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Charlie Brown designs community

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Charlie Brown — named after his grandfather, in case you’re wondering — is a case study in the millennial career trajectory. After graduating from Virginia Tech, the boyish-looking 37-year-old joined a digital merchandising dot-com, followed up with an MBA, then worked for international nonprofits on environmental and social entrepreneurship issues.

While working for Ashoka, a global entrepreneurs network, Brown managed an online community that uses prizes as a mechanism for generating social change. In 2010 he founded Context Partners, a Portland-based design agency that works with foundations, companies and nonprofits and has branch offices in Washington, D.C., and Brussels. From the company’s chic new digs on Northeast Alberta, Brown discusses community engagement as a branding tool, Black Lives Matter and how CRM software helped drive a marketing revolution.

Your website says CP “create[s] relationships and dynamic human networks that help aspirational brands and causes succeed.” Break down the jargon.

We help identify community. We develop strategies to mobilize that community to shared action and develop capabilities to manage that community over the long run. True, some of that feels jargony. But we find clients are asking for new words, new frameworks. During my time at Ashoka, I got to work with thousands of social entrepreneurs around the world, and that sealed for me an interest in the two parts of Context Partners: how you have real, on-the-ground impact and how you do that by utilizing communities and networks.

In a for-profit/branding context, this sounds like next-generation corporate social responsibility and cause marketing.

Those elements have their moments of high visibility and impact but haven’t found their mainstay in an organization. Grassroots campaigning is great, but what does it mean when you don’t have a campaign to run? Cause marketing is great, but what does it mean when that’s not our cause anymore? Our point of view is finding a shared purpose that transcends an individual campaign or moment. Let’s build loyal customers, brand ambassadors and employees who want to be here for the long haul.

What trends are driving brands toward community design solutions?

Two very distinct aspects of modern culture and society. The first is pure demographics. Millennials to baby boomers are all asking similar things from organizations: They want experiences, identities, relationships. They want to be brought together in a way that is not just looking for the transactional purchase.

Say more about identity formation.

In the early ’80s and ’90s, the brand goal was to inspire. Be like Mike. But now people don’t want to be Kobe. They don’t want to be LeBron. They want to be themselves, to be their friends. They are asking not for an inspirational identity but an aspirational identity. As a brand, push me into a pathway where I can be my best self.

About that second societal trend.

The pathway is best articulated in an event that happened every year called Dreamforce [hosted by Salesforce]. About 150,000 people show up every year to go to a CRM [Customer Relationship Management] conference. I don’t know if 10 years ago we could have guessed this would be the preeminent conference of this country. But organizations are saying: We need to understand who is in our community and our relationships with them. Dreamforce is still about creating and generating leads and then selling product. But it’s moving toward community, relationships, identity building. We see it as relationship revolution. We think of it as a social movement.

Are companies paying attention?

Ten years ago, we would be surprised to see a lot of organizations in the situation they are now. I grew up in a generation where McDonald’s was a pre-existing notion of the country’s culture. Now the place is really struggling. Look at the incredible number of brick-and-mortar retailers that were huge facets of what it meant to be a community. Look at the challenges that physical infrastructure churches have — the whole thing with millennials and spirituality. All these things are changing.

What advice do you have for McDonald’s?

Do I want to lay claim to McDonald’s future? I don’t know.

How does the CP strategy apply to nonprofit clients?

We were asked by the Knight Foundation to help understand the role of black men in roughly 27 communities across the U.S. We did three months of ethnographic research in Philadelphia and Detroit and found a lot of examples about the powerful work black men are doing every day that often goes unnoticed.

We created a new organization, BMe (Black Male Engagement), to bring men together to amplify individual efforts and connect them back to cities so they become an asset for their communities. BME has now found itself at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement as an organization that was ready to respond to what became a series of triggers inside of our country, and to be able to guide that into a fascinating, important set of actions not just for black men but for cities.

Why are prizes an effective tool for social change and innovation?

Prizes concentrate effort in one area that can have a high level of impact. They create competition where competition was diffuse or too nascent to accelerate the pace of change that was going to occur. You can often put a level of investment out that is much lower than the cost of the actual solution and still have the problem solved.

For example?

The most seminal prize in history: the Orteig Prize that Lindbergh won for crossing the Atlantic. Many people believe 20 years of R&D was cut by having the Orteig Prize. It created an incredible level of competition that no one thought Lindbergh, a postman, would have won. Several other people were believed to have it locked up, and they lost — and some in very dramatic ways.

So CP manages competitions? 

We work with organizations to understand what prize will work for their problem and situation, whether it’s a recognition prize or an inducement prize to create new technology that never existed. Prizes are part of what we do.

Describe an Oregon-grown project.

Frontier Communications is a telecommunications firm focusing on small communities in Oregon. Their CEO and board chair came to us and said: We want to stop doing marketing in an old-fashioned way. Continuing to broadcast our message isn’t connecting with the community. We want to invest in brand-building with relational activities for the long term. So after doing ethnographic research, we designed and launched a three-year prize challenging communities to develop plans and early implementation for developing economic and cultural growth.

Uber seems to align with your approach. But it also seems to be losing the PR battle.

If Uber asked us, we’d say your job is to be a broker between drivers and passengers. Let’s look at the experience between the two; it has gotten worse and worse. If you talk to a Lyft driver, they can tell you why Lyft exists: why they drive for them. They can tell you they drive for Uber and Lyft and why they prefer Lyft every time. There are a lot of questions about who is going to win the [ride-sharing] game and whether there is another company like Google, like Tesla, that is actually going to seize that space because they are thinking about relationships in a radically different way.

Portland is considered a pioneer in community engagement. Are we losing our edge?

There are some real challenges in the city. Housing prices are skyrocketing, pushing people many considered the heart and soul of city farther out. We have a decision to make about how we continue to run the city, not just as politicians but as citizens. In my case, as a business owner who is employing people, I can choose to say: It’s the way the world works. Or we can get involved and say we want to protect what one may call keeping Portland weird, but I think is about keeping Portland shared: a place where we all have an opportunity to see it as our community, not one that is being bought for someone else.

Perhaps you should take on the city of Portland as a client.

We would be pretty interested. Super interested.