Patagonia has won plaudits in recent years for their bold “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign, instead winning loyalty by building reputation among dedicated target groups. The brand puts a thriving community and environment first, and business second, operating as a vehicle in which consumers can engage on points of shared interest. Does operating in this way, as more of a “social entity” than a “social business” represent a viable business model for brands?
What Is Social Business?
The concept of a social business is far from new. In early 2013, Deb Mills-Scofield wrote about how “social businesses focus more on achieving a positive impact in each of the nine business model elements:
- Value proposition.
- Customer segment.
- Key partners.
- Key activities.
- Key resources.
Writing for Harvard Business review, Mills-Scofield identified that “it [was] time we stop talking about ‘social’ vs. ‘non-social’ and encourage all entrepreneurs to focus on impact in every element of the business model as well as the whole [and to] profitably and purposefully balance doing well and doing good.”
Philip Sheldrake’s excellent “Attenzi – a social business story”, further expanded on the concept. Of it, he wrote:
“Social business is about adapting the way in which an organization delivers its mission and pursues its vision by designing the organization around influence flows, connecting: its people, partners, customers and other stakeholders; data, information and knowledge in and all around it… more openly, productively and profitably with the application of social web, big data and related information technologies.”
Definitions of social business may differ slightly, but social business is mainly concerned with the necessary transformation of digital era businesses, and the need to cultivate a thriving connected environment, both in a company’s own business functions, and in the way it interacts with its consumers.
Social Business Now
Authenticity represents a long-term commitment for any brand, and is a quality that is inextricably linked to social business. After all, many consumers naturally favor brands that exhibit initiatives for social enterprise. Authenticity is a natural prerequisite.
One brand that has managed to navigate this with aplomb is clothing brand Patagonia, which has made a point of going against the grain in previous years, somewhat counter-intuitively, by telling their customers not to buy their products. Instead Patagonia has established a reputation among consumers for high-quality, durable clothing that doesn’t need to be replaced often, and consumers have done exactly what they were instructed not to do.
The company once took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times running the tagline “Don’t buy this jacket”.
Patagonia is a great example of a brand embracing social business, staunchly absorbing social responsibility into their core brand identity. For the brand, it’s no half-hearted effort; their website for example gives equal prominence to its Inside Patagonia resource and the brand’s online shop.
According to Nielsen, “55 percent of global online consumers across 60 countries say they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.”
The value of social responsibility endeavors is clear, but Patagonia’s efforts extend beyond even this. As an exemplar for authenticity, Patagonia exceeds typical expectations.
Patagonia’s social endeavors exude a genuine authenticity that can’t be sustained without long-term commitment. Instead it comes across as a natural part of the brand’s identity, as if Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard, a noted “mountain climber, fisherman, and environmentalist,” injected a dose of his own personal ethos into the Patagonia brand.
Beyond Social Business: A Social Entity
The end result is that Patagonia is viewed as more than a clothing brand putting in a token social responsibility effort. The brand becomes more like a person, with a stance on ethical matters, individual interests, pastimes (fly fishing and adventure running for example), and so on.
Patagonia operates as a vehicle in which company values are an extension of the people who comprise the business. In this sense, the brand expands upon conventional understandings of what constitutes social business, to become a living social entity – something that people can relate and connect to.
For consumers, it means they can engage in a brand relationship to a deeper extent than they can for a brand that doesn’t have this “personality.”
Consumers cherish this opportunity to engage authentically. For example, the brand operates a busy Tumblr page where the most popular posts are comprised of users who share stories of their well-worn Patagonia items.
More recently, the brand participated in an environmental awareness exercise, “Vote the Environment,” which encouraged people to share messages about why they love a clean environment.
— Jack Johnson (@jackjohnson) October 30, 2012
Running under the #becauseilove hashtag, the campaign also won the participation of celebrities and musicians such as Jack Johnson.
Allowing users to participate in the conversation like this is a great strategy for Patagonia, and in 2013 Digiday reported on how the brand’s “biggest challenge is that [they] have more content than [they] could possibly publish, which makes it hard to figure out what gets in and what does not.”
Should Your Brand Be A Social Entity?
There are more examples of brands exhibiting the qualities a thriving social entity, in that the brand operates with a genuine authenticity, and acts as a vehicle on which customers can develop a deeper brand relationship.
Virgin, for example, is imbued with a culture for “making a difference” right from CEO level. Additionally, Cemex has introduced a social collaboration mechanism in which employees are able to collaborate on social responsibility projects.
Patagonia’s efforts are rooted even stronger in the community. After all, for them it doesn’t matter if their customers bought from them recently, if they bought something 20 years ago, or even at all. Customers are able to engage with the brand on topics such as the environment or outdoor sports, just as they would a friend or individual.
It would be foolish to suggest that business isn’t important, but as a model, putting business second to the nurturing of a thriving community by operating as a social entity clearly has viable merit for Patagonia, and may well do to for other businesses, too.
Does your brand operate as a social entity? How?