Business can be beautiful! This is no oxymoron. It has already been proven by the growing number of innovative set-ups in the world that create products which not only serve the purpose of personal utility or indulgence, but they also bring about positive environmental and social change in the world. However, we, as consumers, haven’t heard as much about the products as their appeal would lead us to believe.
Known by the names of social enterprise and social entrepreneurs, the two concepts have been around since the early 1980s. These business models brought to life to solve social and environmental challenges through the entrepreneurial approach of trading and making profit have been the “next big thing” ever since I started my university studies some five years ago.
In the past years, the social networking hype has certainly given them a big boost. A multitude of other platforms have made it possible to create communities that celebrate social innovators and their game-changer entrepreneurial ideas (see MakeSense, the HUB, Sandbox etc.) and becoming a social entrepreneur is apparently an increasingly popular career choice. At the same time, the number of incubators, consultancies, alliances and schools teaching and advocating social entrepreneurship has multiplied. As an article published in the Economist points out, the “rise of the social entrepreneur” has also received considerable attention in international business affairs. In short: there is massive coverage given to the topic in business and sustainability circles.
Yet, consumer awareness is lagging behind and there is an obvious gap between the academic coverage given to the topic and the general awareness. A 2011 online YouGov survey conducted in the UK, a country that has an outstandingly proliferating social business sector, revealed that only 30% of consumers managed to pick the right term to describe what social enterprise means. While some experts working in the field of social business already talk about the social enterprise bubble, this business model still has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential and becomes mainstream in the sense that consumers have a general awareness about what social enterprises stand for.
The other side of the coin is the fact that there is a confusing level of fragmentation among social enterprises in terms of organizational forms and the level of social impact. This is well illustrated by the proliferation of terminology that refers to more or less the same notion with nuances: social venture, community interest companies, inclusive business models, co-operatives etc. The variety of organizational structures has subsequently led to internal discussions on self-definition, albeit the most important aspect is their socio-economic and environmental impact since consumers need clear messages about the benefit of the offered products.
Governments, consultancies and social entrepreneurs themselves need to invest more energy in bridging the gap between the general awareness of society and the academic and policy exposure given to the concept. The education of targeted consumers would be a key element in inspiring demand in the sector whose small-scale ventures are also the ones who usually lack the financial and human resources to market their innovations with results that
The ad campaign launched by the “arc building better business” initiative at the London Olympic and Paralympic Games successfully took the first steps to reverse this pattern. The campaign proved that it is possible to overcome the marketing challenges that social start-ups face through the joint forces of a business-led charity (Business in the community) and a public agency (Social Enterprise UK). As part of the campaign, social ventures were actually on the billboards in the Olympic boroughs reaching out to visitors/consumers who had the chance to get to know social enterprises and why it is worth buying their products and services. The ads that read “choose social enterprise…and society profits” promoted the products of a handful of local start-ups and were on display throughout the Olympics.
First of all, it is great that arc understood that it needed to address consumers and it did so by conveying simple and catchy messages to make sure that consumers grasp the core benefit of the products offered. It also successfully deployed its partnerships and expertise to access outdoor advertising and thus enabling the four flagship social enterprises to get their messages through to millions of visitors and spur behavior change.
Will other social enterprises follow arc’s recipe for success? Let’s hope that the example of the arc campaign will inspire further marketing collaborations between private, public and nonprofit organizations and shift the attention of social entrepreneurs and consultancies onto the importance of marketing and consumer-awareness.