courage can't see around corners but goes around them anyway. ~Mignon McLaughlin

Marketing Social Enterprise to the Mainstream

This year, I went back to Skoll and the Oxford Jam to give a workshop on what it takes to get social enterprises to develop products and market successfully to the mainstream. Why? Because that’s the point! I’ve spent years working with NGOs, non-profits and social enterprises doing product development and branding. And each time, we wind up stalling because there’s not enough cash coming, often because the products simply don’t sell. They either aren’t right for the audience or the business doesn’t have the money to market themselves properly, or both. It frustrates me to the point of heartbreak every time. But marketing social enterprise brands successfully *can* work, but you’ve got to get out of the niche market and go for the masses. I gave the workshop with my dear friend Kathleen Enright-Carlier, a sustainability consultant-turned-green marketing guru. Here’s what we’ve learnt through our joint experience:

1. Have a point of view on the world.

Values are important, but it’s what you do with them that matters. Most social enterprises are aware of big trends in their relevant sectors since that’s often the genesis of the social entrepreneurs business idea. But how many (especially those in early start up stage) have expressed your point of view on these social and cultural tensions? Where do you stand? It’s more than a belief. It’s an opinion.

Ben & Jerry’s writes about leading a profitable values-driven enterprise in their classic book Double Dip. Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign on black Friday in the US showed that they preferred to risk losing sales than promoting mindless consumption.

“But wait!”, you say, “don’t you risk alientating people if you are opinionated?”

I say there is inherent risk in anything worth doing. I’d rather buy from a brand whose values and opinions I can place than from a vacant shell of a corporation that begs me to like them. People love the Apple brand because they know what it stands for: creativity, beauty, ease of use, and a bit of rebelliousness. They also know their audience intimately, because most of the folks at Apple are designing for people like them. Which brings me to the point of consumer research…

2. Rethink Your Research

Your competitive difference is knowing where you stand.

Most marketers’ methodology is driven by trying to understand who consumers are and what consumers want so they can develop products, services, and communications that meet these desires. But the nature of having an opinion and leading by values seems to oppose this. How do you take people on a journey with you?

First, learn to empathise with people and then talk to your detractors.

Throw your segmentation models out the window for a while and just go out and talk to people, observe how they behave, learn what they really value. Research using a combination of well-crafted surveys, observation and diary studies.

3. Market to the Mainstream the “average Joe” gets it

Ogilvy Earth in the US published a great piece of research last year that highlighted that while many Americans would consider themselves in favour of sustainable products, their buying behaviour doesn’t match. Given cultural differences in Europe and Asia, I’d be curious to see a similar study carried out in other regions. But even so, they suggest 4 new “Ps” of sustainable marketing which I think applies to communicating any social enterprise. And when I tried to apply it to Avani handloom shawls, made by a social enterprise I’ve supported for nearly a decade, even I stumbled (so I have compassion for the rest of you!)

Personal. The issue has to be personally relevant to people. This means it’s got to be specific, not abstract or remote compared to the immediate concerns of our everyday lives.

The personal benefit of a handloom silk and woll shawl is that it’s beautiful and, perhaps, a conversation piece. It’s not the feel good factor of knowing you’re supporting a cause which, if you compliment my shawl, I will probably tell you about for longer than you care to listen!

Plausible. How can you reassure the public that their purchase really makes a difference? So, going back to my shawl example, by buying a shawl you might be keeping three women employed. End of.

Where I struggle? I could easily to talk about the whole economic and environmental ecosystem of the region in India where the shawls are produced and the devastating problems of urban migration. But that’s too abstract. The person is lost and so is the sale.

Positive. The messaging needs to be positive. NO POLAR BEARS ON ICE CAPS PLEASE! Give people a genuine glimmer of hope, don’t guilt them into buying something (they won’t anyway).

In my own plight to uncover the deeper stories behind Avani, I ran a research project and exhibition of eight case studies from the Avani weaving community. But even that needs to get distilled into a quick message for our average consumer.

Pleasure. we humans are drawn to what we like. Who doesn’t like pleasure? Often when a social behaviour shift takes place, it’s done so by tapping into an existing condition or source of pleasure, valdation or self-worth. Somehow, this seems to get overlooked when we start talking about inspiring sustainable or socially responsible actions because it’s so terribly WORTHY. Take the worthiness out of it for a moment and think: what would it be like if living sustainably and with social conscience were the norm? Does it mean we all have to wear hair shirts?

I hope not.


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