The brand of hope

Marketing man Duncan Goose has helped change the lives of more than a million impoverished people using a business model unlike anything that’s been seen before. Jonathan Margolis reports.

May 15 2011
Jonathan Margolis

It would not be too controversial to say that, while the good men and women of the marketing and advertising industries perform an essential and perhaps undervalued business role, they don’t, for the most part, save a lot of lives from their desks and wine bars. It was this realisation that, a decade or so back, hit a thrusting young buck called Duncan Goose, who was cutting a bit of a swathe at the time through London’s marketing scene, particularly in the area of branding. Although he moved in smart circles, ate at fine restaurants and lived well in west London, Goose was one of those mavericks who was determined to do something about the state of the world, and, to cut a long story short, he duly has. Today, this 42-year-old doctor’s son from Norfolk is not far off becoming one of the world’s big-league philanthropists. Now, we all know that kind of thing happens, and if Goose had satisfied his yearning to “give something back” by giving millions to charity, or going to dig holes in developing countries or ministering to the poor in Calcutta, this article might end there.

The weird thing, though, is that Goose has not really metamorphosed at all. He has, in what is just the startup phase of a unique enterprise called Global Ethics, already changed the lives of a million or more people and probably saved many of those from death. Yet Goose still hangs out with his marketing and advertising pals. He still lives well in west London. He still Does Lunch. In fact, he still does marketing and branding. The way Goose has reinvented branding, however, as a force for improving blighted lives, is unlike anything seen before.

Duncan Goose’s business model for helping humanity has the simplicity of all genius, and it is about to expand exponentially. He is being joined monthly at Global Ethics by marketing and other people from multinationals, all intrigued by the idea of using business to do good, and is expected to be raising £20m a year before long – perhaps far more in the long term.

The Global Ethics model was actually invented in a wine bar in Soho in 2004 by an old marketing friend of Goose, Simon Devonshire, now a director of mobile phone service provider O2 but still working with Global Ethics. Goose had been talking in the Slug and Lettuce about the fact, close to his heart for reasons we will come to, that almost a billion people in the world don’t have access to clean water and die in vast numbers as a result of water-borne diseases, especially diarrhoea.

Devonshire, who admits that he’d had a few by then, said, “So why don’t we start a bottled-water brand and give all the money to water projects?” The alcohol-fuelled group of marketeers, brand people and designers chattered excitedly about the idea and there it might have rested. By the end of the Slug and Lettuce session, the gang were talking about sourcing a range of relatively undifferentiated, commodity products – ranging from water to loo paper to eggs, credit cards, even petrol – and selling them, with 100 per cent of the profit, never less, going to Africa’s poor.

The fundamental thing about the products was that, even as basics, they must be top quality and aimed primarily at middle-class consumers. The water, for example, should be sourced and marketed to compete with, say, Evian rather than generic own-label brands.

And this would be the clincher on supermarket shelves: if the consumer were faced with nine similar brands of bottled water (or whatever), the profits from which go to multinational corporations, but beside them was a 10th brand, of the same price and quality whose profits fund humanitarian aid, surely only a perverse shopper, one who actively didn’t want to help suffering humanity, would choose the traditional brand?

This model would – in theory – make giving to charity a near passive act, easier than not giving, involving no direct debit, no change of behaviour, no awkward encounter with a revoltingly cheery unemployed actor chugging in the high street. All you would have to do is buy the basic commodity you were going to buy anyway, only in a new brand.

But although it was clearly a clever notion, it was still just a pub idea. None of the group of well-oiled marketing and advertising folk that day in 2004 imagined that Goose would pick the idea up, run with it and – admittedly, with a great deal of help from his friends – within six years turn it into a global business. For one thing, the group had no real money, which can be useful stuff when you are thinking of fighting established brands in fiercely competitive product categories. Goose, however, although quiet and genial – rather shy, in fact – has something distinctly Geldof-ian about him and, in a nutshell, gave up his job and made the water idea, plus rather a lot more, happen.

