Why social enterprise marketing tends to fail – hidden competition, invisible consumers

By | July 25, 2014

A couple of years ago, I was frequently in East Africa, consulting with a consumer product company  set up as a social enterprise in the renewable energy sector. An extensive distribution network across Kenya had been established through what they called TT – traditional trade. Yet their sales were nowhere near the figures one would expect from such an extensive exposure to the market. They were struggling to reach their target audience efficiently and cost effectively. Soon after starting fieldwork, I began to get the sense that there are some fundamental issues with the way social enterprises were developing, creating and implementing their market entry strategies.

Many of these issues also apply to consumer product companies targeting the emerging middle class, given the size of the ‘floating class’ and the prevalence of informal retail. Purchasing power assessments as well as hard currency conversion create their own confusion regarding consumer segmentation as “poor”. Some may choose to set the bar at 5euros a day, to identify those at the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BoP) while the African Development Bank pegs the same amount as “middle class”.

Assuming there’s no competition

Most of these firms, particularly those coming in from the outside and seeking to serve the ‘poor’ in the developing world seem to be operating in a vacuum. Observing their market entry actions point to an underlying assumption that they are entering a virgin market where no competing solutions for their product or service exist.  If this fundamental premise is mistaken then every element of their marketing, communication, distribution and pricing strategy will naturally suffer.

A caveat here is that it might indeed be a virgin market for branded international solutions for that product category in the formal market but this is where overlooking the informal markets and existing practices in user behaviour can be far more dangerous since this is where the competition will come from in the form of substitutes or alternate solutions.

Because of the above assumption, little effort is made to uncover information about the customer, the market or competition or the operating environment. Whether this is due to a vacuum of information on lower income markets or the developing world, or this subject simply not being taken into consideration in a social enterprise, the fact remains that this oversight then gives rise to a series of errors (like the domino effect) – those in marketing strategy viz., marketing communications, value propositions and positioning not to mention pricing.

Conflating company mission with marketing strategy

While this is most commonly found among well meaning social enterprises entering these markets for the first time with their life saving products for the poor, large multinationals with previous experience in the developing world are not immune the minute they choose to focus particularly on the mass (or “poor”) market.

Tata Nano is the most obvious example of this although here one wonders how much of this had to do with their actual marketing communications and advertising for the Nano and how much to do with all the media hype around the car being specially for the ‘common man’? All the positioning and branding in the world through formal advertising and communication channels could not overcome the public perception of the Nano as the ‘poor man’s car’ created by every other article – from engineering news to international styling.

Similarly, if all the marketing communications, press reports and online information is geared towards the ‘poverty alleviating” mission of the company or product line then this lack of clear focus or understanding of who the target audience is will come through in the positioning and branding of the product in the marketplace.  The vast majority of social enterprise messaging is targeted towards their funders and investors not their potential customers.

And no one will aspire to buy the ‘poor man’s product’ if it means a clear signal of having failed to succeed or admitting defeat among their friends and neighbours. Everyone aspires to a better quality of life, regardless of perceived income segmentation.

Confusing value proposition with need

This lack of clarity and understanding about the target audience for a product or service and thus, its marketing communications and messaging then snowballs into incorrect positioning of the product or incorrectly identifying the value proposition for the end user.

The end result might be the same – the customer choosing to buy your product – but the pain points may differ tremendously across geographies and regions, not to mention socioeconomic strata. An example is water saving flush toilet mechanisms being sold in Nairobi as a sustainable, greener alternative – that is, the same positioning and value proposition as that used in the eco-conscious parts of the Northern European continent. Sales are sluggish. But when you take into consideration that there is a water shortage or that many communities need to purchase water in tankers to fill their household storage tanks, a simple shift in positioning to “Spend less money flushing down the toilet” or some such clever quip could in fact make a more sensible approach in this situation for the very same product.

This gets more obvious the lower down the income stream you go – Mama Mboga with her vegetable stand may not have the same priorities nor relate to the same value propositions that social impact investors do.

Winning awards vs building a trusted brand

And finally, this lack of customer orientation manifests itself in the development of the company’s brand. Awards may be won, and brand recognition created online with press mentions and social media, but the company still remains an unknown entity that nobody has heard of in the markets in which it should be sold.

In a sense, its overestimating the ability of a faceless brand to communicate value to the target audience. Some have called this issue one of Trust and in the past, I’ve referred to it as Commitment but the fact remains that this aspect is the most challenging and difficult to overcome as a barrier to acceptance. Even megabrands accustomed to instant global recognition such as Google may find that not only is their brand unknown and unheard of in these new and emerging markets but others may have gotten there before them.

Which, in a way, brings us back to the first point in the assumptions made at the very beginning of considering market entry strategies in the rising global middle class.