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Better Branding Can Help the Social Sector

16 August 2016 at 11:00 am
Michael Garnett
Borrowing the marketing practice of creating distinctive and ownable brands can galvanise more people around important ideas that address critical social problems, writes marketing and communications expert Michael Garnett.

Michael Garnett | 16 August 2016 at 11:00 am


Better Branding Can Help the Social Sector
16 August 2016 at 11:00 am

Opinion: Borrowing the marketing practice of creating distinctive and ownable brands can galvanise more people around important ideas that address critical social problems, writes marketing and communications expert Michael Garnett.

Branding RS

One of the concepts that marketing professionals discuss when developing brands is the extent to which a brand identity is “ownable”.

This practice of assessing the ownability of a brand has a legal basis. You need to establish that your trademarks are sufficiently distinctive in order that they be registered. In addition to the legal requirements, marketing theory contends that the more ownable a brand, the better.

So how can better branding help the social sector?

Having worked within the social sector, and recently completed my first postgraduate subject in social impact, there’s a big opportunity.

It’s important to note that by “brands” I mean the identity of ideas and movements within the social sector, as well as products and services. We often take references to brands to mean only products and services, yet every idea or movement requires an identity to make it discernible and memorable.

My experience is that as a general statement, the distinctiveness and descriptiveness of branded ideas within the social sector can be significantly improved. And as a result, many more people can be engaged in the important work.

Let’s look at two examples:

Shared value – this is the emerging management strategy that seeks to create business value by addressing social problems.

Whilst the approach has great potential to orientate powerful businesses toward the challenge of solving social problems, the idea is poorly branded. The term shared value is neither distinctive nor adequately descriptive. In hearing about it for the first time, one could assume they already know what shared value is, given it is just two well-understood words bolted together. Further, there’s no indication of who is sharing value, nor what kind of value is being created.

In contrast, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a well-branded idea that is distinctive and descriptive. CSR sounds more like a “thing” than shared value. In terms of engaging people outside the social sector, CSR is a more ownable and well branded idea than shared value.

Social impact – like shared value – one that first-time readers could assume they understand. Again, it is two well-known words side by side. However, throughout 10 weeks of learning about evaluating social impact, I came to understand that the term is used in the social sector with a specific meaning. Rather than a logical interpretation of this idea being any change within a society, social impact is used to specifically refer to sustainable change within a social system. In other words, social impact is necessarily change that occurs at a system level, rather than change at an individual level for example.

I lost count of the amount of times throughout the last 10 weeks I heard the phrase “the way the term is used in this context”. The practice of defining terms in context, thereby providing understanding only to those within the social scene, serves to isolate the sector from external funding and regulatory stakeholders.

The aim of any branded idea should be to invite people in, not to exclude people through an ambiguous or obtuse identity.

In summary, perhaps the pioneers of the shared value strategy and those who work within the area of social impact never intended their ideas to be “brands”. I’m sure their hope was to make a meaningful contribution to addressing social problems, and this post shouldn’t be read as criticism of the obvious, underlying virtue of these two ideas.

However, to be successful, both the shared value strategy and the field of social impact require engagement from a wide group of external stakeholders. These ideas, and others like them from the social sector, need to compete for attention in a cluttered marketplace of information and messages.

So, can the social sector borrow the marketing practice of creating distinctive and ownable brands, in order to galvanise more people around important ideas that address critical social problems?

About the author: Michael Garnett has 17 years commercial experience across marketing in Not for Profits and the arts. He is a former head of operations at TEDxSydney and the director of marketing and communications at ReachOut Australia, one of the country’s leading online mental health services, helping young people get through tough times. @mickgarnett

Michael Garnett  |  @ProBonoNews

Marketing and communications expert

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One comment

  • Avatar Phil Preston, Shared Value Expert says:

    This post makes some good observations, Mick. Shared value is not so much a ‘thing’, it is a lens for innovation in business and in education workshops and programs it is very important to get that distinction right. NFPs would be wise to learn the principles behind it, although any approach to a company should focus more on the value that might be co-created rather than wheeling out the shared value term per se.

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