The water brand that Goose founded to channel money into Global Ethics’ charity, the One Foundation, is similarly called One. He started out delivering bottles from the back of his car and within a month had his first breakthrough, becoming the official water for the 2005 Live8 concert. Soon after that, One water was on the shelves at Waitrose, Morrisons and The Co-op and in Total garages, and has gradually become a small but growing presence in most multiples. One water was joined by One loo roll, and, as of last month, by One eggs, One sticking plasters and One condoms. The One brand has also been established in Australia and the US. It’s only now, as One is growing up, that the inner beauty of its model is becoming apparent – that it is almost infinitely scalable. It’s quite dizzying to imagine for a moment just how far it could go. There are already wannabe One-type brands appearing on the water shelves with a similar proposition.

But One has kept well ahead of its philanthropic competitors, if that is not a difficult concept too far. From the outset, Goose and his gathering team evolved a second fundamental and clever principle – very much the kind of thing you would expect from canny marketeers. Called Like For Like, this dictates that the profits from water go exclusively into water projects, from eggs into chicken-farming projects, from plasters into medical assistance and loo roll into sanitation. It is remarkable how this simple principle speaks to customers. No wonder it is described by Devonshire as more a movement than a business – and that when a One Facebook group started recently, it gained 236,000 friends.

The brand’s most visible success so far has been in installing water pumps in African villages where previously, women and children had to walk miles to collect water – which was often contaminated. The majority of these implements are of a South African kind called PlayPump, which takes the form of a children’s roundabout. Exuberant child power, seemingly inexhaustible in Africa, is thus used to pump clean water from sources up to 100m underground. Yet again, in what is shaping up as a One constant, the good thing – pumping water – has become easier than the bad thing, not pumping water, and the colourful PlayPump has become another potent One icon. More than 750 at £8,000 each have now been installed, bringing safe water to more than 1.5m people.

Global Ethics is now starting a growth spurt for the One brand, with the hiring last month of two key figures from the Virgin empire – Ashley Stockwell, Sir Richard Branson’s global head of brand marketing and a Virgin brand guru for 19 years, plus a former Virgin Management COO, Clive Atkinson. Stockwell has already transformed One’s slightly goody-goody logo and packaging and is now overseeing a great leap forward in which Global Ethics will be looking for new products to which to apply its charitable magic. The experience, says Stockwell, is uncannily like being back at Virgin 20 years ago, with the added ingredient of the philanthropy. Global Ethics is also looking for socially minded investors, with whom it plans to work on the same commercial terms as any business, although – uniquely, one suspects, for a supermarket brand – it also receives donations. The idea of a supermarket brand that people want to help, not just support, is enough to make anyone in business think a bit.

The whole thrust of Global Ethics, though, is to be a normal, competitive, innovative, butt-kicking, hiring-firing business – but one that is crucially different in the one respect of its profits not enriching owners or shareholders, but villagers in Africa. (The US One will, in time, serve Central and South America to resonate better with American consumers, while the Australian business will serve Papua New Guinea and East Timor.)

When you talk to Goose and his colleagues, you are almost holding your breath for the religious content, for the bit where they say, “As committed Christians [or whatever]…” But there is no such hidden agenda. It is manifest that these are all successful businesspeople who just want to do good doing what they know best. They are passionate, but a laugh at the same time.

So how did Duncan Goose reach this point? How does a young man earning his business spurs in Thatcher’s Britain go from yuppie to fervent philanthropist without, you might say, passing God – or, indeed, losing either his love for business or his sense of humour? At the end of the 1980s, Goose left his first year of a business and finance course at Coventry Poly and went straight into a high-rolling career, working for marketing agencies on whisky and pet-food brands.

By 23, already an account manager on a “ridiculous” salary, he was swanning back to uni in his new company Golf GTI to visit contemporaries who were still studying. By 26, as he puts it, “I had all the fun stuff – a lovely house in Twickenham, an expensive fiancée, a BMW sports motorbike, skiing holidays, I could eat out whenever I wanted. And then it all got a bit too much. There wasn’t any challenge left. I’d achieved everything I wanted to achieve.”

