For many marketers or entrepreneurs, building a business with a purpose is the Holy Grail. It feels great – and we all want to do a job that makes sense. And it’s good business: brands with a purpose work better – Jim Stengel and a few others have clearly made the point.
But building a business with a purpose requires a change of paradigm. For many of us, that means unlearning what we studied at marketing school.
Good marketing, we learned, means a relentless focus on what the consumer wants. Well, think again.
Look at Lifebuoy, the hero brand from Unilever. Lifebuoy built its business on teaching kids to wash their hands before eating – because not doing so can create bacteria contamination that leads to life-threatening diarrhea. Interestingly, there is no “consumer insight” at the core of that business model. Mothers in lower social classes are often not aware of the impact of a poor hygiene on a child’s health, so there is little chance that they would express the need for better health practices in a focus group.
At the core of Lifebuoy’s business model lies an “ecosystem insight.” I call the ecosystem all the people that influence the brand’s business, or are influenced by it. Lifebuoy is an antibacterial soap focused on hygiene. Its ecosystem includes parents, kids, schools, doctors, child development NGO’s... If you go talk to all of them, you quickly realize an amazing fact: hygiene issues are not just critical – they are very simple to solve. Kids might die of diarrhea, but they can be saved by very simple, repeated, preventive hygiene behaviors. Yet it does not happen. The tension in the ecosystem is clear: it lies in the difficulty to establish these very simple, life-savings habits, with a critical mass of families. You make it – things change. You don’t – nothing changes. So for the last 10 years, Lifebuoy has worked with doctors, schools, NGO’s, to put in place hand-wash programs. Everyone supports them. Everyone loves them. No one is bothered by the commercial side of the action. Granted, Lifebuoys pulls tear-jerking ads out of its do-good programs. Granted, hand washing requires soap, and Lifebuoy benefits from selling it. But Lifebuoy’s programs make a real difference. Their program build new habits with kids, and in every village they go, diarrhea incidence is divided by 6. And, critically, these programs support the aspirations of all the actors in the ecosystem, and involve them into creating success: doctors. NGO’s, schools want kids to learn good behaviors, and Lifebuoy simply creates a tool to support them.
Here’s a different example, that will speak to entrepreneurs.
When Innate Motion supported the development of Baobab Express, a transportation business in Benin, we initially focused on the “consumers.” And with a western perspective on Africa, we assumed safety – in a country ranking 5th in the world for road fatality rate - would be the benefit to make a difference. But we quickly realized our mistake. In Benin, the belief in fate means that if you die on the road, it is just because "it was your day." A new transport service is not going to change that.
The team decided to change his focus and looked at a broader perspective. They talked to people in the villages, entrepreneurs, elders, officials, farmers... What was needed was more reliability. Transportation in Benin relies on "taxi-brousse," the "bush-taxi." And with them, you never know when you are going to leave and arrive. Not just because of safety, but because every taxi-brousse waits to be full before it departs. And if the latest customer on board has the money to add a stop 200km away from the initial planned drive, the driver adapts without warning anyone… The challenge was clear: without reliable transportation, everyone struggled. And the current system did not deliver.
So Baobab Express changed its story. It was not about delivering safe transport for the passengers (though it did), it was about offering fixed lines, fixed time schedules, and fixed prices - to everyone who needed to move.
And people engaged into the success of Baobab Express, well beyond the travelers: small sellers started to sell their goods at the bus stop. Local communities and authorities brought full support. Moto-taxis flocked to wait for the bus travellers at regular times, to take them from the bus stop to their final destinations: even their business improved. “Bouger et gagner ensemble, c’est bon,” said the new brand tagline printed on the busses: “Moving & winning, together!” Today, Baobab enables exactly that.
So if you are exploring a brand with purpose – look around. Who makes up your ecosystem? What drives each of them? What is the overarching tension that creates frustration with the different actors? If your brand can engineer a solution to that tension – you have a purpose.
This post first appeared on LinkedIn on October 25, 2015.