Employment social enterprises often wonder whether their marketing should lead with product or mission. It is tempting to search out marketing tactics in the same way we might look up accounting best practices. In reality, there may not be a ‘right’ answer across the board to the product vs. mission question. However, the right marketing answers for each organization are out there, and they lie with target customers (the people you want to sell to). Ultimately, the right answer is the one that convinces more individuals to choose you instead of your competitors on an ongoing basis.
Consider this: if you were selling to your spouse, your mother, or yourself, you would probably know which aspects of a product or service would have the strongest appeal. You would be less likely to wonder whether to focus on features or social mission in your messaging.
In previous learning guides, we have stressed the importance of a market orientated culture grounded in customer feedback. This sort of culture is defined by a high degree of focus on customer needs and competitor competencies, accompanied by an organization-wide alignment around serving customers better than the competitors.
This learning guide focuses on the topic of communicating value, which generally applies to advertisements, packaging, online presence, and other marketing efforts. While we do not touch on the concept of brand identity in this guide, the considerations discussed do generally apply to defining or refining brand identity. Before you can really apply much of the information here, you will need some knowledge about your customers and competitors. For practical guidance on obtaining that knowledge, we encourage you to read this guide on customer feedback.
In this learning guide, we will cover:
- Communication foundations
- Limitations and prioritization
- Key purchasing criteria and competitor observation
- Customer feedback incorporation
- Social mission and communicating value
- How social mission can conflict with value proposition
- Best practices for communicating social mission?
- Presentation and testing
Limitations and prioritization
The result of the solid market orientation we have discussed in previous guides is an increased ability to both create value and communicate value. One key distinction between creating value and communicating value is that the total value you create can be comprised of many factors (features, benefits, price, convenience, social impact), it is often not possible or advisable to fully communicate every aspect of your product’s value in any given communication. Space on packaging and advertisements is quite limited. Even websites, while theoretically limitless in what they can contain, may receive only a few moments of attention from most customers; you are competing against everything else in their lives. This means that ads, packaging, and website material must be skillfully tailored to get the most important messages across and exclude details that are unlikely to contribute to the desired effect of a given marketing material. To do this you must understand not just what customers care about, but what they care about the most; the real drivers of their purchase or loyalty.
Limited space also necessitates being clear on the purpose of each communication or marketing material. Some collateral, such as packaging or ads, are meant to attract new customers—they are the first impression, and thus need to very clearly communicate your ability to meet their highest priority needs. On the other hand, once a customer has experienced your offerings, and assuming their biggest needs were satisfied, your subsequent communications can work on building interest and brand loyalty through connecting them to other aspects that make up the full value of your offerings.
Using key purchasing criteria and competitor observation
Doing market research to find out your target market’s key purchasing criteria (KPC) will give you the foundations for making many communications decisions. If their top need is price, you will naturally want to consider advertising that highlights deals and special sales, in addition to vigilantly keeping price competitive. If they care more about aspects related to quality, those details should feature prominently in all sales material.
You will need to observe many competitor offerings and thoroughly understand your target customer’s top priorities. Your competitors will give you an idea of what typical customers expect as a baseline. You will need to best those direct competitors in some way in order to be successful, but you will at least need to roughly match them in many other areas. Observe your competitors and thoroughly record details such as price, bundles offered, typical discounts, design standards, trends, features or capabilities highlighted, etc.
You should also look outside of your direct competition to companies with similar offerings, as you may find great general marketing ideas through such exploration. You want to look through not just the data points mentioned above, but also through the wider lens of something like “overall presentation” which has to do with things like organization, image quality, design, and even trendiness. Do your ads and website, for instance, feel roughly on par with competitors’ in terms of professionalism? Does anything feel outdated? Why or why not?
Tying in customer feedback
Other customer feedback and data beyond KPC information can also be extremely informative for your communication choices. Demographic information can inform the overall look of your media, as well as the channels and platforms that you advertise through (what does your demographic read? what websites do they use most?). Building an understanding of the common scenarios in which your target customer needs your product or service for is important. Perhaps you find that lots of people use your service for weddings, you can then make sure there are things on your website that reflect that and which let that category of customer know they have come to the right place. For example, adding a special area on your site for wedding-oriented items or bundles. Or let’s say several moms associate your brownie mix with times baking with their kids. You might then change a photo of just your brownies into a photo of a family making brownies.
