Habits and Social Brands that can change the world

Changing consumer habits to do social good is not a new idea. The Max Havelaar coffee label, the world first fair trade certification mark, was launched in 1988. Consumers could contribute to the living and working conditions of small farmers in disadvantaged regions by drinking a cup of coffee, for many a daily routine. Since then many fair trade and social brands have seen the day of light, but they have not reached full potential as a global united force. This article describes three of our every day habits and the supporting social brands we can choose to change the world for the better. Furthermore the article describes how social brands have to engage with the consumer to instil habits and become a global force.

Change your habits to change the world

Psychologist and philosopher William James observed in 1887 that ‘ninety-nine percent of human activity is done out of mere habit’. In his 2012 published book; The power of Habit, Charles Duhigg makes powerful observations about human habits. He describes how habits have a cue, a routine and a reward. Over time the reward will create a craving that will start the routine over and over again, once it is activated by the cue.

Consumers have many habits they can channel towards changing the world. And there are social entrepreneurs with social brands and products who provide the opportunity to do exactly that. Let’s take some very basic habits. Many consumers drink bottled water every day, which makes them go to the toilet and most of them will wash hands after they went to the toilet. This sequence of habits can help change the world if we change the routine and choice of brands slightly.

If we take the habit of drinking bottled water. The cue can be that a consumer is thirsty or hot. The routine is the drinking of water and the reward will be that the consumer feels refreshed and not hot or thirsty anymore. Feeling refreshed will become the craving of this habit, see figure 1:

Figure 1: Habit with normal branded water

If we introduce a social brand of water with similar quality and cost that also changes the world, we can create an additional reward of doing good, see figure 2. This additional reward will create the additional craving of doing good and making a difference on the same cue of being hot or thirsty.

                        Figure 2: Habit with social branded replacement product

This means that with availability and some education on social branded products for bottled water, the consumer can start to crave both refreshment and changing the world when feeling hot or thirsty. The additional craving will make the consumer come back to the product that has a social cause. When introduced on mass scale, this seemingly small difference in a consumer habit can have a significant effect on funds to fight poverty.

Social Brands that support our daily habits

The potential impact of habitual replacement products is enormous and if done well can create billions of dollars of funds to change the world. Let’s take the example of the daily routine of drinking bottled water, going to the toilet and washing your hands.

  1. Bottled water: The bottled water market is estimated to have reached more than $117 billion in 2013 and is expected to reach $195.4 billion in 2018 (Marketwatch, 2014). In Australia people yearly spend around 600 million AU$ on bottled water. The Thankyou movement, an Australia based organization, sells bottled water, whilst earnings go to projects that provide fresh water sources in third world countries.  The Thankyou movement now has their products listed in the major retailers in Australia.
  2. Toilet use: The global toilet paper industry surpassed US$45 billion in 2012 (Companies and Markets, 2013). The Australian organization who gives a crap sells toilet paper and donates 50% of profits to building sanitary facilitation in countries in need. They sell mostly online with direct shipments and have products listed in specialized and boutique retailers. 
  3. Soap: the global soap market is roughly a US$ 100 billion industry. The US organization Soapboxsoaps sells bar, liquid and body wash soap to do social good. For every bar purchased Soapboxsoaps will donate one bar of soap, fresh water or vitamin supplements to a child in need. Most of the soap is sold online and a range is available in a major retailer. 

More than 3.4 million people die from water sanitation or hygiene related causes each year, with 99% of these cases occurring in the developing world (WHO, 2008/2009). Clean water, sanitation and the availability of soap could reduce that significantly. The water, toilet paper and soap examples given are great local initiatives and have the potential to have a global impact, but miss the scale to do so.

With combined effort, renewed thinking and mass consumption of social brands, we can tap in to a roughly US$250 billion market of water, soap and toilet paper. If manufacturers of social brands can realize 10% of the water, soap and toilet paper market this would represent US25$ billion in yearly sales and at roughly 5% EBIT more than a US$ 1 billion in pure aid contribution. Every year!

