Should Your Brand Be A ‘Social Business’ Or A ‘Social Entity’?

How Patag­o­nia put a thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ty envi­ron­ment first, and busi­ness sec­ond by oper­at­ing as a social enti­ty.

Pat Hong By Pat Hong from Linkdex. Join the discussion » 1 comment

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.
  • Chan­nels.
  • Rela­tion­ships.
  • Key part­ners.
  • Key activ­i­ties.
  • Key resources.
  • Costs.
  • Rev­enues.

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.

Today, sev­er­al con­sumer brands rec­og­nize this need to be authen­tic, and to devel­op con­nec­tions with their cus­tomers by address­ing their needs, griev­ances, or com­plaints.

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”.

Inside Patagonia

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.

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?

Pat Hong

Written by Pat Hong

Editor at Linkdex/Inked, Linkdex

Pat covers the SEO industry, digital marketing trends, and anything and everything around Linkdex. He also authors Linkdex's data analysis and reports, analysing the state of search in various industries.

Inked is published by Linkdex, the SEO platform of choice for professional marketers.

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