March 15, 2021

Is 'community-washing' the new greenwashing?

Neil Barrie and Isaiah Wellington-Lynn argue that companies who market themselves as community-based need to follow through on their promise.

Isaiah Wellington-Lynn

Community-driven brand building is commonly heralded as best practice for 21st century companies. Growth at various unicorn marketplaces and creator platforms has been exponentially accelerated by the network effect of community participation and mutual value creation. Airbnb’s blockbuster $100bn IPO confirmed the potential rewards for ‘community-first’ companies, with Brian Chesky leading from the top as self-styled head of community — reinforced by Joe Zadeh’s appointment as chief stakeholder officer and a transparent set of goals and metrics.

There’s exponential value created when companies integrate meaningful incentives with mutual benefit into the core of their brand and product, but the great reckoning of 2020 has illustrated the need to hold ‘community-first’ companies more accountable to their utopian rhetoric.

Take Spotify, currently valued at $61.3bn. While its marketing consistently and beautifully spotlights a diverse range of artists and it provides best-in-class access to fans, it’s a painful truth that >80% of artists earn under €230 per year off the platform, according to research from the Musician’s Union and the Ivors Academy. Understandably, most grass-roots musician organisations are calling for systematic change. Small wonder given that a huge part of that $61.3bn was generated by artists but none of them have a real say in leadership decision-making.


While we love Spotify’s product and there’s no question that a huge part of the value created is down to the amazing talent of Daniel Ek’s team, it’s still one of many examples where, despite positive intent, the net community impact can feel less empowering and more exploitative.

The other iconic example is Uber. Its $90bn IPO narrative was hijacked by strikes highlighting the harsh reality of drivers living on the poverty line.


There’s an urgent need to put systemic mechanisms in place to ensure the communities that power these platforms share in the value they’re helping create. If not, ‘community-washing’ is in danger of becoming the next ‘greenwashing’: a feel-good wrapper, employed inconsistently, largely for PR.

‘Community-washing’ is in danger of becoming the next ‘greenwashing’.

An egregious US example of this was the 2019 expose detailing the gulf between food delivery app Doordash's warm talk of empowering its 'Dashers' (delivery drivers) to earn work and live and its tipping model which, in many cases, funnelled customer tips to the company rather than drivers. Doordash has since ended the practice and introduced a number of meaningful community initiatives to help its communities mitigate the crippling impact of Covid-19, suggesting there is now real commitment behind the rhetoric.

Start from the heart

For the growing band of scaleups it’s important to instil congruence between your community-building ideals and your business reality from the outset. Ensure the community isn’t just a feature on the product roadmap, but rather deeply embedded into the heart of every element of the company — internally and externally.

Ensure the community isn’t just a feature on the product roadmap, but rather deeply embedded into the heart of every element of the company.

There are encouraging bright spots in the European ecosystem. We’ve seen Italian-born, London-based Depop’s commitment to its seller community first hand. Its ‘we win when they win’ mantra is leading to sustained initiatives to lift up underrepresented sellers. ‘Black on Depop’ is one example, where Depop assigned prime real estate on the front page to prioritise Black sellers and ensured it worked with Black creatives on bringing the experience to life. Underpinning all of this is ongoing outreach with other underserved communities to see how Depop can better serve them.

The success of such initiatives demonstrates the value of inviting underserved and underrepresented communities into the process for continuous learning, feedback loops and product execution. There is still much work to be done but these are meaningful steps towards becoming a progressive, iterative, community-focused brand.

Meanwhile, London-based crowdfunding platform Crowdcube’s model is enabling some high profile consumer scaleups like Monzo and more recently Brew by Numbers and CarWow to turn customers into community members. Crowdcube enables them to be early investors and get a slice of the value they’re helping create — no doubt creating a core of passionate advocates ‘owner/customers’ in the process.

Despite these progressive steps, individuals and initiatives come and go, particularly under investor pressure. Ultimately we need mechanisms in place to ensure that the wellbeing and prosperity of their foundational communities is consistently nurtured.

This means addressing the fundamentals of leadership, governance and ownership through the following strategies:

1. Leadership

Give your community a voice in the c-suite. This can look like appointing a chief community officer, someone with overall responsibility for genuinely nurturing and consciously moulding the community. Their mandate would be to cultivate the community as a strategic asset with community-focused KPI’s built into the role’s annual compensation.

Give your community a voice in the c-suite.

Doing so creates a positive tension with the underlying need to drive scale and profit from other members of the c-suite. We’re seeing isolated instances of this — Mindful Chef’s cofounder (and chief community officer) Myles Hopper is a good example: the meal delivery company’s impressive track record of growth and community impact should inspire others to follow suit.

2. Representation

Introduce a fiduciary mandate where priority community interests are advocated for at board level. This would mean at least one seat for actual musicians at Spotify, drivers at Uber and so on. For other platforms, the urgency is more on ensuring that priority minority interests are represented. At Reddit for example, Alexis Ohanian resigned his board seat to make way for an African American to better advocate for its underrepresented black community.

3. Ownership

Commit to a minimum community ownership structure which ensures that your community is sharing in the value they are helping create. We are seeing a new breed of artist-first music platforms emerge such as Ampled in the UK (100% artist-owned coop model) and Sweden’s innovative live-streaming platform Doors.live (ownership includes a mix of Spotify alumni and artists, producers and music promoters).

Commit to a minimum community ownership structure.

All of these ideas involve complexity and trade-offs and there may well be better ones (please add them in the comments) but if there’s one thing we’re sure of, it’s the ability of entrepreneurs to create magic within constraints. So let’s start putting the community constraint at the heart of our plans, so that the next generation of decacorns truly nurture the ecosystems they rely on.

Neil Barrie is cofounder and global CEO of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand and has led the development and global growth for a range of top tier brands; Isaiah Wellington-Lynn is an anthropologist and strategist at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand and a founding faculty member at the London Interdisciplinary School.