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Ashok Kamal is a social entrepreneur with diverse experience in the private, nonprofit and public sectors. He has received numerous awards related to community development, education and sustainability. Ashok is a frequent public speaker and his writings are regularly published on the top green business websites. Ashok co-founded Bennu in 2010 and bootstrapped its way to profitability within 6 months of launch.
Bennu is the leader in green social media marketing. The company’s sustainability solutions increase enterprise value by aligning client’s business objectives with consumer demand and environmental resources. Bennu’s mission is greening the standard for a new lifestyle.
MO: What inspired you to specifically focus on green social media marketing?
Ashok: Bennu’s evolution was organic. We founded the company to promote a greener lifestyle, but our initial focus was product-oriented. We made custom backpacks and shirts out of recycled materials such as plastic bottles. The goal was to reframe waste as a renewable resource while making green practical and cool. We relied exclusively on social media to market ourselves by developing a community who shared our values. Our success resulted in other companies approaching us to help them with their social media. This led to our entrepreneurial “pivot,” which took place when we realized we could have a greater impact – and build a better business – by focusing on a service that leveraged our core strengths: combining sustainability consulting with social media marketing to develop and execute campaigns that create enterprise value. Social media and sustainability are both at the top of the corporate agenda. But many companies don’t know where to start or go. Bennu fills in the blank.
MO: Can you explain your unique marketing methodology to our readers?
Ashok: Bennu’s marketing methodology stands on 3 pillars: greening (purpose), social media (engagement) and gamification (fun). Each of these represents a disruptive force that is re-shaping 21st century business and society. People are demanding environmental responsibility from companies. Increasingly, social media is the primary means of communication between companies and their stakeholders. And gamification is one of the hottest trends influencing marketing across sectors.
But the forces are not mutually exclusive; in fact, there is tremendous overlap among green consumers, gamers and social media users. For example, the prototypical LOHAS consumer (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) is an educated, middle-aged woman with average income. It so happens that this profile closely resembles the most active player of social games, such as Farmville. Similar patterns can be observed among other groups, such as young people and college students. Bennu’s marketing campaigns are designed to fulfill peoples’ desire to green their lives, while engaging them where they’re active by doing the things that they enjoy.
MO: How can you use gamfication as a vehicle to create brand equity while also promoting green behaviors?
Ashok: Gamification refers to using game mechanics, such as points, challenges and leaderboards, to engage people and reward behavior. The science is grounded in behavioral psychology and theories from scholars such as Maslow and Skinner, who highlighted the human needs for achievement, reciprocity and appreciation and identified our responsiveness to stimuli such as positive reinforcement. The bottom line is that gamification translates to fun.
More and more, innovative companies are using gamification to promote sustainability – a practice we call “green gamification.” The underlying premise is that people want to go green, but the process needs to be accessible, social and rewarding. If you know that your neighbor is reducing emissions – and saving money – by managing her household energy consumption through an app, that creates positive peer pressure to follow suit. When rewards, such as badges or discounts, are incorporated – and communicated via a real-time leaderboard, it creates a dynamic of social comparison in which people engage in a green race to the top. This approach stands in contrast to guilt tripping people into going green. One only needs to look at the green movement’s results over the past 30 years to see that we need more carrot and less stick. We’ve made progress but U.S. recycling rates are still barely 30%. So we helped develop a mobile app where people share photos of recycling and vote on their favorites to earn points for rewards. If we gamify recycling, companies make money, people feel good, the planet becomes healthier – everybody wins. We believe the new spirit of sustainability is fortune, fun and fame, not blame and shame.
MO: Are you noticing a significant trend in companies gravitating towards more sustainable solutions and making efforts to go greener?
Ashok: Sustainability is no longer an option – it’s a business mandate. Across the board, company stakeholders expect concerted efforts to become more sustainable. The confluence of factors such as changing consumer preferences, internal pressure from employees, interest from investors, visibility of advocacy groups and new government regulation has transformed sustainability into what Harvard Business Review calls an “emerging megatrend.” Every industry, company, division, function and employee is affected.
Fortunately, sustainability can generate profits, which is where the rubber hits the road. Warren Buffett’s recent $10 billion investment in IBM is a resounding vote of approval for the company’s “Smarter Planet” initiative, which centers on using information technology to create more energy- and water-efficient infrastructure. This is a great example of what the preeminent business strategist, Michael Porter of Harvard Business School, calls “shared value,” creating benefits not only for business, but also the community, society and Earth. Smart companies are embracing sustainability as a competitive advantage and opportunity to differentiate in the marketplace. Those companies that fail to catch the green wave are dinosaurs and will suffer the same fate: extinction.
MO: Congratulations on winning the Merrill Lynch Invitational Competition and being selected for the Rice University Business Plan Competition. How did being recognized and winning the competition money impact the development of Bennu?
Ashok: Bennu was born out of business plan competitions. When my partners and I were MBA students, we devised, developed and launched the company after receiving seed money from competitions. The obvious benefit was funding. But the greatest prize was the feedback from experienced professionals who served as judges and mentors. Often times they were tough on us. But entrepreneurs should listen to their harshest critics the most carefully – that’s how you learn and improve. Most of our feedback was constructive and positive, which both validated the concept of Bennu and invigorated my team’s commitment to entrepreneurship. The Rice competition is the most prestigious in the world and participating in it was a major confidence boost. Starting a business requires a tremendous leap of faith. It’s scary and uncertain and risky. But when you have great advisors, you stand on the shoulders of giants and exponentially increase your odds of success.
MO: What company accomplishment are you most proud of so far?
Ashok: First and foremost, survival! Business is a war of attrition. But our greatest achievement along the journey has been working with industry leading clients, like Waste Management. As young entrepreneurs, we have a lot of ideas and plans. But your vision becomes reality only when you have paying customers. By accelerating green business practices for large, influential companies, we’re realizing Bennu’s vision to make sustainability the standard for a new lifestyle.
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