Differentiate or die: five ways to stand out from the social impact crowd

In 2016, in an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, I wrote that social good will not be a differentiator forever. As products and services for social and environmental good are becoming more common, social entrepreneurs and organisations in the social sector will have to get better at differentiating themselves beyond their social missions.

First, let’s unpack what a differentiator is. Differentiators can either be aspects of your product or service, that benefit your customer, at which you excel. Or, your product/service is the same as that of a competitor, but you differentiate through a unique brand. Either can lead to a differentiating position in the market.

But how do you get there?

There are a lot of unwritten rules and faux-pas in the social space that keep people playing it safe. Imagine a group of impact investors that are looking to invest money in solar power that benefits underserved communities. They will listen to presentations by six organisations that do just that, and all of them have the social good as the driving force of their brand. How will one stand out?

Of course you could try to be top of the charts when it comes to social impact: the most sustainable, healthy energy source, the most fair, the most inclusive payment scheme. But often these claims are hard to quantify for you, and hard to verify for your audience.

Here are five brands that have chosen to do things a little differently, and it pays off!

1. Differentiate by design: Tesla Solar Roofs

In a see of solar panel companies that all talk about environmental and financial benefits, Tesla Roof solar panels differentiate on beauty: capitalising on the fact that many people would love solar panels, but think they ruin the look of their house. Their value proposition: “Solar Roof complements your home’s architecture while turning sunlight into electricity.” It will come at a higher price point, but by addressing a huge barrier to adoption, Tesla will no doubt get an entirely new audience hooked on clean energy.

2. Differentiate by brand: FuckCancer

FuckCancer differentiates from other (cancer) charities through its in your face brand. What more is there to say? The name says it all, it’s an attitude that is embedded in the brand and in everything they do.

When you have a strong brand, there is not much convincing that needs to be done — Julie Greenbaum, co-founder and CRO of ‘FuckCancer’.

3. Differentiate by price: Brandless

Brandless is an organic online grocery store competing on price, in a market where everyone is busy trying to invoke the most authentic organic home made, natural look and feel for a brand. The founders have taken a nice PR spin on saving money by not investing in branding (fooling a Wallpaper reporter for instance), but it’s easy to see through that marketing talk, because making something look this simple and good, so consistently, is in fact an extensive branding exercise. And by the way, it has been done a thousand times before by retailers all over the world, for their own labels, think of Target, HEMA, Euroshopper, etc. So don’t be fooled: Brandless is a price fighter spiel.

4. Differentiate by picking a niche: Charity:Water

Charity Water differentiaties from classic development aid organisations with a broad area of focus, by concentrating purely on water. They bring that focus to life with an engaging, digital performing brand built on storytelling that appeals to a new generation of donors, making it cool to do good.

5. Differentiate by sex appeal: It’s Archel

And the prize for the most original differentiator goes to… It’s Archel! Perhaps the only social entrepreneur I have ever seen that ditches the goody-two shoes look of the social impact fashion label and cliché imagery of the ‘empowered seamstress’. It’s Archel has chosen an approach that captures a lot of eyeballs (and no doubt raises a few eyebrows): sex appeal. It’s Archel and the Bombchel clothes line came into existence to empower women in Liberia, hardhit after the Ebola crisis, to produce contemporary African fashion for the global market. Instead of showing her seamstresses at their new jobs, Archel puts her own curves and stunning looks in the spotlight, showcasing her designs from lounge chairs and poolsides, often in provocative poses. This brand is breaking all the social impact rules, and I just got to love her for it.

These five brands have dared to do things different, and are pushing the limits for others with social impact ambitions. Differentiate or die!

More resources on Branding for Social and Environmental Change:

Brand the Change, the guidebook
A full guide to building brands for change, with 13 case studies, 22 tools, the anatomy of a strong brand explained, and 5 guest essays by brand experts with tips and tricks on everything from trademarking to PR.

Brand Thinking Canvas — our go-to-tool to build stronger brands for change

Brand the Change Tribe — a community of social entrepreneurs and brand experts sharing experiences, tips, questions and resources

The Brandling Newsletter — sign up to stay up to date on live events, training and resources on branding for change

TED Talk: How branding can accelerate social change

Social Good is Always Good Branding, or is it? — essay for Stanford Social Innovation Review
Why putting social first is not always effective, or as impactful, as it appears to be.

Three Dysfunctional Beliefs about Branding — blogpost
Beliefs that hold social impact ventures back from reaching the audience they deserve

The Brand Architecture Exercise that Saved a Social Venture Millions of Dollars — blogpost
Think twice before creating multiple brands or sub-brands for your company

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.

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