Robin Raj, Founder and Executive Creative Director, Citizen Group (San Francisco, CA)
Inspired by Marc Gobé’s book, Citizen Brand: 10 Commandments for Transforming Brand Culture in a Consumer Democracy, Robin Raj, Founder and Executive Creative Director at Citizen Group, started his agency in 2006 to work with entities committed to meaningful and measurable pro-social impact. His agency’s proposition is that organizations build brand value when they “walk their talk” and operate in ways that enhance society for their employees, shareholders, and consumers.
Robin notes that the rise of social media has created a window on organizational operations . . . companies have a harder time projecting a “corporate mirage” that “everything is okay” when people can now see what is going on, assess practices, and ask the tougher questions. Clients today include for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations, municipalities, cities, and trade associations.
Working with Amnesty International and other NGOs while he was at Chiat/Day early in his career, Robin became aware of two operational economies: “the Moneyball ad world, where money is thrown around (half a million for a 30-second spot)” and the $15k budget for creating a nonprofit PSA environment. Gobé’s book identifies the trend toward citizen branding as a convergence between these two economies.
At his agency’s inception, Robin worked with Walmart’s sustainability effort and explored how big-box retail stores needed to change their operational practices to support sustainability, creating “a race to the top for brands to reutilize, recycle, (and produce) less waste” and a model for future initiatives with other organizations. Brands get a lift from doing the right thing, he says, both for society and for the environment.
In his early adulthood, Robin says he didn’t know that people had human rights. He says the 30 articulated in the United Nation’s post World War II Universal Declaration of Human Rights made a big impact on him.
Citizen Group is involved in a diverse range of projects. It is working with:
- Sports apparel retailer Lids on a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative (They Gave Us Game) to recognize and honor early Black sports leagues.
- A group called Leading Age on the Keep Leading Life campaign to showcase the variety of caregiving and expert services available to people who are aging.
With close friend Jordan Harris, Robin shares a concern about the need to promote electric vehicles. Citizen Group commissioned a study to investigate the feasibility of shading California’s 4,000 mile aqueduct system with solar canopies to reduce evaporation, conserve water, reduce algal growth, and generate power. Annual water savings for a complete end-to-end system were estimated at 63 billion with the solar array along the aqueduct system’s existing utility corridors rather than taking up working land. A spinoff company, Solar AquaGrid, will be working Audubon Society to study environmental impacts and with the state and irrigation districts to plan the first demonstration project, and break ground on the pilot (proof-of-concept) project this fall.
Robin can be found on his agency’s website at citizengroup.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Robin Raj, Founder and Executive Creative Director at Citizen Group based in San Francisco, California, with some other fascinating interests as well. Welcome to the podcast, Robin.
ROBIN: Good to be here, Rob. Thank you.
ROB: Excellent to have you. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Citizen Group, and what is the firm’s superpower? What are you all known for? What do you do well?
ROBIN: Well, I started Citizen Group in 2006, and it was really inspired by a book of the same name called Citizen Brand. This is where I can give a shout-out to an author by the name of Marc Gobé. I was really moved by the book, written in about 2003. The thesis of the book is: sooner or later, all brands will have to behave as citizen brands.
That really caught me because it was like the spear in the chest moment in terms of the societal challenges we face and the responsibility brands and corporations and civil society have. It also predated, presaged, the rise of social media that has made the rise of citizen brands possible. We expect more from the brands we purchase and are loyal to. If they’re not walking their talk, it can be a liability versus when they can really take the initiative and operate in a way that enhances society for their employees, for their shareholders, for their consumers. Then that builds brand value. That was the proposition.
So I started Citizen Brand, and we’ve been working since that time with a variety of entities, for-profit companies, nonprofit orgs, municipalities, cities, sometimes, trade associations. But what they all have in common is some commitment to have pro-social impact that is meaningful and measurable.
ROB: Let’s pull into that a little bit. Give us maybe an example, if you can, of a client, of the sort of work you’ve done together, of what this looks like in action.
ROBIN: Well, in the early going, roundabout 2005-2006, I had the opportunity to work with Walmart’s sustainability effort. Those were two words that didn’t necessarily go together at the time. It raised a lot of legitimate skepticism. But in fact, under the tenure of their CEO at the time, Lee Scott, they really saw the future as it pertains to big box retail and how they would have to change their practices, be it in terms of packaging, creating a packaging scorecard – they created more of a race to the top for brands to reutilize, recycle, less waste. And many other initiatives. In fact, they formed 13 sustainability committees in their transportation, their energy, their seafood.
