Five mistakes that social entrepreneurs make when crafting their brands

As a brand developer, I’ve met countless social entrepreneurs all over the world: people with an extreme passion for social or environmental impact. They have a lot to master in order to make their ventures succeed – from setting up a production chain, to technology, HR, complex investment structures, and more.
Branding is yet another discipline to conquer, and though entrepreneurs see it as crucial, they often feel they lack the knowledge and skills to make it work for them. When entrepreneurs approach me, it is usually after having undertaken some form of branding on their own, and often they have run into difficulties.
Here are some common branding mistakes made by early-stage social entrepreneurs:

Mistake #1: Forgetting to build a solid value proposition into the brand, beyond social impact
Social entrepreneurs are often so passionate about their social and environmental impact that they forget to highlight the other value their product or service brings. This can be a risk when a competitor with the same impact goals comes along.
Whether you sell a solar-powered lamp, legal aid for all, or a piece of software, you need to be clear about the value of what you offer, and why a customer would choose your product over someone else’s.
Is your solar lamp a cheap way to power devices quickly while on the road, for example? That is the reason people will buy your product, talk about it, and gift it to others. For customers, the social and environmental impact may just be a big cherry on the cake.

Mistake #2: Asking for free creative work
Most entrepreneurs have a cousin or a friend who is a designer, and who is willing to do some work for them on a tiny budget. Unfortunately a design project based mostly on good will has several downsides.
It’s hard to steer a creative process when the outcome is gifted to you, and it’s hard to manage your own internal process and team input when there is no budget cap.
Then there is the risk of hidden interests. Behind pro bono work there is often an emotional expectation. You expect to get the design work that you want, while your pro bono designer might expect a lot of creative freedom. Make sure both parties open up about their motivations, so you can create a win-win situation.
Instead of pro bono work, consider alternatives. Ask yourself if you really don’t have a budget, or if you are simply unwilling to allocate it at this early stage. You could find a designer whose work you respect, and build a long-term relationship where a small initial budget is offset by larger budgets down the line, or even a stake in the company. A strong relationship with a designer or agency is a great asset for any new company.

Mistake #3: Picking a name without doing research
Naming is arguably the toughest part of the branding process. If a great name didn’t magically pop into your head at the start of your endeavor, it can become a really tough process. Will you choose a functional name or create a novel word?
Do you love your name? Will your audience love it? Is it even legally available? The naming process is full of questions.
An entirely novel name will require more effort to load with meaning. A more functional name makes clear what it represents, but will be harder to protect and more difficult to differentiate from the competition.
Be wary of names that are too generic, hard to pronounce or spell, or have unfortunate alternate meanings in languages that are spoken in the markets where you are active.
Always check for the availability of domain names and social media handles. Also look at the names of competitors before making your choice. You don’t want to do a forced rebrand under the threat of a lawsuit if you accidentally choose a name that is in use by someone else.
If you happen to choose poorly, there is one consolation: while a bad product cannot be saved by a great name alone, a good product will make people forget its awful name (iPad anyone?).
Developing brand names is a real art, so if you can’t figure it out on your own, find a professional namer.

Mistake #4: Only looking at your primary customer as your brand’s audience
A few years ago, I was asked by a maker space (an open workshop where people can work on electronics, woodworking, robotics and 3D printing) to do an analysis of their brand. They had just failed to secure the funds they needed for the next four years, and were desperate to find out why their funders did not see the value of their business.
Was there a leak in the brand, and could it be repaired? As we dug through all the touchpoints between their brand and their audiences, it became clear that they only communicated directly to the makers themselves. The organization never made an effort to reach the most important customer they had: the one that provided their funding.
Defining your brand’s audience is crucial, and you can define it as broadly (e.g. the press) or as narrowly (e.g. that particular New York Times columnist) as you want. Being creative about designing the experiences they all have with your brand helps you develop better relationships.

Mistake #5: Expecting people to care
Your brand is done! You have your name, your messaging, and your visual identity; your website is up; your social media accounts are claimed, and… absolutely nothing happens.
The plain fact is that beyond your circle of friends, family, and partners, few people will care as much as you believe they should. The result is that you can hit a dip after launch.
Brand building is a marathon, not a sprint. Brand development should always be followed up by a good communication strategy: who do you need to reach, and how will you reach them? What do you offer them, and how do you want them to respond? Create a communication plan for marketing, advertising or PR throughout the year, based on your goals and your resources. People care, but we can’t leave it to chance whether they take action.
It’s time to arm yourself with a knowledge of branding to help move your social venture forward. Enjoy the process, see your business become a brand, and thrive.

Anne Miltenburg is a nomadic designer, brand developer and writer.



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