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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.

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