The risks and rewards of placing social purpose at a brand’s core

A new breed of brands is entering the market with one thing in common – a very clear social purpose at their core from the outset. But when it comes to marketing, simply pulling on consumers’ heartstrings won’t cut it.

Vitae London founder Will Adoasi with the kids his firm supports with school clothes

In 2017, the idea of exchanging money for a product and then just moving on feels outdated, with modern consumers equally expecting to have supported a measurable social cause with their hard earned cash.

In fact, major players such as Unilever are reshaping their entire business around this sentiment, with promising results. The FMCG giant’s latest figures show its ‘Sustainable Living’ brands, such as Ben & Jerry’s and Dove, grew 50% faster than the rest of the business in 2016. These brands now account for 60% of total sales growth, up from 46% in 2015.

And this growth looks to have inspired everybody from Tesco to M&S to shape new advertising campaigns around initiatives such as reducing food waste.

This sentiment is also filtering down to startups, with new brands eager to link their profits with a strong social purpose from the outset.

READ MORE: Tesco CEO acknowledges its brand must push responsibility ‘even further’

How to get started

Entrepreneur Jak Haines is the founder of Vavven, an online Australian sex toy business, which boasts the memorable slogan ‘Creating philanthropists through orgasms’. Although it sells internationally, it is currently looking for more partners to expand its distribution.

Vavven, one of Marketing Week’s 100 Disruptive Brands 2017, donates one-third of its profits to non-government organisations (NGOs), such as charity The Unmentionables, which champions sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for female refugees. The brand also screens all of its manufacturers to ensure they provide their employees with the living wage and adhere to strict quality and safety standards.

Haines says the key to getting a social purpose brand off the ground is to ensure you’re doing something that will generate passionate conversation and debate.

“Facebook allows a condom company to advertise but they won’t let me advertise a pleasure toy for exercising the pelvic floor, even though 50% of women suffer pelvic prolapse after pregnancy. Sex is still such a taboo in society and I saw an opportunity to really break that barrier down and get people talking,” she explains.

“I really did my research and analysed what made the major players – such as Ann Summers – profitable then thought how I could apply something truly original to that model. The sex toy industry is still completely unregulated so selling only ethically manufactured toys felt like the right thing to do.”

Communicating a clear message and story

Vavven donates one third of its profits to sexual health charities

High-end watch brand Vitae London also saw an opportunity to drive change for its respective industry. Founder Will Adoasi was inspired by the story of his father, who grew up in Ghana and became the first in the family line to learn how to read and write.

“He broke a cycle of poverty that stretched back for decades,” Adoasi says. “I thought, the global luxury watch industry is worth something like $35bn (£28bn) so why hasn’t anyone started to give some of those profits back to poorer communities?”

Just pulling on someone’s heart strings and saying some of the money will go to a good cause is not enough

Will Adoasi, Vitae London

Rather than just “tagging on” a social purpose message and then quoting numbers to consumers, Adoasi claims his research shows Brits are more receptive to tangible and measurable evidence of the causes they are donating to.

Subsequently, each watch purchased from Vitae’s classic range of watches supplies a child in South Africa with two sets of a school uniform, a bag and footwear to see them through the year.

“Just pulling on someone’s heart strings and saying some of the money will go to a good cause is not enough,” he explains. “You need your own niche and clarity of what that is is super important. We’ve had endorsements from Sir Richard Branson and we’re looking to launch an exclusive line with pop singer Emeli Sandé. Without a clear message I’m not sure either would have happened.”

Fighting against pitfalls

SO Just Shop
Jewellery by Mata Traders sold through So Just Shop

However, launching businesses that donates income to worthy causes, while admirable, can also be costly given profitability often takes a considerable time to achieve.

Jennifer Georgeson is the founder of So Just Shop, which supports women-led artisan fashion businesses in undeveloped countries and gives them a platform to sell through. Her ambition is to have over 1,500 independent sellers on her books, which she believes can potentially drive up to 250,000 women out of poverty.

Yet, she concedes: “We’ve only been properly selling for one year so our profits are lower than £50,000 at the moment. If you get into this line of work, you’re not going to make the big bucks straight away though.

“You have to really believe in your idea and believe it will pay off in the long run, these aren’t short-term business models. I’m confident I can make this a £100m business but that won’t happen overnight.”

Vitae’s Adoasi has ambitions to generate £200m in turnover, but admits he’s had to sacrifice personal wealth by launching the company. “I used to live a life where I made loads of money in the city, but there was no social cause. I’d rather make less money knowing I can transform people’s lives. That isn’t to say our sales aren’t good, because they are, but you have to be able to understand it’s deeper than that. The consumers will figure you out if your sole underlying mission is to make money.”

Communicating a social message can also be difficult, with the aims and objectives of giving back to communities or incorporating complex sustainable supply chains often complex and hard to explain.

Dash Water
Dash Water makes use of surplus fruit and veg, and aims to tap into need for healthier drinks

For Alex Wright, the co-founder of Dash Water, which uses ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste in its flavoured waters, packaging can be the key to solving this issue.

“On our front of pack we try to hero the word wonky. We make it an unusual word for consumers to pick up on opposed to something like ‘made using surplus fruit and veg’ which would be boring. It’s also made obvious we work with food waste charities such as Feedback,” adds Wright.

“You have to educate consumers in a clear way about what is going on and hope they will do something about it. It’s challenging to make them pick up on the message straight away, but achieving good branding is never going to be easy whatever sector you are in. It’s a nice challenge.”

In the latest ranking of the top 100 brands for social purpose by consultancy Radley Yeldar, 28 brands from the 2015 list have lost their places. Four of 2015’s top 10 also saw significant drops.

Many of these were high-profile businesses, with Johnson & Johnson, Volkswagen, Orange, Apple, Samsung, WPP, JPMorgan, Diageo and Carrefour among the casualties.

But despite these disappointing numbers, So Just Shop’s Georgeson insists there has been a “permanent shift” in what consumers now expect from brands. She says any brands that don’t consider social purpose “for the long-term” will ultimately fail. It effect, it isn’t something you can dip in and out of.

She concludes: “Let’s take fashion; the way it works right now just isn’t sustainable. It is too polluting, it is appalling how little the workforce is being paid to produce such a high volume of products and human trafficking exists within the supply chains of major high-street brands.

“We exist because consumers want something to be done about this. I don’t think there is any blip in that need for action. This new mentality is a permanent shift.”


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There are 2 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. andy last 13 Jun 2017

    Nice examples thanks Thomas, and while ‘the idea of exchanging money for a product and then just moving on feels outdated’, simply badging a cause onto a brand feels equally dated now, if not downright dangerous. For those interested, we’ve told the ‘how to’ story behind the Unilever brands and other success stories here –

  2. Pete Austin 15 Jun 2017

    Re: its ‘Sustainable Living’ brands, such as Ben & Jerry’s and Dove, grew 50% faster than the rest of the business in 2016.

    Needs more data. If I were going to roll out a new marketing plan, across a range of brands, I might do it to the brands with more growth potential first. To judge the cause-and-effect, we need to know how fast were these brands growing before?

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