Social enterprise branding (or marking…or identifying)

 So the big news is SEC have finally decided (succumbed?) to back the Social Enterprise Mark that originated in the South West: see news story here. Which comes on the back of a lot of pressure not only from the regional bodies and various practitioners, but also from government (who have commissioned COI to do a piece of work about the need for an ‘identifier’).

I think SSE are fairly relaxed about the whole mark debate….sitting outside the definition debates as we tend to do….although I do think this is potentially useful if it helps practitioners communicate better the impact, quality and community-focus of what they do. If it only serves to confuse / lead to infighting, then I guess it won’t be.

It was interesting to chat to COI about all of this; we particularly talked about the CIC. My point was that the CIC’s primary value has actually been as a “badge” or “identifier” as much as the nature of the legal structure itself (to which amendments are coming, we are told)…that, particularly if you are seeking to gain contracts from the public sector, then a CIC structure is a recognisable badge which identifies the organisation as a social enterprise.

I won’t get into the drawbacks of the CIC structure now particularly, but it was interesting to hear from Peter Holbrook the other evening that he’d found it particularly good for the staff/users he worked with, in that they were able to become directors and therefore in control of something. And that being a director of a CIC was more than just being director of a company, because of the social enterprise focus / identification. Worth thinking about in this whole identifier/brand/mark/legal structure debate.

Finally, looking further into the future on this stuff, it was interesting to hear a panel discuss Fair Trade on Peter Day’s World of Business podcast (March 9th episode if you can find it). Particularly good for the debate between those who held that its value was through the rigorous certification criteria (the “it’s a certification mark” group) and those who felt that it had now superseded those beginnings and that its value was now simply as a brand (the “it’s a brand group”). As the social enterprise sector ponders a similar move, learning from the experiences of others (Fairtrade, Soil Association + others in the sector who’ve developed their own quality systems, like Social Firms and ourselves) must surely be high on the agenda.


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6 thoughts on “Social enterprise branding (or marking…or identifying)

  1. Important moves. But I dont think rigour v brand is a real dichotomy. If you are one company, you can adopt a brand and decide for yourself to live up to your brand values – you know how much you risk if you falter and customers lose trust in you. But a movement of separate ventures cant rely on every member to live up to the brand values without some rigour and certification – and one high profile failure would damage all. So I reckon the two go hand in hand.
    COI also chatted to us here at UnLtd. Our view is that social enterprise is getting big enough to need a clear customer promise branded with an identifier. But our concern is that social enterprise may not be just one thing – can a single certification really work across retail, business to business, social finance, campaign based, innovation…..We may need to be more nuanced in this.

  2. Yep, I think you are probably right Cliff. Social enterprise is not one thing, and so can the mark apply across all of them? No. It’s going to exclude (already, various entrenched parties / silos are not happy about it) and only represent a part of an ever-expanding spectrum. On the flipside, several marks or different identifiers are not going to have the reach/impact of one…so is there a kind of mark+ where it’s like social enterprise mark subsectors? Not sure. Will be interesting to follow the development….

  3. We at RISE have positioned the social enterprise mark as an ethical consumer label. Recent market research confirms that 7 out of 10 customers want to buy from a company that makes decisions out of concern for society and the environment and uses most of its profit in this way. The Mark enables a social enterprise to communicate those values in a simple and effective way to its customers. Its criteria address community benefit and use of profits, but do not prioritise one company form over another. The strength of the brand lies in its independent verification, which gives customers the confidence to make the choices they want to make.

  4. Thanks very much for commenting Dirk. As I’ve said before, I think this kind of bottom-up, practitioner-centred approach is a strong one; kudos to RISE for that. SSE, as I say, can see how it can be beneficial, and we will certainly inform our Fellows about it as it spreads to see if it’s useful for them.
    As with all these things, better to learn by doing, often, than stagnate by talking.

  5. The reaction we have had so far from customers has been very positive and we’re only at the beginning of implementing our plans to use the mark. Where we have used it (in our cafes, on our packaging, on letterhead and business stationery)it has attracted comment and interest and most importantly support. “We knew you were different but didn’t know why or how – we feel like we do now” was one customers comment. Our staff are feeling more confident about explaining the social enterprise model too. My ambition is to see far greater public awareness of what we do and how and why we do it. The mark seems to be working for us and resonating with our customers…it seems to be good for business, staff and customers.