These days, it’s not enough for brands and businesses to merely offer great products.
Increasingly, consumers expect companies to take an active role in addressing global issues such as environmental sustainability, gender inequality, and LGBTQ rights. In supporting purpose-driven brands, consumers are voting with every single purchase they make.
So this is more than just a desire to do the right thing, it’s also great for business. A Unilever study showed that 33% of American consumers are more likely to support brands aligned with a worthy cause.
In line with this trend, a growing number of “do-good” startups are popping up to make a positive social contribution while delivering strong financial performance.
In this post, we’ll cover four key lessons global brands can learn from these do-good startups, including how to balance product and cause, and how to cultivate communities of support on social media, and more.
Let’s dive in!
Social responsibility is great for business
Consumers now expect a lot from brands when it comes to social issues, and are willing to pay a premium to get it. In fact, Double the Donation found that 55% of consumers are willing to pay more for goods produced by socially responsible companies.
We can see this trend in financial performance, too. For example, research firm Just Capital has found that highly-ranked philanthropic companies tend to produce a higher return on equity.
However, doing good is more than just a question of financial return: a commitment to a worthy cause can make a business seem more human and relatable, and can help customers identify with your brand.
Unfortunately, simply wanting to give back to the community isn’t enough - businesses have to dedicate time and effort to get it right.
Doing good takes time, effort, and dedication
Trying to do the right thing can be trickier than it seems.
For a good example, look no further than Gillette’s recent Super Bowl advertisement tackling the issue of toxic masculinity.
Since its release, this advertisement has attracted a lot of criticism. Some have viewed it as being too negative, whereas others see it as a marketing ploy without a lot of substance.
However you feel about this campaign, it’s a good reminder that putting corporate social responsibility into practice takes a huge amount of time and effort to get right.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at four lessons global brands can learn from do-good startups. We’ll start with lesson #1: always focus on cause over product.
Lesson #1: Focus on the cause, not your product
It’s great when there’s a natural fit between a product and a cause. A good example here is ethical clothing startup Everlane making clothing out of recycled plastic bottles.
Here, this push for sustainability and waste reduction is totally in line with Everlane’s commitment to what they call “radical transparency” in their manufacturing.
In this case, the brand is promoting the cause of sustainability and waste reduction over its products. The end result is a convincing campaign consistent with the brand’s values.
Other examples, however, haven’t gone over so well. Simply look at KFC’s attempt in 2010 to sell pink buckets of chicken to promote breast cancer awareness.
KFC’s 2010 breast cancer awareness promotion. Source: Phoenix New Times
It didn’t take long for observers to point out the link between unhealthy diets and a higher risk of women developing breast cancer. Unfortunately for KFC, this only contributed to accusations of corporate cynicism.
As this example shows, brands need to focus on the cause above the product, and to consider the full implications of aligning their products with a particular issue.
Next, we’ll take a look at another key lesson: letting your customers speak for the product.
Lesson #2: Make your customers your ambassadors
When corporate philanthropy goes well, customers are only too happy to be the public face of the product. After all, a happy customer is the best advertising there is.
This is definitely the case when it comes to do-good startups. A great example here is crop insurance outfit WorldCover, a peer-to-peer lending platform aimed at providing crop insurance to low-income farmers in vulnerable parts of the world.
Here, we see some of the local Ghana farmers benefiting from World Cover crop insurance.
This is a useful technique for global brands too. Providing you consider how observers may interpret your use of customers in your marketing, making happy customers brand ambassadors is an excellent way to boost product awareness.
A great example here is the L’Oreal Foundation’s work with women in developing countries. Here, L’Oreal has dedicated a lot of resources to boosting the presence of women in science and technology. As a result, the company has a lot of happy new brand ambassadors.
Next, we’ll look at some of the benefits for taking on some of the tougher topics.
Lesson #3: Don’t shy away from the taboo topics
In marketing, taking on sensitive or taboo topics can be a real gamble. You may risk attracting criticism, but the benefits - and the coverage - can be significant.
One great example of a do-good startup taking on a taboo topic is Pigeonly, a tech outfit helping inmates in US prisons communicate with relatives at affordable prices.
A for-profit enterprise, Pigeonly has identified prisoners overpaying for communication with their families as a worthy issue, and is doing something about it.
It’s fair to say that inmate rights isn’t an issue that typically drums up a huge amount of public compassion, and yet Pigeonly are taking the issue head on, with exciting results.
This tactic of tackling taboo topics isn’t limited to startups. For example, in 2017 food giant Yoplait took on the issue of “mom shaming” in an ad campaign calling on people to be more understanding about the decisions parents make.
Yoplait’s “Mom On!” ad. Source: AdAge
This campaign not only led to a boost in revenue for Yoplait, but also contributed to wider discussion around the often unrealistic ideals to which parents hold themselves.
Finally, let’s take a look at one last lesson - the importance of connecting with communities.
Lesson #4: Find your tribes
Your brand can’t do much good if nobody knows about your do-good campaigns.
To make sure they get the attention they deserve, a lot of do-good startups are connecting with specific consumer tribes using multiple social media platforms, and are marketing themselves as proactively as any for-profit enterprise.
For these startups, as for any startup, engaging a community of proactive supporters and advocates is crucial to long-term success.
Niche tribes are groups of people who are passionate about a specific topic. They are vocal on social media and advocate actively about what they believe in. That’s how veganism spread online, with a passionate tribe of vegans. If your brand stands for a cause they care about, they’ll champion your brand for you. Here’s an example from a #Zerowaste blogger:
Source: Organically Becca
That’s why identifying and activating relevant tribes for your causes are crucial to your success.
There’s a lot to learn from do-good startups
The rise of do-good startups tells us a lot about the blending of philanthropy with commerce.
Not only is doing good beneficial for wider society, but it can also lead to higher customer loyalty and overall profitability.
For businesses, however, doing good isn’t always so straightforward. The stakes are high, and when things go wrong, they can be embarrassing.
Global brands can help themselves by dedicating enough energy and resources to their philanthropic efforts, and by considering the wider lessons from the success of do-good startups.
By focusing on cause over product, making customers ambassadors, being willing to tackle taboo topics, and connecting with communities of support over social media, companies can give themselves a better shot at truly doing good in the world.