then, if you look at Germany, it's not because Germany has gone out with an industry organisation that goes out and says some cars are better. They've had icon brands, like Mercedes and BMW, and then that positions the overall industry."
Brakenridge isn't alone in his criticism of generic nation branding that aims to make consumers think a certain way.
Creative expert Damon Stapleton has seen similarly well-intentioned campaigns fall flat in the past.
"Back when I was working in South Africa, we had this thing called 'Proudly South African'," the DDB NZ chief creative officer tells the Herald.
"It seemed great and everyone got excited about it, but it was bullshit. Nobody cared."
Stapleton makes the point that simply telling consumers what to believe does nothing to build a brand. There has to be something more involved than just putting a stamp on selected items and then calling it a day.
Great brands, says Stapleton, need great stories.
"A brand, stamp or logo is merely a promise. The real trick is to deliver proof on the promise."
Another problem with generic branding is that it tries to be a catch-all, vying desperately to be all things to all brands – and this can be challenging in a category as diverse as the wool industry.
"In the past, people in the merino or wool game were trying to sell that wool wins everywhere," says Hamish Acland, the founder of clothing brand Mons Royale.
"It doesn't. It's not best for everything. But when you go out with that message, it feels evangelist and it doesn't really stick. As consumers, we all know that's not quite right."
Acland says the poor storytelling in the industry has had the effect of creating a vast gulf between the farmers and the end product.
"Hannah, my wife, and now creative director, grew up on a merino sheep station and she said it pretty well: she had no idea once the wool was shorn, where it went," he says.
"As a farmer, if there's no connection to the end consumer, it's pretty tough for the industry to know where to go. When you look at it today, it's cool if the consumer understands the farmer, but it's equally important for the farmer to understand what the consumer wants."
He explains that strengthening the connection between the farmer and the consumer could also deliver some positive longer-term results.
"The ability to work together and innovate creates more opportunities," he says.
Stitching it together
Brakenridge agrees, saying that something as simple as convincing more farmers to switch to fine wool could deliver major rewards for the industry.
"In fine wool, we're struggling to keep up with demand," he says.
"If you took half the cross-bred flock in this country and made it fine wool, the prize is bigger than the whole kiwifruit industry."
He argues that the best way for the industry to develop its marketing spend is to champion the successful brands that are now defining progress in the industry - and to show farmers what those brands are doing.
"[Marketing expert] Simon Anderhault says nations don't brand themselves," Brakenridge explains.
"It's actually the businesses and the people and what happens in the culture of nations that gets branded. It's the brand stories coming out of here. It's the experiences people get when they come."
Leaning again on an international market, he says the branding stories told shouldn't focus exclusively on sustainability, but rather on why consumers are making the choices they are.
"If you have a look at a Rolex, why are you buying it?" he asks.
"If you're really honest it's because it's cool and it's about status. But you're not going to sit and tell your mates 'this provides me status'. What you have to do is provide a functional alibi, which offers a good, rational reason why people buy things. The real reason is that they're buying status. The good reason is that it's sustainable and durable."
He says all examples of good marketing answer those two customer needs: first appealing on an emotional level and then offering a rational explanation as to why the purchase was justified.
"What we're really saying is that with sustainability you can now actually tick all the boxes," he says.
"Sustainability is important and it's what people talk about, but the reality is that people are buying for design and comfort."
Brands like Mons Royale and Allbirds are now looking to tick the other box by running campaigns that tell the story behind the provenance of their wool as well as pushing the sustainability angle. In both instances, they focused on creating a brand before dabbling in any try-hard promotions trumpeting sustainability.
Mons Royale's Acland notes that many consumers might even be surprised they've been buying sustainable products all along.
"We might have a lot of people going, 'Oh wow, I've been making a really good choice for the last 10 years and I didn't even know.'"
The point being that sustainability will always be important, but it shouldn't be the only reason consumers are given to buy a product.