The best approach to business you’ve never heard of

For those of you who have been in the sector for a while, you’ll know that going mainstream has sometimes felt like something of a distant dream. If I’m honest it still does on occasion, but this advertising campaign will reach new people and lead to greater awareness of social enterprise.

Social Enterprise UK, chief executive, Peter Holbrook, writing for Social Enterprise on the launch of an ad campaign to promote social enterprises at London tube stations during upcoming sporting event, the Olympic Games. As of yesterday, the posters promoting four social enterprises will be on display at 20 locations around the capital and run throughout the Olympics and Paralympics.

The campaign has been launched by arc, a project run by Business in the Community to help social enterprises create 1,000 new jobs by 2015 in the area where the games are taking place.  Explaining the thinking behind the ad campaign they note that: “The key insight that drove the ad concept was that the social enterprise brands were all about people; the people that had created the enterprises, the people that the enterprises assist such as the disadvantaged and homeless working at Bikeworks, the world’s poorest communities through Belu’s contribution of its profits to WaterAid, young people through Circle Sports; and the people that the campaign was designed to appeal to and activate – Londoners who positively want to make a difference to people’s lives and the environment. Many of the people pictured within the campaign are existing employees of the social enterprises.

For Peter Holbrook, this is a vital next step in the social enterprise movement towards mainstream recognition. He continues: “At the moment most people know what The Big Issue is, they recognise a bar of Divine Chocolate and millions are familiar with Fifteen. But social enterprise has still not entered their vocabulary.

This is a fairly sobering assessment of the current position but the reality is, if anything, slightly worse. It may be true that most people have heard of The Big Issue but, while Divine and Fifteen are successful (small) businesses which are popular with customers and deliver significant social impact, it’s optimistic to suggest that they’re household names. Social enterprise, as a general idea, is not breaking through into the mainstream consciousness but individual social enterprises aren’t either.

This is one of the problems that makes promoting the idea of social enterprise so difficult. However good the campaigns, for the idea of social enterprise to enter mainstream consumer markets you really need lots of social enterprise products to be in the mainstream already for people to buy.

Two of the organisations featured in the arc ad campaign are primarily selling in consumer markets: Clarity, who make soap and other cleaning products while providing jobs for blind people  and Belu, the 100% carbon neutral water company. They’re both organisations that I’ve heard of through my work in social enterprise but – not only have I never bought their products – I’ve never knowingly seen their products in a supermarket (or elsewhere) as a consumer. That’s not because they’re doing badly – as of April, Belu has been available in 300 Sainsbury’s stores  – but that’s the reality of my consumer experience.

I make that point not to criticise the ad campaign but to illustrate the level of the challenge involved in going from where we are now to a position where consumer products made by social enterprises are automatic week in, week out purchases even for most people who are active supporters of social enterprise.

I think this campaign is a step in the right direction. The only way to start the process of getting social enterprise products is to display some of the products, prominently, so that as many people as possible recognise those products if they see them and, hopefully, remember something from the ads that might them to buy them.

Moving forward, though, there’s plenty of questions about how the social enterprise movement promotes itself to as wide an audience as possible. While parts of the movement – including Co-operatives or companies providing Fairtrade products – do have clear specific messages about what they do and why it’s different and better, there isn’t yet a clearly agreed set of messages about social enterprise as whole which all or most social enterprises are aware of and actively promoting.

Having that clear set of messages wouldn’t solve all the problems – particularly the ones around being big enough to sell products to millions of people even if they wanted to buy them – but it would be a start. This campaign and the reaction to it will be a useful way of finding out whether the public is likely to be interested.


Filed under Uncategorized

11 responses to “The best approach to business you’ve never heard of

  1. jeffmowatt

    BITC eh?

    Here’s a quote from CEO Stephen Howard on The Business Case for being a Responsible Business:

    “What is needed is a form of capitalism that is driven by businesses which not only think about the short term returns but also about building longer term sustainable businesses that create economic, environmental and social value – what McKinsey & Co call ‘long-term capitalism’. To ensure viable and sustainable businesses in a more responsible – and low carbon – economy, we need to increase the speed and scale of change towards responsible business and operate in a more connected way. This means ensuring that responsible business is at the heart of all aspects of business operations and business models, and not just a preoccupation of one department. And it means new connections and partnerships that will help businesses take a more joined-up approach to their activities.”

