There’s an uncomfortable truth that sits behind every social enterprise:
Customers don’t share your passion for social issues, they’re focused on themselves.
It would be lovely if that was wrong, but it’s the reality of the market.
You’re passionate about a particular issue/cause, enough to start your own business. How many people do you personally know who are as conscious of the problem as you? Probably fewer than ten?
Therefore, the other 99.99% of your future customers care about your cause less than you.
“But I’ll change their minds, I’ll make them care as much as I do” you say.
The problem is that the market hasn’t proven this to be true. Can you name a social enterprise that makes customers as passionate as the founders? Me neither.
This isn’t a problem, because there are two things that can happily co-exist, in fact they fuel each other:
1. Your intent, and
2. The Value Proposition to the customer.
The temptation is to say that they’re the same thing, but there are some critical differences. There should be overlap, but your job as an entrepreneur is to discern which is which.
Intent is the reason the organisation exists. Not a cliché mission statement, just a plain English description of what your company aims to do. Here are some examples:
“To create meaningful employment for people with a disability”
“Fight the stigma attached to mental illness”
“Give everyone access to safe drinking water”
You never want to lose sight of your intent.
You might target new customers, sell different products, launch in new cities, employ different people, even change your logo. Those might all be good business decisions as your organisation grows.
I’ve never seen anyone go from preventing malaria to helping distressed koalas. Both are good causes, but you don’t chop and change.
When making decisions, check them against your intent. If we expand into a new category, will it help us fulfill our mission? Even profitable decisions should be turned down if they don’t match your intent.
Value Proposition is about walking in your customer’s shoes. What problems are they facing? What will make them happy? What can we give them right now that will delight them? This is about empathy, and understanding their journeys.
For example, what’s the Value Proposition for a social enterprise café?
It could be great coffee, well priced catering, or a welcoming environment. Maybe it’s a meeting place, or the proximity to the train station, or a good-looking barista.
These are things that make for happy customers, ones who will keep coming back.
“We give a portion of our profits to charity” isn’t compelling enough on it’s own. That’s probably more of an Intent decision than a Value Proposition. For customers, it’s a bonus, or it’s the story that brought them in the first time. If your coffee sucks, all the charity in the world won’t bring them back long term.
Kinfolk is one of my favourite cafés and a great social enterprise. They give their profits away, but more importantly, they make excellent coffee, and their staff are lovely. It’s a nice space to work in, and doubles up as a good place to meet new clients.
If their coffee went from a 9/10 to a 7/10, I’d probably stop coming back. That sounds harsh, but in Melbourne you can’t get away with average coffee, there are too many alternatives.
Kinfolk’s intent drives their decisions on who they hire, their décor, the suppliers they use, and even 3rd party products they stock like KeepCup and Frank Green (you get a 30c discount if you bring in your reusable cup).
Their business decisions match their intent, there’s no clash. If they decided to sell sushi, it would be ethically sourced and good quality. If they decided to sell shoes, same deal. That’s how they succeed.
Stop trying to force your customers care about your intent, and focus on letting your intent influence your business model. Give people what they want, and maybe a subtle nudge too. Thankyou do this well with things like Track Your Impact, but the big drawcard is that their water is the cheapest in 7 Eleven. Their muesli funds important work in the developing world, but more importantly, people like the taste and the health benefits.
Seth Godin calls this Permission Marketing. Instead of harassing customers with your social story, give them something they actually want, something remarkable. Once you have a happy customer, you get their permission to tell them about the amazing things their purchase has enabled. You have to do it in that order though, first deliver something that gives them a gain, or relieves a pain point.
To start building strong Value Propositions, check out the canvas here