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Zebras: The New Business Model for Socially Conscious Companies

Transitioning from old to new
Zebra, Unicorn or Pegasus?

Unicorns are dead. Why businesses should be zebras instead.

Unicorns are companies that have achieved a billion-dollar valuation or more, such as Tesla, Uber, and Netflix. These types of companies were glorified shortly before the pandemic, and their success was measured primarily by growth and profitability, often at the expense of other considerations. Pegasus, a term coined to represent an even more elusive goal, was born when Apple reached a trillion-dollar valuation. Today, five companies, including Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Tesla, have a higher market cap than most countries' GDP. This shift in power from government to corporations highlights the loss of regulatory control, allowing companies to get away with things simply because of their valuation, as seen in cases such as WeWork and Theranos.

On the other hand, zebras are socially conscious companies that prioritize profitability while being socially conscious and mindful of the world's social needs. The term was coined in 2017 by Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams in their publication, "Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break." The name refers to the black and white stripes of zebras, which symbolize the balance between profitability and social impact. Unlike unicorns, zebras prioritize customer success and contributions to their communities, without sacrificing revenue.

As society becomes more aware of the need for a more conscientious capitalistic framework, we must shift our targets from mythical beasts to zebras. Here are some ways to become a socially conscious agency without sacrificing revenue:

  1. Expand your client roster: Align your financial needs with your social impact efforts by finding clients who fit the bill (and the cause). Reach out to minority-owned businesses, companies in the sustainability sector, or non-profits with enough budget to work with you.

  2. Run with the pack: While unicorns are creatures of solitude, zebras ride together. Embrace collaboration through diversity and strength in numbers. Connect with mission-driven brands and individuals to embrace your core zebra. For example, last year, Czech Republic-based creative agency UON7 showed their stripes by hiring Ukrainian refugees who helped scale their business, a win for everyone.

  3. Show your stripes: Zebras seek to heal wounds inflicted by 'business as usual' practices such as environmental damage, mental health challenges, and inequality. It all starts with leadership connecting the brand's strategy with its higher purpose. The Ethical Agency is an excellent example of a sustainability-minded agency leading by example in reducing their own footprint and forging relationships to design and develop for eco-friendly organizations. Similarly, Quixotic Design Co. builds industry-leading brands for female entrepreneurs.

Ultimately, zebras aren't defined solely by how much money they make—their social impact matters too. This shift in our culture's business priorities presents the perfect opportunity to be a part of something bigger than yourself, or even your agency. You can get started by being deliberate in the clients you work with and the values you stand for.

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