He wasn’t – yet – seized with an explicit need to change the world, even though he came from a family where public service and charity were core values. But the tectonic plates deep in Goose’s soul were clearly on the move. His rebellion came in an adventurous, but not wholly unconventional, form; he sold everything he owned, ended his engagement and set off on a two-year world motorcycle trip. Before he left, he told his parents he thought he might not come back alive, but felt oddly serene about it.

And he was, as he expected, nearly killed several times on the trip. Just a few weeks out, he hit a deer in Canada, half wrecked the bike and ended up with a doctor saying he would almost certainly lose his sight; he didn’t. But strangers in Sioux Narrows, Ontario, rallied round to help the badly injured young Brit. On his subsequent adventures, he got into various pickles, some properly dangerous, and was rescued repeatedly by the kindness of individual strangers and communities. This made a searing impression on a semi-dropped-out 1990s yuppie.

His most significant learning came in Honduras, where he was caught up in the 1998 Hurricane Mitch, which killed thousands of people. With roads and villages around him swept away and no water, gas or electricity, he could no longer be a tourist and wanted to help in some way. So he became a one-man NGO, giving all his clothes away apart from what he was wearing, helping families dig themselves out of the mud and directing aid agencies to villages he found needing them. “It was by no means a nice place to be,” he says, “but these small victories made it worthwhile. And I discovered for the first time what a precious commodity clean water is.” Back in London, however, he did something that didn’t on the surface seem the most heroic response to such a dramatic grounding in the problems of the world – he went back to his old job, and became even more successful at it.

When the delayed reaction to his travel sabbatical came with the founding of the One brand, he was in a senior role at a division of JWT Advertising. But he was a changed man. “After we had mooted the idea of One, I was with Simon in a restaurant in Richmond talking about the hurricane in Honduras, and I suddenly broke down and wept. It was a release of all this horror, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to make this work and I’m prepared to lose my house, I’ve given up my house before, and so what?’” He did just that, and financially, almost went to the wall in the early stages of building the brand.

Goose remains a commercial creature to his core, happy and fired up by the daily scrap with the brands he is trying to supplant and more comfortable in a business setting in the west than with the people in Africa whose lives he can justifiably be said to have revolutionised. On a recent press trip to Malawi, where the business is concentrating its firepower, he was visibly uncomfortable being thanked and praised; he hadn’t even been to the country before, saying he didn’t feel any great need to meet the people he has helped.

Privately, he has taken a very different road from what might have been, however. While contemporaries now own big Chelsea houses, he has a mortgaged-to-the-hilt home on the wrong side of the tracks in Kew. He has married a doctor; but his wife, Dr Marta Boffito, is an HIV consultant at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and so is hardly likely to make much money in private practice to supplement her salary and the £65,000 salary Goose himself almost reluctantly accepts.

But having learned the One story from him in London, it was still hard to understand fully what fires Duncan Goose until we got to Malawi. There’s a difference between hearing, as we all do constantly, about, say, women and children who have to walk miles to get dirty water from a stream, and seeing what it’s actually like struggling up a mud path for hours every day in the heat and humidity with a canister that few of us could even lift.

Seeing swarms of children whizzing round on a PlayPump in one village, each revolution bringing up a payload of precious, free water, was quite something, too. Goose, characteristically, held back when the TV crews in our party wanted to film him being mobbed by the very people who owed their better lives directly to him.

But an even more affecting part of the trip was listening to a speech awkwardly delivered in the searing noon sun by a shy little girl in a village so remote that our party’s Land Cruisers struggled to reach it. The village had just had smart new sanitation blocks installed, paid for from the profits on One loo roll sold in Morrisons. “Before the toilets,” the girl told us, “we had to go in the bushes and I was so frightened by snakes and wasps I didn’t want to go to school. Sometimes you would step on other people’s faeces, which was not nice.” As a result simply of having clean lavatories, the head teacher told us, school attendance had gone up from 100 to 245.

The moment was enough to convince everyone who witnessed it never to buy any other brand of loo paper – or any other basic if possible – ever again.

As the word gets out and One gets bigger over the coming months and years, it is intriguing to imagine just what potential this brand, borne as it was out of a boozy pub lunch, will achieve in the future.

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