In 1999, oil and gas giant Shell introduced a new type of gasoline in the Netherlands, called Shell Pura. The new fuel had a lower level of sulfur than regular gasoline, and was therefore less damaging to the environment. It cost 4 cents (2-3%) per liter more, and its omnipresent advertising went something like: “Fill up your car with Shell Pura and save the environment.”
Four years later, the Pura experiment, widely regarded as a failure, was discontinued by Shell. At the same time, the company announced its replacement: V-Power, a fuel that yields higher engine performance and extends the engine’s life span. Today, 16 successful years after its introduction, V-Power is sold at a premium of 8 cents per liter more (a little over 4%).
Here’s the funny part: V-Power’s sulfur level in the Netherlands is significantly lower than Shell Pura’s was – it has been from the start. Yet none of V-Power’s advertising says a word about the environment. Notice, too, the color change in the two logos: from clear-air Pura blue (they stopped just shy of making it green), to aggressive, performance-driven V-Power red. Clearly, Shell learned a lesson here.
‘A better world” is a feature, not a benefit
Why is this important for social enterprises? The answer lies in an age-old adage from the sales world: Sell benefits, not features. Don’t tell a potential customer how great your product is (features); instead, show them how it will improve their life (benefits).
This rule is perhaps even more important for social entrepreneurs, exactly because it is so easy for them to forget. When you are so passionate about a particular issue that you make it your day job, it is easy to start believing that other people care about that issue just as much. As a result, it makes sense to put your positive impact at the center of your marketing efforts. But here’s the problem with that: Many people may well care about your impact, but very few people care enough to make them change their purchasing decisions.
This is the lesson Shell learned too. After four years, they realized that “saving the environment” was nothing more than a nice feature: a great ideal, but not enough to sway people’s purchasing decisions. By contrast, “better performance” and “extended engine life” are tangible benefits that improve their customers’ lives. As a result, they are worth a 4% premium.
The point for social enterprises is this. If “creating a better world” is your main selling point, you’ll never make it past the Fair Trade shops. You have to give people a better reason to buy from you.
The pinnacle of social enterprise marketing
Few companies I know do this better than Wanderer Bracelets, a social enterprise that looks like any other regular company – until you look at the “About” section on their website. Founded by my friend Ben Katzaman in 2014, Wanderer Bracelets offers a range of handmade, customizable bracelets. If your demographics look anything like mine, you’ve probably seen their Facebook ads at some point in the past two years. Now here’s what I love about those ads: They don’t say a word about the company’s social impact. Neither does their website’s homepage. Not because it doesn’t exist – in fact, their impact in the Bali community where the bracelets are made is huge. No, they don’t mention it because Ben knows that most people won’t buy his product just because of its backstory.
Instead, Wanderer Bracelets’ marketing focuses on two things:
- The product’s quality and uniqueness: They’re “hand crafted in Bali,” as their website’s tag line goes.
- More than anything, the bracelet’s aspirational values: wanderlust, emotional connection and straight-up coolness.
This is the pinnacle of social enterprise marketing: a company whose product is so good, and whose marketing is so appealing, that it doesn’t even need to mention its impact.
Now, not every social enterprise offers a product or service that has as much aspirational potential as a Wanderer bracelet does. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Each product or service, in some way, can appeal to a person’s aspirations: from a bucket of ice cream that brings you euphoria (and helps to fight a whole range of social, environmental and economic issues), to a pair of shiny sunglasses that make your friends envy you (and have an impact on the lives of people with a visual impairment).
As a social enterprise marketer, your job is to dive deep into your customers’ lives, and to ask yourself: What aspiration can I make my product or service appeal to? What benefits does it bring that make them want to buy it? Make this the core of your sales and marketing, rather than the impact you create.
And of course, it’s important to talk about your impact, like all social enterprises do – even Wanderer Bracelets. It just shouldn’t form the core of your marketing. It shouldn’t be the only, or even the main, reason people buy your product or service. Because if it is, chances are they won’t.
A final note: There are, as always, exceptions. Impact investment funds are a good example. For many of their clients, the promise of investing in a better future is an aspirational value in itself, often exceeding the values that come with the financial returns. This is why most impact investment funds rightly make that the core of their marketing. But, as Shell found out, this approach doesn’t work across the board.
Menno Moffitt de Block is a freelance writer and storytelling strategist with a passion for social enterprise. Menno has combined master’s degree in International Management – CEMS from the Rotterdam School of Management and HEC Paris.
First published in Next Billion.