That’s been the model. I’ve also done a lot of work with what is now called the Great Sports Alliance, but it started with the nonprofit NRDC and the interest on the part of professional sports – the venues, the arenas, the teams – adopting sustainable practices, again, throughout their supply chain. Energy, waste, water, transportation, how they procure goods. That story needs to radiate through their internal supply chain to their external stakeholders to their consumers.
So having meaningful initiatives that then you can start to develop stories that really show the impact and the lift that brands can get from doing the right thing – that’s the common denominator. And those were two stories, ongoing, that started around the time we started Citizen.
ROB: That’s early, and I feel like some of that has not even arrived yet. Something I feel like we’re starting to hear a little bit about is measuring the environmental impact of a business and the different layers of measurement. You’re probably the expert on this and not me, but some people will say, “All of our power consumption is green energy.” It’s like, okay, but – you mentioned the supply chain, you mentioned suppliers, you mentioned up and down the organization.
So outside of the stick that may be coming on that, whether it’s in public markets or whether it’s regulatory, how do you get businesses to think about the carrot when in their own initial reaction they might say, “We do the right things here,” and it’s true in maybe the first or second order effects, but when you get to the third order effects, there’s a lot more to work on?
ROBIN: No doubt there is. And it can be challenging. But creating an initiative that you can build the sociopolitical will for, and then building on that, creates the momentum. Creating a coalition of the willing that this is the trajectory that the company or the organization wants to take is fundamental. And it’s not just environmental, by the way; it’s social impact, fundamentally.
ROB: Yeah, which now we have acronyms around, again. But there’s a material difference, I think, between – you can check a box, you can have an ESG statement, you can have committees. It’s something else entirely, I think, to not just have a committee and to actually execute. How do you think about ensuring that those committees, that those initiatives have meat to them and are not just window dressing or greenwashing or whatever else we want to call it?
ROBIN: So much of it is susceptible to greenwashing, and perception is a whole other thing in reality between half-empty and half-full. Walmart took a lot of spears early on, but people have seen the credibility that has come from meaningful adoption of practices. And it’s happening across the corporate world, albeit not fast enough.
I’ll give you a case in point. There was a vote taken yesterday on compulsory board diversity – in other words, more women, more people of color on boards – struck down because, ironically, it was perceived as discriminatory. [laughs] Here in California, where we lead, we’ve gone in recent years from like 17% to some 30% women on corporate boards. That’s a good gain, but it ain’t anywhere near 50%.
We’re a country that doesn’t like regulation. It’s something I struggle with a lot because we can talk a good game about law and order, but law and order requires rules of the road, and it requires a well-governed society to be a healthy, functional society. In the meantime, corporations run the roost. The common good is crippled under the weight of corporate good, which quickly can curdle into corporate bad. I’m talking about Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Tobacco, Big Plastic – something I’m very concerned about. That implicates Big Beverage, the Coca-Colas of the world, the plastic, the fossil fuel industry, that has a responsibility to take care of the crap they put out there. Not to mention the downstream health effects.
So, you need to look at it all, and we don’t have claim to the answers writ large, but we take on initiatives where there’s bounds and outcomes that we can point to.
ROB: Right. Sounds like you’ve got a lot of work to do, is what it sounds like.
ROBIN: There’s no shortage of work for all of us to do.
ROB: That’s right.
ROBIN: I guess it may sound kind of schoolmarm-ish, but I really believe that – we talk about the experience economy and this and that economy; what we need right now is the responsibility economy. It’s time for grownups to be grown up.
ROB: Robin, you did mention the genesis of the firm. Let’s talk for a moment, though, about the pre-genesis of the firm. How did you decide to start in the first place? You’ve mentioned the inspiration, you’ve mentioned the book, but what made you jump off the cliff and start Citizen Group in the first place, coming from where you were? It’s not always the easiest way to live.
ROBIN: No, it was a reckoning, but it was a convergence that I’m really grateful for. My story was I came up as a copywriter, a writer. Came out of journalism, music. Went into advertising and had the privilege to work at some excellent shops – Hal Riney here in San Francisco and Chiat\Day. As a writer and creative director, learning the potency of storytelling, visually and verbally, in short form commercials, and even pre-internet, before we had branded content – but it was still getting you to read the printed page, telling a story on television.