Customer feedback can also provide you with positive reviews which you can use anywhere you see fit – on your website (homepage, individual product pages, etc.), sales pamphlets, ads, social media, etc. Businesses with a presence on review sites like Yelp and Google may have an easier time pulling these sorts of reviews, but you can easily get them through surveys as well. It is possible to go “quote crazy”, but with the right knowledge of your customer’s top priorities, you should have a clear idea of which quotes will speak to them best without losing impact or being boring. If your customers care most about timeliness of deliveries, make sure to include a customer quote or an internal statement about that in all or most of your materials. A simple, straightforward quote that clearly speaks to the important KPCs may be better than a glowing, over-the-top rave about your friendly staff if customers don’t seem to care much about that aspect.
Your customer feedback responses can also help fine-tune the words and images you use. If you find several respondents using certain positive adjectives or phrases consistently when describing what they like about your product or service, it may make sense to use those same words or phrases in your marketing. By doing this, you start to speak your customers’ language, so to speak. Perhaps they love the richness of your product more than the boldness, or the dependability of your staff more than their professionalism.
Social enterprises, in their orientation towards program participants, often focus communications on the impact of their programs without finding out if or how it affects purchasing decisions.
Social Mission and Communicating Value
How social mission can conflict with value proposition
The limitations of space and attention can be troublesome when it comes to conveying social impact. Social enterprises, in their orientation towards program participants, often focus communications on the impact of their programs without finding out if or how it affects purchasing decisions. While this is not surprising given that the ultimate goal of social enterprise is to support participants, it can pose problems for marketing products and services.
A clear social mission can be great for increasing brand loyalty (and even getting free PR), but, depending on how it is positioned, can also hurt sales – especially with new customers. There are two main potential dangers when it comes to including social mission messaging in your marketing. First, the social mission might be highlighted in a way that takes up important space or time that would be better used for communicating other benefits and features. This can result in either or both:
- Customers not picking up on important benefits or features (or even feelings normally expected from a particular product or service) that would have swayed their purchasing decision, or
- The relative lack of focus on tangible features or benefits failing to create an impression of the company’s overall commitment to quality.
Second, the messaging may inadvertently lower brand trust due to potential customer distrust of non-profits, aversion to the target population’s involvement, or an unclear or uninspiring presentation.
In Marketing Social Enterprise, Lougheed and Donkervort share the case study of Potluck Catering. It is worth reading in full because it illustrates nicely how this is done effectively. In response to declining sales, the social enterprise embarked on an initiative to better understand their customers purchasing decisions and to reorient their marketing accordingly. According to the manager:
It was clear that we could not build an ideal customer. We had to meet and understand a customer’s prior needs. The voice Kevin Costner heard on his tractor in “Field of Dreams” was wrong. “If you build it, they will come” is not sound market theory. So what had we done wrong? We had confused the need for catered food with a market for socially-focused product. Even though that market existed, it did not promise sufficient business to support the organization. Our message had been “support us because we are good for the community,” when customers wanted to hear, “support us because we will make you look good.” When we created that message and maintained it with proper peripheral marketing materials, like a better website and greater presence with the wrapped vans, we did well.
As a result, Potluck’s business grew by 10% per month and is still in business 15 years later.
Best practices for communicating social mission?
It would be great if there were a clear set of best practices for incorporating your mission into your marketing, but this is tough to come by for the field overall with so many different products and services, target populations employed, and varying social enterprise revenue structures. A common approach is that described by Lougheed and Dankervoort in Marketing Social Enterprise:
“Social enterprises should focus on communicating their commitment to product and service quality first, which may then allow for a social enterprise to reintroduce messaging regarding the social mission.”
While communicating value consists of conveying features and benefits (tangible or intangible), the sum total of such communications, and the manner in which they are presented, should implicitly suggest a commitment to quality, which is something like an internal orientation and drive towards providing superior value to the customer. In other words, taking pride in or ‘standing behind’ your offerings. When customers feel this, it builds trust.
