How to Build a Business with Social Impact

Aisling Carlson
Chief Business Officer
September 27, 2021
“The scarcity in moral goods means that when a product arrives on the scene that has both economic and moral value, it becomes a hot commodity.” (Rafael Kaufmann, “The Purpose Economy Is Arriving Sooner Than You Think”)

We’ve said it before, but marketing today is rapidly moving away from a linear funnel. Instead of a customer journey that transitions from awareness to consideration to conversion, the modern funnel isn’t a funnel at all, but a constantly evolving, back-and-forth exchange. Marketers are now tasked with building relationships that foster engagement, educate, and delight, ultimately turning consumers into brand evangelists.

Like the outdated funnel, sales is no longer a purely transactional exchange. There are values attached to purchases. In fact, consumers are four times more likely to buy from a brand that has a strong purpose, and 4.5 times more likely to recommend that brand to their family and friends.

But how do you build a business that genuinely helps the community — that has impact — in the first place?

First, the “Business for Social Good” Model Gone Wrong (i.e., Burger King Fail)

Cause marketing” refers to initiatives where for-profit businesses build a marketing campaign around a social or charitable cause. Sometimes, it even involves a collab between for-profit and nonprofit organizations. There are plenty of examples where brands do it successfully, like when Ben & Jerry’s released their Justice ReMix’d flavor in addition to spending $1.2 million on Facebook ads to promote criminal justice reform and donating to organizations like Color for Change.

But plenty of brands do it poorly — and the backlash they receive is, well, usually pretty deserved.

In May 2019, Burger King went forward with their #FeelYourWay campaign to acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month, playing off their decades-old slogan of “Have it your way.” They partnered with the nonprofit Mental Health America to release five new meals — a Blue Meal, Yaaas Meal, Pissed Meal, Salty Meal, and DGAF Meal — with the line “It’s okay to #feelyourway,” ostensibly aiming to “normalize” depression. (Clearly, they couldn’t resist a stab at McDonald’s feel-good marketing in the process.)

Destigmatizing mental health issues is a great cause. The issue? Burger King didn’t actually do anything to provide mental health resources or support mental health organizations, and many felt that it was merely profiting off a couple of cheeky boxed meals (and making light of mental illnesses while they were at it). On Twitter, people lambasted Burger King. What did the fast food chain have to do with mental health in the first place? Store employees were quick to point out the hypocrisy, recounting moments when they were struggling with their own mental health and were denied time off or support from higher-ups.

Make an Impact Through Consistency and Accountability

What can we learn from Burger King? One-off campaigns that make money off of social causes are seen as textbook virtue signalling. Not only do consumers want to see a brand living up to its values consistently, but they also want to see that a brand’s messaging aligns with its mission.

Suggested reading: Grandstanding in the Age of Corporate Social Justice

If we put on our business-savvy “bottom line” hat for a moment, there are plenty of reasons for your business to take to heart the principle that impact = consistency + accountability. Since research indicates that it takes an average of five-to-eight touchpoints or contacts between your brand and a customer before they take any action, it’s critical for you to regularly create sustained and meaningful campaigns. 

Plus, as Rafael Kaufmann writes in his essay “The Purpose Economy Is Arriving Sooner Than You Think,” “The scarcity in moral goods means that when a product arrives on the scene that has both economic and moral value, it becomes a hot commodity.” When “moral goods” are commercially successful, the brands that make them gain trust capital that they can use to amplify the positive impact they can make, generating a “virtuous cycle,” as he calls it.

5 Ways to Build Long-Lasting Impact

Whether you’re a solopreneur looking to one day build a global team or a startup trying to find investors and scale, thinking about profit vs. purpose — i.e., how to grow while making a sincere, legitimate impact — will be one of the biggest challenges you face. We don’t mean to toot our own horn, but at Sieo we’ve built dozens of businesses from napkin scribbles to fully-fledged seven figures in ARR, so we’d like to think these tips will help you out.

1. Hone Your Mission Statement — Then Share It Everywhere

Knowing your brand story and mission statement inside-out is step one. They should articulate your values in a way that is resonant with your target consumers, investors, and employees alike. Let it be the beating heart and pulse of your brand, animating all your initiatives. Instead of eliciting raised brows like Burger King (mental health and fast food?!), every donation you make, cause you support, and nonprofit you partner with should make on sense. (Be “on brand,” as they say.)

Example: Siete disrupted the health foods space with messaging that emphasizes the unique story behind the brand, rather than the “benefits” of their ingredients. They tie that story to their family-first, “juntos es major” ethos, with a Siete Juntos Fund that awards $25,000 to a Latina/Latino/Latiné business in food.

2. Find Investors Who Understand Your Goals

Getting funding for your social impact startup can be a struggle. Investors want to make sure you understand how to toggle between the goals of your mission and the goals of your business, without narrowing your addressable market or neglecting to build shareholder wealth. You can check out this list of incubators and groups that offer cash, community, and training to early-stage businesses looking to make a positive impact on the world. You can also reach out to us for help generating money — we’ve got plenty of experience working with socially conscious entrepreneurs!

3. Put Your Money Where Your Marketing Is

Instead of vague buzzwords that act as a screen (“all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” etc.), prove to your customers that you’re practicing what you preach. Provide access to third-party lab assessments, information on sourcing and manufacturing, labor wages, and other value props you may offer. If you’re going to position yourself as a “social enterprise,” you’ll need to anticipate customers’ questions ahead of time, and truly look at whether every dimension of your business (from internal ops to supply chain management to PR) reflects your professed values.

Example: Dustlight Productions, a podcast production company based in LA, has produced shows for President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, among others. The CEO, Misha Euceph, is passionate about reaching pay equality and prioritizing representation and diversity. On the company's team page, she lists a pay breakdown detailing how much female and non-binary employees make in comparison to men, and how the salaries of Dustlight’s POC employees stack up against its white employees.

4. Pursue Third-Party Certifications

Getting a reputable third-party certification is a great way to hold your brand accountable and build trust with your consumers. Examples are a USDA Organic label, 1% for the Planet, Rainforest Alliance Certified, EPA SmartWay, EPA ENERGY STAR, and B Corp Certification. Though the process can be tough — for instance, only one in three companies that apply get certified by B Lab and become a B Corp — it’s a great way to communicate to the public that your brand is hitting specific criteria and benchmarks as well as committed to maintaining the integrity of your products or services.

5. Become a Thought Leader with Good Content

Use content marketing — in the form of podcasts, blogs, whitepapers, infographics, and more — to lead the conversation around the topics that you (as a brand) are passionate about. How can you both educate your customers and offer insight into the future of your industry? Best of all, content can be repurposed endlessly through social media, email newsletters, ads, guest features, and more, creating exponential touchpoints for you to interact with your target audience.

Want to start building content? Check out: How to Build Brand Loyalists with Effective Content

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