Social enterprises and the target audience for their value propositions

It struck me while browsing through some ‘design for social impact’ product websites recently that while their focus might be on the poor, their communication and messaging was geared towards the Western or top of the pyramid audience.  I’d rather not link to nor name names, select your favourite cookstove/solar lantern/water purifier social enterprise and look at it from the point of view of their intended customers – the erstwhile poor in the developing world.

Their marketing communications tend to look and feel no different from that of the big name charitable organizations – big eyed brown child seeking your help to drink water/study/eat food etc.

Whats the problem, you say, these are well meant start ups and they need all the help we can give them to get these wonderful life changing products out to make that better world for the 99% er 90%, whatever?

The problem comes down to the value propositions that these organizations identify as being critical for their target audience.

“Cooking with cow dung gives Mrs Rajarani terrible hacking coughs everyday, SupercleanCookStove helps ensure her lungs are healthy enough to do all the housework”*

“Kerosene emits enough noxious fumes to equal smoking 2 packs of filthy cigarettes a day, our CleanFreshBriteLite takes over the burden of keeping encroaching darkness away”*

et cetera

Where’s the problem, you continue asking me, these products are well designed modern technology that will help alleviate these side effects?

Agreed, but is the value proposition being made one that resonates with you, dear reader on the broadband internet, browsing their photoshopped website, ready to donate a few extra lamps/stoves/watercoolers or one that will resonate with their intended customer?

Who is the customer? What do they want? What value proposition resonates with them?

And how many entrepreneurs have been frustratedly asking “Why aren’t they putting down good money for this fantastic product of mine?

Because the demand being addressed by these messages is not that of the target audience, who are ultimately the ones for whom these products are made.

Everyday, research shows that the barriers to adoption include:

Improved cookstoves rank poorly on all three dimensions: their benefits are rarely valued highly by customers at the outset, they are expensive, and they require a significant change in lifestyle to be put into use.

Lets start with benefits alone – which is where the topic of identifying the correct value propositions for the target audience comes in. If your messaging and marketing is all about the best selling drill addressing an audience of home improvement contractors but what your actual customers need is a hole in the wall, how will you manage to bridge this gap in communication when you face your customers directly?

By focusing on the value propositions – be they environmental, healthcare related or otherwise – meant for every other stakeholder but the end users aka the customers of the product themselves – organizations may never quite identify nor refine the benefits as they relate to the poor customer, in the context of their lives, and their decision to purchase and use the said products.

To quote an old post about the Tata Group’s approach to low income customers,

Their primary criteria – as a business – for the design and development of this product was to take the concept of the Bottom of the Pyramid as a viable demographic to serve, setting the design criteria and constraints for both the product itself as well as their revenue model and pricing structure accordingly. The fact that it will “do good” or “improve life” is as important but this aspect has not been permitted to overshadow the need for the product to be competitively priced and attractive to the consumer, offering value for their hard earned rupee, even as it prevents their children from suffering from diarrhea.

By taking their BoP customers as seriously as they would any other demographic, they focus on delivering a clearly identified and on target customer value proposition, thus a clearly defined benefit, to the end user. This aspect will show up in their marketing and communications as well.

What strikes me the most is that these are the basics of marketing and strategy, imparted in any MBA program around the world.

*exaggerated to amuse myself

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