Since leaving Soylent, I’ve had a ton of interesting conversations with friends and new acquaintances about what inspires me as an entrepreneur and what type of companies I get excited about generally. While Soylent has pioneered a number of exciting trends (subscription ecommerce, plant-based food, etc), ultimately what I love most about entrepreneurship is something I call “Stealth Help”.
Stealth Help is when a product precipitates a positive lifestyle change without having to heavily market that as the singular product benefit. Essentially, it’s a positive externality of user adoption. Put another way, Stealth Help is the opposite of those late-night TV infomercials where some quack doctor tries to sell you a miracle weight-loss pill that costs a ton of money and ultimately winds up in the trash. These purported self-help products have proven so ineffective and downright fraudulent, that as an entrepreneur, often times the best way to help someone is to be overly casual about the claims you make.
When I started learning more about entrepreneurship shortly before co-founding Soylent, one of the most intriguing trends was social entrepreneurship. Many companies had developed social missions to improve the world and were leveraging those missions into feel-good marketing campaigns to great success. It seemed like a win-win, help the world and help grow your company, what could go wrong? But, as I talked to more customers about various ideas, I realized that social missions weren’t nearly enough to get consumers to adopt new products over the long term and become dedicated and supporting members of a community. The product needed to blow everything else out of the water.
As an entrepreneur, I think there is a natural urge to want to improve the world, but this often goes off the rails and manifests itself into preachy marketing that tries to guilt potential customers into buying. Typically, marketing messages that make consumers feel like they are doing something wrong and need to change are ineffective. The best customers want to come on a journey with you and be a part of something aspirational.
I think Soylent does a great job of this, so I’ll use the Soylent mission and marketing as my first example. Soylent’s mission is to “expand access to quality nutrition through food system innovation” but the current marketing tagline is “healthy, convenient, affordable food” which is only loosely related at best. This is much more effective than telling a potential customer “please buy our product so we can help expand access to quality nutrition.” When you oversell your mission you typically wind up trapped in one of two places, either not explaining the benefits of your product clearly, or narrowing the ambition of your overall goal.
While I first noticed this strategy while working at Soylent, I am now recognizing it in many other places. For example, Tesla’s mission statement is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Their current landing page copy is “Quickest Acceleration. Longest Range. The Safest Cars Ever.” These are benefits that customers look for in any car, not just one that happens to be better for the environment.
When the first mass-market electric vehicle, the General Motors EV1, was released, it was called the Impact. Aside from conjuring imagery of high-impact car crashes, this branding focuses far to much on the mission. The message to the prospective customer is clear: “this car is about making a difference.” Despite feel-good marketing, the car simply could not compete with rival gas-burning cars, and ultimately flopped. Tesla focused on important features that people know to look for in cars; acceleration, technology, and safety. This allowed them to grow a dedicated consumer base on the merits of their product itself and ultimately advance their mission.
Traditional companies driven by social entrepreneurship can still make a huge difference, but I think that increasingly customers don’t just want a social mission, they also want the best. Paradoxically, the quickest path to creating change at scale is often to stop marketing your social mission altogether and focus on clear product benefits.
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