    For me, very familiar territory and nothing to do with Mckinsey..

    In Peter’s article, I read that “some of the UK’s most amazing social enterprises are going to be showcased”. The issue of selectively support I drew attention to in one of your recent posts. I remember how Belu had entered the market in 2004, with the endorsement of a list of celebrities. In trying to communicate with them, I discovered they had little interest in any other social business activity. The same can be said of BITC whose Mayday network forum indicates the extent of apathy.

    BITC sit alongside The British Council, PwC and the John Smith Trust as partners of the East Europe Foundation which has Ukraine’s leading moguls as donors.

    You may have seen Kate Blewett’s BBC4 documentary on Ukraine’s Forgotten Children a month ago. These are the people who dismissed this new form of capitalism as a development strategy and said they had an insufficient budget to address the problem of “handicapped and mentally retarded children” A problem largely attributable to some of their donors.

    ‘Enlightened capitalism’ will however be embraced 3 years later

    It’s time to realise that for BITC, social enterprise is a sideshow, while they mouth the words of social responsibility and push authentic practitioners out of the way, in favour of sponsoring moguls.


  2. We make our choices about ‘week in and week out’ purchases based on our perception of brands, not of organisational structures, ownership models or how profit is distributed. If we want ‘good businesses’ to thrive then we should broaden the public debate about what competing brands really stand for rather than a simplistic ‘socent is best’ message.

    Why be concerned that people recognise ‘social enterprise?’ Most of us don’t know the difference between ‘limited by share’, ‘limited by guarantee’ or ‘public limited’ either. These distinctions are not the point of businesses in our communities. The point is that they produce the goods and services that we need, at a price that we are happy to pay and play a part as good citizens in our communities. And if the collective ‘we’ thinks they are not good citizens, perhaps because they are profiteering, damaging the environment, threatening the stability of supply chains, exploiting labour and so on, well we can choose not to buy from them.

    Businesses that create jobs for people who are disadvantaged or have disabilities are always admirable. But whether they do it as ‘for profits’ or social enterprises is really neither here nor there. We always see high profile social enterprise restaurants lauded in the press for their great work and we forget that many ‘for profit’ restaurants also carry their fair share of people who are managing recovery, housing fragility and other complex issues. Social Enterprises do not have a monopoly on doing good.

    A caricature that suggests that social enterprises are ‘all about people’ with the implied but unstated suggestion that for profits are ‘all about money’ is just crass. Any business, however it is run, has to manage money, people and social impact.

    To claim that ‘social enterprise’ is the ‘best approach to business’ is a little over the top. Are we really saying that meeting a certain set of criteria ensures ‘best’ in class? Best for whom? Best for what? Certainly not social impact – whether we like it or not, for good or ill, it is overwhelmingly ‘for profits’ that shape our society. If we want this influence to be different are we really going to set up a ‘corpocracy of the good’ called social enterprise or are we more likely to influence them through shareholder and customer power? Both might seem like long shots I know….

    The social enterprise sector is not a homogenous engine of good. Some socents have become grant chasers and little more than collaborators, all be it warm and cuddly ones, in delivering the austerity agenda, seen by much of the public sector as little more than a route to lower cost service delivery.

    Having a clear set of messages is perhaps important. But these need to focus on educating consumers rather than an overly simplistic and artificial division between socent = good while for profit = bad.


    • Beanbags admin

      Hi Mike,

      I haven’t seen the ads themselves but I’d surprised if they were intended to contrast social enterprises that are about people, with for profit businesses that are all about money – not least because, through the auspices of Business in the Community, it’s for profit businesses who are (of their own volition) paying for the campaign to happen.

      There are those in the social enterprise movement who want ‘private companies’ to go away entirely but I think the majority of us support a bigger role for social enterprises in a more diverse marketplace.

      Connected to that, I agree with you about promoting good business in general sense and support the idea of discerning, active consumers demanding that.
      But I don’t think it’s a choice between promoting a wider idea of good business and promoting social enterprises. I support both.