And it doesn’t have to stop with water, toilet paper and soap. There are many other habits that are part of our daily routine. We brush our teeth twice a day, wash our clothes and do the dishes. We use our mobile phones many times a day; we share photos, smoke a cigarette or go for a run. The list goes on and on. The income generated to do social good from social branded replacement products is almost unlimited.

A social branded replacement product needs to be equal, if not better than the product it replaces. When quality and price are equal, social purpose ranks as most important factor in selecting a brand (Edelman’s goodpurpose study, 2012).  The challenge for social brands is then to create a feedback loop with the consumer to provide a reward and develop a craving to use their social branded products and change the world.

Consumer engagement and participation

In today’s world social brands need to continuously listen, provide feedback and have dialogue with consumers. Recently more than 100 of the world’s top marketing practitioners were interviewed on marketing activities that are setting today’s gold standard and on what brands do to succeed and stand out. Three recurring themes where identified that enable brands to become leaders in our increasingly connected world (We Are Social, 2014):

  1. Purpose: don’t just make better things; make things better.
  2. Principles: use your brand’s values to deliver meaningful value.
  3. Participation: don’t interrupt people; engage and involve them.

Quotes from top marketers tell us that ‘consumers in countries where consumerism is advanced are craving alternatives that make them feel good’ and ‘to succeed in the future , brands need to engage people head’s and hearts’. Social brands with habitual replacement products are well positioned to capitalize on these three brand themes. Purpose and principles are inherently part of a social brand that does social good. However, social brands also need to get the participation theme right and provide consumers the reward of feedback every time they use their products.

When the consumer starts expecting the reward of feedback on social improvement, a craving to do social good is created. Only then on the cue of being thirsty or hot, consumers will exercises a routine and will choose a social brand that rewards two cravings; one for seeking refreshment and one for doing good and changing the world. We can identify different levels of participation:

  1. No participation: the consumer has no opportunity to find out what happened with aid from the habitual replacement product. There might be an automated thank you email for a purchase, but it is unlikely that the consumer feels he is really participating.
  2. Static participation: The consumer has the opportunity to check themselves with an organization what the impact is from his effort. For example, on the website from Soapboxsoaps the consumer can check details on where in the world aid has been provided by this organization.
  3. Interactive participation. The consumer can follow and track project progress in an interactive way. This can be done on a website or real-time through push notifications and personalized messages. This provides instant transparency and advanced participation. For example, the Thankyou movement provides a code on every product sold.  With this code the consumer can track on a website and a mobile application what specific project is sponsored by the product. On their website, the consumer can also opt in to get updates on projects through social media. 
  4. Empowered participation: The consumer will be involved in decision making and two way communication. For example a consumer can be given the opportunity to choose what the next aid project should be. Additional to interactive participation, communication will involve multiple sources like social enterprise, aid organizations, recipient country and the local aid recipient community. Ideally some communication will come from the final aid recipient through social media. In this way the final aid recipient will directly share the impact the consumer had on his life or community. Decision making and communication with the final aid recipient will empower the consumer to make a difference and create a craving to do good.

Social brands need to be well distributed, available on the shelves of major retailers and available online. Participation with the consumer needs to fit in the daily routine of checking emails and using social media. Transparency on change projects needs to be instant, real-time and need to involve the very final change recipient to be most authentic and impactful.

The time is now

If any time in history was right to scale up social brands and replacement products to do social good it is now. On the supply side entrepreneurship with social brand offering is growing. On the demand side; the middle class and advanced consumerism is growing and consumers are craving purposeful brands.

The technology to provide instant feedback and transparency is widely available at limited costs. Existing social media platforms can be used to connect social brands with consumers; involve, fulfill and empower them and make them lifelong social brand loyalist. If the social brand manages the education, engagement and participation with the consumer well, it can make social brands the first choice to support consumer habits.

Once social brands are the norm rather than the exception, we will have a global force that can change the world.

Niels is founder at Truebridges and offers some of his consulting and coaching time for free to support social enterprises.

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