I had done a lot of work since the 1980s when I was in New York at Chiat\Day with Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization. I got exposed to Amnesty’s work because of the rock events they were putting on at the time – the likes of Springsteen and Sting and Peter Gabriel doing world tours, promoting this concept of human rights. As a twenty-something, I didn’t know from human rights that we have human rights, and there’s 30 of them that are articulated in the International (sic., Universal) Declaration of Human Rights created after World War II. It really struck me.
I continued to do work on behalf of Amnesty and other NGOs, and I realized that two economies were operating. There was the Moneyball ad world, where money is thrown around. Half a million for a 30-second spot was not an uncommon thing at that time. And you might have $15k to put against creating a PSA on behalf of a nonprofit org. Really two different economies. And what was more important just didn’t follow in terms of where we place our value.
The Citizen Brand book really said there’s a convergence going on here. Like I said, I had no idea that a few years later, the rise of social media would accelerate it to such a degree that companies had to walk their talk. They couldn’t simply put on a corporate mirage and pretend everything was okay; people were going to look more closely at their practices and interrogate, in a healthy way. And that created the impetus for what we see more of today.
ROB: You’ve been doing this thing for a little while. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in the process of building the firm? What are some things you might go back and tell yourself to do differently if you had that chance to talk to yourself?
ROBIN: Lessons learned. I might’ve applied more focus to social impact earlier, even though I’ve been doing it for a while now. I think about years – I won’t say wasted. They were not wasted. Great experiences, and learning the craft of advertising is part of my skillset. But having the lightbulb go off sooner in terms of applying more of my working years to making a difference in terms of social outcome is something that if I could rewind the clock, I would put more years in that quadrant than the fun and games I had when I was youthful and indiscreet. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] You wouldn’t have been as youthful and indiscreet if you had done otherwise. But I hear you. There’s those corners we turn where we realize in some way or another – we get more serious; we discover a path that we can run well on, and we certainly wish we had found it sooner, had started that impact sooner, because we get so much better as we keep going. So I completely understand that.
As we mentioned at the top, you are a man of many talents and many thoughts and many ideas. Something that I wasn’t really aware of that you mentioned was the Solar AquaGrid. Tell us about that. I don’t think those words naturally go together in most people’s minds, so unpack this for us. What’s going on here? It’s intriguing but momentarily confusing, and I think it’ll all make sense through your words.
ROBIN: Yeah. One of my closest friends and dearest collaborators, Jordan Harris, we’ve done a lot of work together for Rock the Boat and other social causes in relation to promoting the rise of EVs, the EV revolution. It was his genesis – we both travel up and down the state, from Northern California to Southern California, seeing these open aqueducts that convey our water, and year on year, the increasing drought we have here in California.
It got him scratching his head because he lives part of his time in France, where the canals are tree-shaded. They’re tree-lined and shaded canals, whereas here our canals are open and exposed, and we couldn’t help but think: how much water are we losing each year in terms of evaporative loss? Because heat rises.
ROB: How much?
ROBIN: Well, we commissioned a study. We started a project first at Citizen to commission a study. We sought out the best researchers we could find, and they’re based in UC Merced, which is the home of University of California- UC Solar and UC Water. We commissioned a study that said up to 63 billion gallons of water could be saved annually if all 4,000 miles of California’s canal system, aqueduct system, were covered with solar canopies.
And many other compounding advantages, because when you cover the canals, you’re producing obviously clean energy, renewable energy that can be used locally by the communities. We’re going to need a lot more renewable energy on tap if we are going to shift towards an EV-driven economy. And then there’s the avoided land costs, because rather than taking working lands, farmlands, to put solar farms, solar arrays, why not have these existing aqueducts, these existing utility corridors do double duty for us?
The more we got into it, we discovered that there can be reduced maintenance costs because the solar shade over the open canals, the open rivers, reduces aquatic weed growth. So there’s less dredging up of the algae underneath. And it has waterfall implications, rather than dumping more chemicals into the water.
Long story not so short, one thing led to another and we started to examine holistically all of the potential advantages of such deployments. We developed a company, a spinoff that is called Solar AquaGrid, where we’re consulting with the state and working directly with irrigation districts – most notably with Turlock Irrigation District in the Central Valley – planning the first demonstration project. We were successful in getting state funds to do pilot. So we expect to break ground in the fall.
