Bury your head in the brand (debate)

There’s nothing that excites social entrepreneurs more than discussing the meaning of social enterprise. And there’s nothing that excites the social enterprise lobby more than the idea that everything would be all right if only the general public knew what social enterprise is. Neither of these situations are either bad or surprising in themselves but I can’t help thinking that ‘brand wars‘ is shaping up to be one of the most pointless policy debates in the world, ever.

A committee has been set-up to discuss whether the social enterprise trade mark developed by Rise should be rolled out nationally as it is or split into three tiered trademarks: a top tier of organisations who meet a series of strict conditions as to what a social enterprise is; a middle tier of organisations who think meeting a series of strict conditions on what a social enterprise is is a nice idea but not nice enough for them to do it themselves; and a third tier of people who don’t have a business but drink Cafedirect and never take foreign holiday without planting five trees in the back garden first.

Already, some people are up in arms. In the linked article, social enterprise developer, Geof Cox, wants to know why ‘they’ want to ‘straight-jacket us’. They don’t, Geof. They want a hook for some publicity campaigns and some funding applications to enable them to do more publicity campaigns – if you don’t want to sign-up to whatever the official version of social enterprise ends up being they’re not going to make you and it’s unlikely to have any major effect on anything you’re doing.

Back in the real world, the debate doesn’t really matter either way to anyone whose actually doing social enterprise. If the conditions for being an official social enterprise turn out to be in line with what our organisation already does and wants to do already then it’ll make sense to sign-up and get some useful publicity. If they don’t, then we’re not going to be changing our approach to satisfy the whims of the social enterprise lobby, who are mostly very lovely people but are neither our paying clients nor our stakeholders.

My instinct is that, unlike Fair Trade or being a Social Firm, the notion of social enterprise is far too subjective and disparately delivered to be usefully trademarked. The brand debate is an interesting intellectual exercise but it certainly shouldn’t be allowed to become a distraction from the ongoing challenges of keeping on paying the bills while doing something socially useful. But it’s going to run and run and run.


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5 responses to “Bury your head in the brand (debate)

  1. matthew taylor

    Nice post. Of all the debates I have sat through in my time in think tank and policy wonk land, that over whether there is something intrinsically better about one form of business governance over another have been among the most pointless. there are lots of good reasons for being a social entrpreneur. But do social enterprise becuase you want to; don’t claim that on its own it says anything about the quality of what you do or even how you do it.


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  3. The three tier thing looks like a bit of a road to nowhere – will only create confusion, and a bit of a fudge designed to deal with the fact that so many social enterprises … just aren’t. The co-operative movement has a problem, because co-ops are mutual aid businesses, built out of necessity to meet needs (work, food, housing, credit etc) that mainstream business doesn’t cater for. Inspite of the fact that they work on the co-op values (self-responsibility, solidarity, equality, care for others) and the seven values (open membership, ownership, equity, education, autonomy, co-operation between co-operatives and community benefit), some of us are being excluded from the new mark if we return a substantial part of our surpluses to members. Member benefit is the raison d’etre of co-operatives, but we’re being treated as if we were private shareholder-owned businesses. So you’re probably right. What we need is a Co-operative Mark – at least it’s crystal clear what it would stand for!


  4. beanbagsandbullsh1t

    Thanks a lot for commenting. Very much agree with that describing your company as a social enterprise is not – in itself – remotely meaningful. I reckon a Co-op mark could work. That, like Fairtrade, could be something specific enough that it would be giving customers a more informed choice about what they were buying. I certainly do shop at and bank with the Co-op partly because it’s the Co-op – although I also think it provides a good service.

    Interesting further comment here from a Tory councillor: http://theviewfromcullingworth.blogspot.com/2009/08/what-hell-is-social-enterprise-anyway.html

    I think an incoming Tory government will have a slightly different view of social enterprise. I reckon social enterprise as we have it at the moment is at least partially a New Labour construct. Ultimately, I don’t think the wing of social enterprise that is about socially acceptable non-state provision of public services (that the Tories will want to see grow and thrive) and the wing of social enterprise that is about doing market-based business in a different way have enough in common to stay together as a movement.

    They certainly don’t have anything like enough in common now to have a meaningful trademark. And I say that as someone running an organisation that sits somewhere in the middle of those two positions. The reality is that all the organisations big enough to matter are very much at one end or the other.


  5. Unfortunately, your Tory councillor’s right about the false distinction between ‘social’ and ‘non-social’ enterprise. Investment bankers combining to gouge profits, avoid tax and consolidate their class position is, of course, business with a social purpose. So we end up arguing about what are and aren’t desirable social outcomes.


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