Branding Basics for Social Enterprises

By Howard Levy

So you’re starting a social enterprise or have one and want to know how to build or strengthen your brand. Well, what is a brand? Is it advertising, your spokesperson, a logo?


You have heard of the Nike, Oprah, McDonald’s. These are all brands. And while you may have positive or negative perceptions about each of these, you’ll notice their missions are easy to define – bring out your athletic best, inspiring people to live better lives, and providing a cheap, convenient meal. The basic premises of these businesses are based on making a clear promise to their audience. Essentially, your brand is the reputation you have for delivering on your promise.  

What does this mean for your business? A strong brand will help you to stand out from other businesses and demonstrate the value that you are bringing to your customers. 

The best brands elicit positive emotional responses because people understand your product or service, and with social enterprises, identify with your mission and know that the you are consistently true to it. 

In the short term, companies with strong brands create an edge in getting noticed quicker. Over time, organizations that have unique offering that deliver on their promises are able to develop stronger brand loyalty and subsequently as more from their customers (such as pay a premium for their product, or try a new service that they are offering). In today’s environment, you can’t afford not to have a strong brand. 

Components of a Successful Brand
Three components create a brand: differentiation, credibility and authenticity. By assessing your company’s strengths in each area, you’ll begin to understand how your brand value can be built, communicated and delivered. 

With 23 million businesses in the United States with multitudes of branded products and services, it is imperative to distinguish your business. Hopefully, your business solves a specific problem in a unique way or presents a new opportunity. This is the most immediate way to create impact. If not, consider all the ways that your business is unique and determine which of those attributes provide the most benefit to your customers and from the basis of your brand around that. This might include specific attributes of your product or service, a colorful founding story or strong lead personality, a particular philosophy or management style, store layout or location, expertise or niche market served. If you dig deep enough, you will find the attributes that distinguish your business from your competition. If you are starting a business, review your competition’s offerings to see what gaps there are that you can fill and build your brand around that. If currently in business, simply ask your customers why they buy from you and develop features. 

Before a business or a consumer parts with their money, they have to believe that your product or service will deliver on its inherent promise – in other words, that it will do what you claim it will do. This is the second component to a successful brand. Amazon’s claim of being able to get any book is based on its business structure of partnering with booksellers, rather than stocking books as in a brick and mortar store. Apple’ brand of creating cool products that are easy to use derives its credibility from its successful history of developing the first user-friendly computing interface followed-up with a track record for innovative products. The credibility for your business can stem from your expertise, a new process or solution or other sources, but must ultimately be believable for your brand to succeed.

The way to achieve credibility is by being authentic, particularly for social enterprises which are mission-based. Successful businesses have congruity in what they say and what they do – in fact, authenticity is a core value. By speaking transparently about the challenges you face as well as the expertise you bring to solving a problem or creating a new product, you make it easier for people to trust and identify with you. Being authentic makes your company human and helps to not only establish credibility faster, but also transform your initial customers into ardent advocates to attract a wider audience. 

Forging a new business is tough and the odds of success are not in your favor. Having a compelling product or service that addresses a real need is key. A strong brand will help you to tell your story in a more effective way so that your customers will want to buy your offering. Managing your brand effectively involves communicating your uniqueness with authenticity and establishing credibility by consistently delivering on your promises. 

Howard Levy is principal of Red Rooster Group, a branding agency that creates effective brands and marketing campaigns.

Additional thought: Branding is fluid

I’d like to offer an additional thought to Branding Basics. Branding is fluid. No beginning, no end, but an ongoing process which requires constant re/evaluation and analysis, and innovative thinking. Managing the brand effectively is as valuable as the brand itself. Whether you’re for profit or nonprofit, a stagnating or mismanaged brand is a dying brand.

One more element: Value

You touch on it well in your 'credibility' section, but as consumers (or businesses, in B2B exchanges) get closer to the purchase decision, their appreciation of value for money becomes important: Your organization might be credible, but pricing may still see out of line. A substitution, such as a strong competitive offering, could still take the sale. As Janet G outlines, this is another element that must be monitored over time.

Mike, you make a good point,

Mike, you make a good point, but ultimately, the concept of developing your brand is so that you can charge a premium for your goods and services. Over the long-term, commodity offerings based on price underperform strong brands. It is an assumption that your are providing value to your customers (solving their problem or creating an opportunity for them) in your offering. The goals is to demonstrate that your offering is worth what you say it is (which is the credibility part). I would argue that closer to the purchase decision, your goal is to demonstrate how your offering is unique or superior to your competition. Value is one part of that - but desire is a much stronger motivating factor. For example, people have not bought millions of iPhones because they are a good value - they bought them because they offer a unique experience (for which they gladly pay a premium).

Janet, I agree - the best

Janet, I agree - the best brands are built on core principles but express themselves fluidly. To expand upon the example I gave above, Apple's brand promise is to deliver user-friendly products that exemplify elegance and hipness - they just do it in different ways and have changed their image to and tactics to adapt to the changing world while remaining true to their mission. Similarly, the most well-known nonprofits have clear, easy-to-understand, appealing and impactful missions: the Red Cross - to provide relief when disaster strikes, the ACLU - to protect the Constitution, Susan B. Komen - the find a cure for breast cancer. The branding challenge for lesser-known nonprofits is to distinguish themselves from similar organizations with a unique and compelling mission.


Sharp thinknig! Thanks for the answer.