Another popular view goes something like “all other features and benefits being equal, a well-positioned social mission can tip the scales in your favor”. While not incorrect, this idea can be misleading when it comes to marketing and communications. It might sound more like “social mission tips the scales, so it should be placed front and center”. Since you are competing with other businesses vying to satisfy the highest priorities of customers, you will mainly need to focus on convincing customers that you are on the same level or better than those competitors on those top priorities. Rarely do those top priorities include social impact. With many products, and especially services, the full value cannot be experienced until a customer has taken the risk of the first purchase – and even then, trust in ongoing quality may not yet be established. Thus, the primary task and biggest challenge for marketing teams is really getting across the “all other features and benefits being equal” part.
In this regard, one of the big problems social enterprises should avoid is marketing to donors and customers in the same place, which is most often seen on websites. Donors and customers have different reasons for visiting a website. For customers, your product or service will usually be the point of interest. So, to impress customers and show that your business means business, the customer’s online experience should be made to revolve around the product or service. Social enterprise websites often put the transformational experience of program participants center stage, which can have the effect of downplaying the product or service or confusing the customer. There are real challenges here, as social enterprises usually need their websites to market to both parties. This tension can be somewhat alleviated by setting up the home page to clearly branch off in to different directions – essentially two totally different websites.
Presentation and testing
Having laid a solid foundation, how do you then use social mission to tip the scales while avoiding the pitfalls discussed earlier? As with all your marketing, it will be a process of testing, getting feedback, and reiterating. As you are experimenting, keep in mind:
- Attention spans are limited – is the message getting across?
- What feelings are being evoked?
- Are there “social goods” that you don’t call out that could add to the whole picture?
Customers don’t need to understand everything about your mission. Learn what aspects of it they value or respond to, and make sure those are getting across clearly and succinctly. Give them the ability to learn more if they want to (such as going to a page on your website) but keep sales-oriented material simple. Customers are not reviewing a grant application; they are less impacted by the specifics of your program and more by the broad positive human outcomes. You can also tell them more later (after they purchase) supposing you can get their email addresses. The risks of them reacting negatively (in any of the ways mentioned earlier) is then lowered because they have already experienced the quality. Supposing they were satisfied with what you provided, your mission is more likely to work in your favor by building interest and loyalty.
Beyond the clarity of the message, the presentation has the potential to inspire positive emotion, which will always be more powerful than mere cerebral recognition. The right choice of words, photos, and facts can inspire feelings of hope and connection. But without finding out how all of this is being perceived outside of your team, you run the risk of the mission element falling flat or bringing up less-than-positive feelings. Sheer creativity or an outside consultant can help you come up with new ideas, but so can observing how other social enterprises with similar missions convey their message, and noticing what kinds of words or images are powerful.
You also don’t want to let your central mission make you forget about other socially responsible things your business does. Tags like “made in America” or “creating jobs locally” may not be your focus, but are probably true and might synergize with the rest of your mission marketing.
To know whether you’re making the right choices, you will need to get feedback from customers. In this case, current customers will not be very useful. You will want to test things out on people who do not yet know about your business or your mission. That usually means you will need to pay them, either through interviews or focus groups. Given the sensitive nature of evaluating marketing about your program participants, focus groups are likely a much better option because they allow people to speak more candidly (for example, disliking photos you’ve taken of your participants at work). You can have people provide their opinion on your brand name, logos, packaging, website, or anything else you can think of.
Finding out how our communication is perceived opens us up to criticism, which can be unpleasant. From an organizational perspective, it requires developing a growth-mindset culture. The truth is that communication is difficult, and this is part of the human experience. As Psychology Today explains: “Studies show that the vast majority of us tend to believe that our behavior is much more expressive than it actually is”. We tend to think others understand what we’re about better than they really do, largely because we are so enmeshed in our own experience. Bringing in a new customer and keeping them is a cooperative endeavor, a relationship you might say, that requires a shared sense of values and expectations. It can be tough to know what to say and when—how to put all the pieces in order. The great news is that you are not alone when it comes to your marketing efforts, and in most cases the proverbial wheel has already been created. You do not need mystical insight into the collective psyche. All you need is your eyes and ears, some target customers, and good role models to emulate.