Based on a Guest Lecture at the Institute of Culture and Creative Entrepreneurship, Goldsmiths, University of London
In the last decade I’ve spent working with socially-driven brands and businesses, I’ve regularly encountered a strange contrast between the way that the senior people in these companies talk about what they are doing in person, and the practical reality of how they go about promoting it to the world at large.
One to one, the pride and belief in the unique nature of what they are trying to do almost always shines through.
But when you look at the way most of these companies actually promote their businesses, it can be anything but unique. Either they’ll sound like a charity, talking only about the problems of the people they are helping, at the expense of their actual customer proposition, or more commonly, they’ll just operate as if a typical private business, taking a standard commercial approach to their marketing and communications.
In an age when the public increasingly distrusts advertising, and is sceptical of profit-driven businesses making claims of social purpose – I believe that adopting these default approaches is a big mistake.
A lot of social businesses are genuinely special and different, and making a huge impact on the world. But too often they are being held back by a lack of boldness and ambition. They need to realise what they are doing is of a fundamentally different character from typical business, and that should be reflected across all of how and what they communicate.
There are three key aspects to this.
Speaking to a whole different motivation
The fact is, if you are selling your customers a vision of a better world along with a quality product or service, you are doing something qualitatively different from a purely commercial offer (or a purely altruistic one, for that matter).
By engaging people’s social and ethical values, you’re entering different territory, that the traditional models and techniques that underpin normal business marketing just aren’t equipped to deal with.
Properly understanding people’s values means considering the different ways these can be mapped and modelled – whether that’s the traditional Schwartz map, the more recent Moral Foundations theory, or the classic (if increasingly dated) axis of political ideology.
You don’t need to understand this sort of theory in depth, but if you want to be sure you are actually speaking to the values of the people you need to support you, it’s worth at least getting familiar with the basic outlines of how such values might work – and how that impacts on the language you should use.
Without this, you’ll end up with the clumsy approach so many socially-minded businesses have settled for – basing your strategy on appealing to ‘millennials’, vaguely defined as socially conscious, liberal minded and caring about the environment.
Unfortunately, as we’ve previously discussed, the evidence suggests that millennials don’t actually have that different values from any other generation – so you’re basing your strategy on a target group that doesn’t really exist (at least as they’ve been commonly defined).
The latest IPSOS Mori Almanac reinforces this – putting it nice and clearly:
“To give a couple of examples – much has been made about how Millennials are leading a shift towards ethical purchasing, but we found there is no generational difference in likelihood to buy ethically. Millennials are no more likely to boycott products for ethical reasons compared to Generation X when they were the same age, and are actually less likely to actively choose to buy a product/service for ethical reasons. ‘Keen on green’ is not a Millennial thing. Don’t base your advertising campaign on the idea that it is.”
Pretty damning – for the marketing strategies of a few businesses, but also for the profusion of recent small sample surveys that have purported to prove how Millenials are desperate to spend their money ethically. Another object lesson on being aware of the tendency of interviewees to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear.
Do the relationship you are asking for justice
This difference with traditional business marketing extends beyond initial motivations – there is also a heavy implication that comes whenever you include a social mission in your offer.
By suggesting that your customer is engaging with you in a shared attempt to change the world – you’re going way beyond the purely transactional relationship that is the assumed result of most purchases.
Despite this, many impact brands immediately contradict this deeper connection by treating their audience as if they were just customers of a typical ‘take it and go’ business.
So they only communicate with them to say – please share our content, buy another product, maybe fill in a survey. Occasionally a discount is offered. But there’s no sense in which that initial status as allies in a emotive and meaningful cause is validated – in fact, by treating them as typical customers, you’re directly contradicting whatever initial affinity was established.
A lot of larger corporations, starting to express their ‘social purpose’, suffer from a similar clash between their rhetoric and the reality of the relationship that’s on offer – offering lofty claims in high budget media about the deep and meaningful connection between their product and the life challenges or strongly held beliefs of their audience – but failing to marry this with a substantive interaction beyond the usual customer-seller divide.
If you want an audience that is as passionate as you are about what you are trying to achieve, it’s vital that the limited ambition and creativity of your interaction with them doesn’t imply your project overall is similarly lacking.
As a business with genuine social impact, you can ask for much more.
Let your core support build your brand for you
It’s one of the foremost clichés of the age of social media that word of mouth is the most effective form of promotion you can have. Every brand clamours to try and get that elusive combination of seemingly organic ‘buzz’ that is also a neat fit with their intended messaging, whether through sponsoring ‘influencers’, ‘viral’ videos (often with massive advertising budgets), or other dubious means.
Fundamentally though, these sort of approaches, along with so-called ‘native’ advertising, constitute attempts to create the appearance of organic, natural interest – when they are really paid-for.
As such they are deeply inauthentic and ‘fake’ – the greatest sins of the age, and ones that modern audiences are hyper-vigilant for.
However, a select few companies have realised that with the right approach, it is possible to use the resources and capabilities of a business to build genuinely authentic, organic audience growth and enthusiasm. But it requires taking a fundamentally different approach.
GiffGaff is a mobile phone company unlike any other – in that it has given its most passionate supporters unprecedented power. Through an online forum, customer deals, technical priorities and even pricing are largely controlled by the customers of the company, who can discuss and vote on different proposals. This unique level of control and influence has allowed GiffGaff to grow a passionate and committed fan-base, allowing them to compete in a crowded and intensely competitive market against rivals with much bigger budgets.
Now imagine such an approach, but supercharged by the audience and business sharing a social mission. The mobilising power of a social movement, twinned with the personal benefit of a quality brand.
Such a method is possible – when values are properly understood, expressed in carefully formulated language, and with real, practical opportunities for involvement that reinforce the relationship implied.
It’s not easy for businesses to operate in this way. It means giving up control and power; it means inviting your customers into a sustained relationship of co-creation, rather than seeing them as recipients of your distribution. And it means giving them genuine influence over the future direction and decisions of your business.
Not everyone, of course, is going to want to be involved in such a deep way in what you are doing. But if your professed cause is to change the world – and you have the impact to back up such claims – there will be a sizeable number of people out there who care passionately about the same cause. If asked in the right way, they will be willing to dedicate their time to helping you, beyond just the occasional purchase.
This can be read as a critique, but in practice it represents a huge opportunity.
Many social purpose brands have done quite well so far using conventional methods. But I believe they are inherently selling themselves short by sticking to these techniques.
If they can properly take advantage of their unique characteristics then their potential is much greater. It could see them gain a substantive competitive advantage over non-social brands, which in turn could persuade more companies that a core social mission makes business sense. And the impact of that on our collective future could be huge.
So how to do it? We’ll as a new way of operating, it’s anything but easy. And each business will have its differences that will have an impact on the best approach to take. But there are a few common points to start from.
An understanding of social values and how they work is a good place to begin.
In that context it’s then crucial to consider how you can best frame the language of what you are offering, to achieve the open and invitational aspect that can entice people to engage with it – and not to trigger any unhelpful associations. Speaking powerfully to values always needs proper preparation.
Finally you need to create the substantive, practical ways in which your audience can help create and spread your brand. These don’t need to always be full technical platforms like GiffGaff’s forum – they can start from the relatively simple and straightforward, like holding a member event where people can review proposed new products before release, or a competition to design some element of a new campaign.
What’s crucial is at their heart they have a genuine commitment to letting customers have the power. The sooner you can prove to them that they have this influence, the sooner they will feel the drive to tell others about what you are doing.
And the sooner that you can see the impact of truly crowd-powered social business.
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