Some drama unfolded this week in the class I teach on social entrepreneurship. The topic was marketing and the students were reacting to a presentation by a guest speaker, a friend of mine, once trained by the marketing guru, Sergio Zyman. My friend's charge was to introduce the students to the key marketing principles they should deploy as they construct venture plans for their social enterprises. He began his talk by stating Zyman's signature call to arms for the marketing profession: Sell more stuff, to more people, for more money, more often, more efficiently." My friend then proceeded to dive into a case study of a national beer manufacturer that wanted to expand sales among the Hispanic male market.
Uproar broke out as students began to object to what they perceived as an obscene task — knowingly marketing a harmful product to a specific demographic group. In fact, my friend's presentation specifically made reference to the fact that good marketers should be able to increase sales of an inferior product through a combination of precise customer research and careful brand positioning.
The debate, of course, focused on whether this "dark art" is relevant to social entrepreneurs. By definition, social entrepreneurs put social impact ahead of financial gain, and in doing so should shun any practice that knowingly harms customers or clients. But what if you are using this magic to further your social goals? The conversation migrated from beer and chips to cancer advocacy and research — specifically, to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Several polls have shown that most women think that the No. 1 killer of women is breast cancer when in fact it is heart disease. Similarly, when asked which cancer is most prevalent among women, most will answer that it is breast cancer when in fact it is lung cancer. Susan G. Komen is certainly not misleading anyone about those facts, but the reality is that their superior marketing skills have propelled public awareness and concern about breast cancer far above the leading health threats.
So, the question arises whether our "social" market should be different from the supermarket in which each marketer is just out there to fend for him- or herself? With the primacy of social impact (and public good) shared among us, do we therefore have a responsibility to work collectively to maximize public good? For example, if they really care about keeping women alive, shouldn't the marketers at Susan G. Komen leverage their tremendous skills, including the voice and platform they have built, to raise awareness about heart disease, which is six times more likely to kill a woman than breast cancer?
The reality is that the social marketplace is just as competitive as the supermarket-place. Sergio Zyman's mantra can be equally interpreted for clients and donors: "Persuade more donors, to give more money, more often."
Likewise, when many social issues depend on public awareness to generate long-term change, the competition for public mindshare and emotional bandwidth is fierce. Unsurprisingly, many social entrepreneurs are embracing fully the dark arts of marketing, systematically crafting precise messages and constructing campaigns explicitly designed to foster long-term emotional hooks. I would cite Charity: Water among the best.
Several of my students fantasize about a Utopian world in which we social entrepreneurs would collectively assess the relative priority of various social ills and then democratically allocate resources where they "should" go. The reality, of course, is that social entrepreneurs are fighting for eyeballs and dollars just as hard as Sergio Zyman's marketing maestros, and if we want any chance of achieving the scale and impact of our Utopian dreams, we should stop judging, start taking notes, and, with a nod to Hogwarts, try to master our own Defense Against the Dark Arts.