Investing Creative Capital

In the absence of capital, creativity flourishes.
Robert Stephens, Founder The Geek Squad

Lately, we haven’t seen much of Juan Valdez, the fictional iconic Colombian coffee grower featured in television ads, but that’s about to change. The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Columbia are about to spend $75 million on a new ad campaign. In addition, they’ll be opening an international chain of Juan Valdez coffee shops. Some of their products will bear a message stating that coffee beans are the primary source of income for more than 500,000 peasant families in Columbia.

In reading that story, is your first reaction, “I wish I had such a fat advertising budget,” or are you wondering why the coffee growers are still peasants? Either way, something seems a bit out of kilter in this story.

Struggling entrepreneurs often convince themselves that if they only got their hands on some money, it would solve all their problems. Not only is that position not very helpful, it also postpones the possibility of lasting success.

I once received a letter from a man who told me he’d been homeless and living in his car when the old adage, “It takes money to make money,” came to him. Realizing that he couldn’t test this notion, he continued to contemplate his options and came to the new realization that “It takes ideas to make money.” Having hit upon this thought, he started to get excited about solving his problems with his imagination. That led him to start a little service business that’s grown and prospered. As Paul Hawken reminds us, “Money follows ideas. Money doesn’t create anything.”

Real estate people talk about sweat equity—investing time and energy rather than cold cash. Creative capital is a similar concept, but it goes a step farther. When we use our imaginations to grow our businesses, we not only generate bigger and better ideas, we keep our passion alive and build confidence in our own ideas at the same time. Those are powerful ingredients for any successful undertaking.

No one has understood creative capital better than Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. For instance, she showed a natural flair for what I call Hansel and Gretel marketing. When she opened her first little shop in Brighton, England, she would spray a trail of scent from the main street to her side street location, hoping people would follow the smell. She writes, “Believe me I was prepared to try anything in those early days to get customers into my shop. I wanted to get passersby to stop, so I put big, old-fashioned sandwich boards outside promoting one or another of the products. I drenched the front of the shop in the most exotic perfume oils so that it always smelled wonderful.”

Early on, Roddick came to understand the power of free publicity. After many runners in the London Marathon complained about sore feet, she got busy concocting a foot lotion and the following year got permission to stand on the sidelines of the marathon and hand out free samples. The media took note. She also became a regular on talk shows, plugging The Body Shop as much as she could politely get away with.

Instead of spending  money for advertising, Roddick has insisted on finding creative ways to communicate her unique message. “How we communicate is gob-smacking,” she wrote in her autobiography, Body and Soul. “We use every available medium to preach, teach, inspire and stimulate, and in everything we do our single-minded passion shines through. One of my favorite quotations is from the French philosopher Descartes: ‘The passions are the only advocates which always persuade. The simplest man with passion will be more persuasive than the most eloquent without.’”