Lessons in Marketing a Social Impact Brand
27 February 2018 - Daniel Stanley

Welcome to Part 1 of “Lessons in Marketing a Social Impact Brand Daniel Stanley from Cohere Partners. These blog posts came out of a Guest Lecture that he gave at Goldsmiths University of London’s Institute of Culture and Creative Entrepreneurship.


Daniel Stanley – Cohere Partners

I’ve spent the last decade working with socially-driven brands and businesses. In my opinion, there is a strange contrast that exists between the way that senior people talk about what they are doing one to one, and the practical reality of how they go about promoting it to the world at large. One to one, there is an undeniable pride and belief in the unique nature of their mission.

However, when you review the ways in which they actually promote themselves, they do not display anything unique.

It’s as if they have the following two options. The first is to approach it like a charity, the focus of their messaging being on the problems of the people they are helping, as opposed to their actual customer proposition; or more commonly, they’ll use the approaches we expect of private businesses, being highly commercial in what they put out.

Today, the public is very distrusting of advertising, and highly sceptical of profit-driven businesses making claims of social purpose – so these default marketing approaches are not going to serve social impact brands or businesses well.

The truth is, a lot of social businesses are genuinely special, different and making a huge impact on the world. A lack of boldness and ambition is quite often the thing that holds them back. What they are doing is of a fundamentally different character from typical business, and this should become the driving force of their marketing and communications activity.

Let’s explore the key aspects of this.

1. Speaking to a whole different motivation

Selling your customers a vision of a better world and a quality product or service that supports this vision, is something qualitatively different from a purely commercial offer (or a purely altruistic one, for that matter).

Appealing to the social and ethical values of people is a different territory, one that the traditional models and techniques behind normal business marketing just don’t help you to navigate or achieve.

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.

A deep understanding of these theories is not vital, but to ensure you are truly speaking to the values of the supporters you want and need, then it’d be wise to get 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 fall into the misguided, and somewhat lazy, trap that has caught many socially-minded businesses – basing your strategy on appealing to ‘millennials’, loosely defined as socially conscious, liberal minded and having a heart for 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.”

Harsh reality? Certainly. Not only for the businesses who were focusing their marketing around this so-called truth, but also for the abundance of recent sample surveys that claim to have proven that millennials are more likely to make buying decisions based on ethics. Another object lesson on being aware of the tendency of interviewees to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear.

2. Do the relationship you are asking for justice

Engaging with more than a customer’s initial motivations is only the start of the difference to traditional business marketing that social brands should be looking to achieve – including a social mission in your offer that comes with a significant implication.

Remember, you are prompting your customer to buy into a mutual mission of changing the world – that goes far beyond the purely transactional relationship.

The question then, is why do so many social brands ignore the depth of this relationship and continue to communicate and engage with their customers like any “take it and go” business?

Communicating to ask your customers to: share your content, purchase more products, or if you’re lucky, fill in a survey doesn’t align with what you say you’re about. On some occasions, a discount is offered, but how does any of this intensify or validate the journey you and your customers are supposed to be going on as allies that are transforming our world? In fact, by treating them as typical customers, you’re directly contradicting whatever initial affinity was established.

MfSIB Pt-1

Consider the situation that many larger corporations now find themselves in – those suddenly beginning to communicate their ‘social purpose’. Unsurprisingly, there is a disconnect between their rhetoric and the reality of the relationship that’s on offer – will continue to cause problems as they fail to marry these claims with a substantive interaction beyond the usual customer-seller divide.

To cultivate an engaged audience who are just as committed to the cause as you are, it’s vital that the limited ambition and creativity of your interaction with them doesn’t suggest that your project falls short in the same way overall.

As a business with genuine social impact, you can ask for much more.

To find out how to connect your customers to your cause and help them build the support you need for you, be sure to check out part 2 next week.