      In terms of whether structures, ownership models and profit distribution matter – and also delivery of broader social impacts beyond doing business in a legal and honourable way – it matters more to some people than it matters to others.

      And it depends on the situation. I do choose my banking and telephone services partly on the basis of the structure and ownership model of the companies that provide those services. But there are other products and services where price matters more or buying a trusted brand matters more. For me, it’s about people having more choices and knowing more about those choices.

      I don’t take the position that all social enterprises – by virtue of being social enterprises – automatically offer something better than companies who aren’t social enterprises but I’d like to see more social enterprises’ products widely available in consumer markets: both for the benefits those social enterprises could deliver and for the effect on markets as a whole.


  3. If social enterprises want to raise consumer consciousness around goods, services and products perhaps they should club together and run joint marketing campaigns under the umbrella of shared cause? Wouldn’t this be a method of running affordable national campaigns?


    • jeffmowatt

      I’m sure I did that Martin, when I spent 100 quid to join the Coalition Farm, where some animals are showcased more than others.

      Thinking on what Mike says above, here’s my colleague Terry saying something similar while predicting his own demise.

      “Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not. ”


      • Beanbags admin

        Hi Martin,

        As Jeff (sort of) suggests, Social Enterprise UK would probably be the vehicle for this and has been doing some of it. For example, the Society Profits campaign which I think will be followed up with more activity in the near future.

        I think you’re right, though, that it would be good to find ways of running campaigns that a range of social enterprises have a stake in. The question is whether the relative small number of social enterprises that are big enough to put cash into marketing at all, would feel that they’re big enough to put part of that money into marketing that isn’t specifically about them?

        Social Spider’s £100 a year marketing spend won’t buy a lot of billboard space!


      • David if as social enterprises we can’t see further than their own nose and cannot collaborate outside of our own ‘specific’ products etc then I would suggest we cannot with any integrity ask for special recognition in the market place.


  4. Beanbags admin

    I don’t think it’s problem in terms of the principle. The problem, in terms of the practicalities, is that if you’re running a big social enterprise (but small business in a broader sense), you’d need to be able to justify putting time and resources into promoting the idea of social enterprise when that money could be spent on growing your business and/or helping the people that your business is there to serve.

    Last year, the Co-operative Group ran their (really good) Join the Revolution campaign that was about promoting co-operative ideals and did involve buying national newspapers ads featuring co-operatives that weren’t them but no one in social enterprise beyond co-operatives has got anything like their financial muscle. And money aside, it would be harder to identify the clear social enterprise messages than it was to identify the co-operative ones.


  5. jeffmowatt

    The co-operative message confuses me in some ways. It seems on one hand, when I met Co-operative Futures in Gloucester, that the concept of social enterprise is meaningless, from the other that they’re a dominant part of it.

    Interestingly Co-operatives UK have recently shifted their perspective to take on board the ‘collaborative and sharing’ approach to capitalism which in 2004, had been dismissed by the funding arm, ICOF. It’s now called co-op capitalism.

    Apparently Co-op capitalism is ‘a way of saying “Yes, we can” — with the emphasis on “we”‘ which has some resonance with how it was put 16 years ago – ‘It cannot be “Me first, mine first”; rather, “Me, too” is more the order of the day’

    There’s quite a distance however between the desk bound thinkers and those in foxholes and trenches, who wonder who ‘we’ might include. .

    On the matter of creating jobs Colin Crooks delivered an interesting podcast for Radio 4 a few weeks ago. He also posted an article for the Guardian Social Enterprise hub a few days ago. . .


    • Beanbags admin


      I share your confusion about the role of co-operatives or not within the wider social enterprise movement. A lot of the organisations and people now promoting social enterprise come from a co-operative background but none of the regularly cited pin-up social enterprises are co-operatives – apart from GLL but, in their case, it’s not something they’re using as a prominent part of their corporate identity.

      I think the principles of co-operatives are pretty clear, though. It’s just a case of where they overlap with the social enterprise movement as whole that’s less clear. I’m not suggesting that all social enterprises should adopt co-operative principles in full, I don’t think that would work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s