Marked down

The difficult start for the Social Enterprise Mark continues with challenging coverage in the new issue of Social Enterprise magazine. While I always enjoy reading Social Enterprise, we don’t always have the same outlook on things.

On the issue of the Mark, though, I entirely agree with Tim West’s editorial (page 11 of the print edition). West describes his feelings on witnessing the launch of the Mark at Voice! 2010: “I came away understanding that there was new brand for social businesses to try on. But I didn’t fully understand its aims or how it was going to achieve them.”

Later, West pointedly notes that: “Right now, the Mark company won’t say what targets it has – either for social enterprises signing up, or for the number of people it hopes will offer support as a result of the marketing behind it. The conclusion one is tempted to make is that either there are no targets, or they don’t want to set themselves up for failure by revealing what they are.” Indeed.

The lengthy feature by Gemma Hampson that accompanies the editorial reveals projected public and Big Lottery spending (roughly 50/50) on the Mark amounting to over £964,000 between 2007 and 2011. To be fair to those involves, this hardly makes the Mark the new Millennium Dome but it seems a lot of money to have spent on getting to the confused, confusing position that West and Hampson outline.

While, the Phone Co-op now does seem to be eligible, the 2009 Social Enterprise of the Year, One Water, isn’t. There’s clearly some sense behind RISE CEO Lucy Findlay’s comment that: “With various changes to their constitution One would be eligible… It’s a really a good opportunity and we would welcome them, but we have to make sure the rules are the same for everyone.”

If you’ve done lots of research and come up with some rules for a kitemark, hopefully for clear reasons, you can’t just junk those rules to suit one organisation. The problem is Findlay’s statement seems to wildly over-estimate the value that the Mark can currently offer organisations.

Given that One has so far funded £3.5 million of spending on social causes through selling on the open market through shops, its Directors may rightly wonder what the Mark – currently unheard of amongst the general public and not even supported by all major UK social enterprise umbrella bodies – will do for them.

For now at least, the credibility that One Water would give to the Mark is considerably greater than the credibility that the Mark would give to One Water. I’m not as big a believer in the munificent power of markets as the lobby but if the Mark really operated on the market basis that the lobby claims that it will, they wouldn’t need to spend much time pondering why One don’t want to change their mem and arts to get the yellow squiggly circle on their water bottles.

But the biggest current problem isn’t that the Mark can’t accommodate all organisations, it’s that it lacks a coherent message about what it can and will do for those who do fit its criteria. In Gemma Hampson’s article, even the Mark’s supporters (and holders) refer to the broad aim of informing more people about social enterprise rather than expressing any ideas about how the Mark will actually make that happen.

I’ve had their sales email and it tells me:

“The key benefits of holding the Mark for your organisation include:
–          It is proven that customers/commissioners would rather buy  from a company that helps society and the environment

–          Mark holders have competitive advantage

–          It’s more than just a logo, giving access to a valuable network of contacts and information

–          And, it’s easy to apply for (max 1 hour), through our new online website – just check http://www.socialenterprisemark.co.uk”

When two of the four selling points for a new project are defensive ones – against the accusations that it’s a just a logo* and takes ages to apply for – then you get the feeling that confidence is not high in Mark world.

Of the other two ‘selling points’, the first is a general point not directly connected to the Mark – we can and do already communicate the social benefits of our products and services to customers – and the second is a highly subjective one not backed up by any specific evidence – maybe it’s available if you have time to go and look for it.

I’m not a supporter of Mark in theory. But that discussion is over and the Mark is here. Given that it’s here it needs to develop a meaningful message to social enterprises about its ability to communicate a meaningful message to public and private sector commissioners and the general public who buy stuff.

*It’s likely that being ‘just a logo’ would actually be better than being a logo that places major restrictions on how you operate but doesn’t deliver any commercial advantage.

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One response to “Marked down

  1. Pingback: Refining the message « Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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