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Sustaining Social Enterprise Through Branding: Connecting Purpose and Profit

While not long ago, our buying choices were based on “bigger, better, brighter,” today we’re met with far heftier decisions about the products and services we purchase: Is it responsibility produced? What’s its impact on the planet? Are people earning a fair wage?

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why social enterprise is fast becoming our best friend. Consumers and B2B customers alike can count on social enterprise to simplify the decision-making process because, by definition, the social enterprise is not about just making a sale, but also making the world a better place.

However, this very popularity of purpose driven decision-making, that creates a marketing challenge for social entrepreneurs.

Although social enterprise offers the unique benefit of allowing customers to pair purchase with purpose, social entrepreneurs are now faced with an ever-increasing number of companies claiming the exact same thing. This means that if they neglect to develop strong, sustainable and stand out brands, they risk a modern version of “bigger, better, brighter,” competing on superficial, me-too messages.

So, how can a social enterprise differentiate itself through branding to ensure its own sustainability?

Equally, how can social entrepreneurs avoid the branding traps that come hand-and-hand with marketing a company with a social mission?

Build Your Brand on Your Purpose…But Don’t Rely on Your Social Story Alone

While companies with traditional business models struggle to adopt purpose-based branding to their marketing strategies, the concept is a natural fit for the social enterprise. Leading with the company’s purpose deepens the connection between the brand and its audiences, because it takes the experience from simply transactional (people buying the products and services because they need them) to relational (people buying your products and services because they believe in a greater purpose behind what you do).

Yet, it’s critically important to connect the purpose to the overall value that your company brings to its customers. Don’t rely on your purpose alone to create true differentiation for your brand in the marketplace.

Build Your Brand on Your Purpose…But Build a Complete Brand

While purpose is the compelling core of the social enterprise’s brand, a brand is more than purpose alone. The foundational rules of solid branding still apply here.

Make sure to build a solid foundation – beginning with a brand platform that will bring focus and clarity into all of your communications. Brand position and values, brand message and brand identity all contribute to creating a multi-faceted, compelling and engaging brand.

Build Your Brand on Your Purpose…But Don’t Forget Your Customer

Another benefit of purpose-based branding is that it helps convey the authenticity of your company – the truths that create a deeper emotional connection to your audiences. But if you focus too much on telling your own story, you risk losing the customer.

A key to creating a successful, engaging brand is understanding your audiences, their needs, passions and aspirations. This requires ongoing research, but even more, an ongoing conversation through which you gain insight about how to evolve your brand to continue to meet customer needs.

In today’s overcrowded marketplace, your customers have a choice. No matter how much good a social enterprise is doing in the world, if it’s not also offering real, relevant solutions to its customers’ needs, it won’t enjoy sustained business success.

Branding is Social Enterprise Glue

Getting audiences to understand how the social problem a company is solving increases the overall value of doing business with this company means that social enterprises have a big story to tell.

Branding addresses that challenge because, by its very nature, branding is about shaping perceptions and telling big stories. If done correctly, it becomes a glue that ties together a company’s business strategy, its core purpose and its customer experience. It brings focus to internal and external communications, customer and employee engagement and it helps create a company that everyone wants to work with. What’s more, it doesn’t simply create repeat customer and happy employees, but transforms them into your enterprise’s life-long champions.


Ida Cheinman is founding principal and creative director of the strategic brand communications firm Substance151, Benefit LLC – one of the first 3 Benefit LLCs in the U.S. Ida frequently speaks and writes on the subjects of branding and marketing. She can be reached at ida@substance151.com.

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