I’m quite excited about that because now we can really put these premises to the test. The whole idea is to study in order to scale, because you only gain the advantages of this idea, a big idea, a rather obvious idea – we weren’t the first to come up with it – but now we’re on a path where we are very fortunate to be able to study and build on the findings.
ROB: California is a big state, lots of people, lots of opinions; are there any particular groups you’re concerned about having concerns about this? Are there impacts on wildlife? Are there impacts on other things that people would worry about? It probably can be mitigated, probably a net positive, but what’s the group that’s going to fret about these?
ROBIN: We talk about that a lot. We are inviting naysayers to come with their questions because the whole purpose is to interrogate this proposition and learn, where are there holes? We want to be mindful not to replace one problem and create others. That’s not our intention. We set Solar AquaGrid up as a for-benefit company that is predicated on public, private, academic cooperation.
To that end, you raised the issue of wildlife; we have enlisted Audubon Society as a research partner because we do want to learn, what are the effects, the unforeseen potential consequences of covering large swaths of the canal? So we’re going to learn all this. If you want to do another podcast in about – call it 24 or 36 months, we’ll have more to talk about.
ROB: That’ll be fascinating. The next thing that comes to my mind also is, you talked about France, you talked about their waterways. You get into some interesting questions. They have waterways. They’re tree-shaded, so you could cover them with solar panels, but the trees are going to make not as much solar. Is it potentially beneficial enough to where you take down trees to put the solar over it? Because the trees are there, they keep it shaded somewhat, but it’s still uncovered. It’s still evaporative.
ROBIN: Beautiful. There’s beauty in complexity. These are the questions in terms of net positives and net losses regarding, in that case, biodiversity.
By the way, we here in the U.S. are not the first to deploy solar arrays over canals. It was first done in Gujrat, India, where there are projects we’ve actually gone to school on and have learned from those past deployments – both what to do and what not to do.
ROB: That’s fascinating. We have a business partner whose primary office is directly in Gujrat, so I am familiar with it. I have looked at it. In their case, they chose to set up there because what I’ve learned is that India’s all one time zone, and Gujrat is the farthest west you can get, just about, so you get the best overlap with the U.S. if you’re there. So that was interesting. We ended up alongside an outsource team, and then we started asking why they were there, and that turns out to be the why.
ROBIN: I did not know that. That’s cool.
ROB: I imagine the same thing applies to – I think China’s also on one time, so who knows where that leads. But speaking to your journey, speaking to Citizen Group, speaking to the type of work that you do – we’ve talked about some things already that you’re looking forward to, but what’s coming up for Citizen Group? What’s coming up for the type of work you do that is exciting for you? What else is next, beyond what we’ve already spoken about?
ROBIN: It’s the range of projects, the diversity of them, that makes it fun. Challenging and fun. There’s so many ways to make impact, and there’s new ideas to think about every day. But one of the projects that has been exciting this spring is in the area of – it goes by another acronym, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
The sports apparel retailer Lids has developed an initiative to recognize and honor the history of the early Black leagues: the Negro Baseball League, the original Harlem Globetrotters, what was called the Black Fives; before there was the NBA, there were the Black Fives. These were leagues and teams in the era of racial segregation. These are the players that invented the modern game. In fact, the name of the campaign that we’ve developed is called “They Gave Us Game.”
It’s been a blast because I’m a sports fan, particularly basketball, and going back, the whole tree of influences in terms of – much like music, how every generation is influenced by the generation previous, and how the moves and skills developed in one era that proved successful and now you can see in the game of our players today. That’s been fun. So they’ve come up with this apparel collection called They Gave Us Game.
We’ve also been working in the area of services for those among us who are aging. Which is all of us, right? But there are more Americans that are living longer, and as a result, there’s more services available that most of us don’t necessarily recognize the variety of caregiving and expert services. So we’ve been working with a group called Leading Age to create a campaign called Keep Leading Life that showcases the range of services available to people.
ROB: Got it. We’ll look forward to those things as well. Robin, when people want to find and connect with you and Citizen Group, where should they go to find you?
ROBIN: We have a website. It’s called citizengroup.com.
ROB: That’s a good website. That’s easy to remember. Very appropriate. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, for all the work you’re doing for all of us, and for sharing a little bit about it along the way. Grateful to hear your journey.
ROBIN: Thanks for your interest. It was fun talking to you.
ROB: Excellent. Have a wonderful day. Take care.
ROBIN: Take care. Thanks.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.