Jackie Bruns, a sophomore at Notre Dame with majors in Finance and Spanish and a minor in International Development Studies, is researching and writing on Millennials, cause marketing and other related topics. Jackie spent summer 2014 helping a microenterprise beekeeping project get off the ground as an intern for Foundation for Sustainable Development in Rivas, Nicaragua. On campus, she is involved in the International Scholars Program and the impact investing club Unleashed. Currently, she is working as a research assistant with Professor Melissa Paulsen who executes Notre Dame’s Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship platform.
At a TED talk in 2013, Simon Sinek said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Simon’s talk has received over 1 million views on YouTube and challenges the very core of how many companies operate. While Simon presents a compelling argument, entrepreneurs adhering to the same beliefs should be wary of throwing out the “what” of their company to focus on the “why”. Many companies that are founded upon the principles of a social mission place less emphasis on delivering a desirable product in order to spend more energy communicating their mission. So how do companies dedicated to a social mission operate under the reality of what the consumer wants?
Let’s examine the case of Krochet Kids International, a non-profit apparel and accessories brand that aims to empower marginalized women around the world. Krochet Kids International (KKi) was founded in 2008 by three friends who taught Ugandan women to crochet hats and scarves to be sold to American consumers. Since then, KKi has diversified their product line and added another production site just outside of Lima, Peru, increasing the total number of female partners to over 150. Each KKi product tells the story of the woman who made it, indicated with her signature on the label. The women receive a fair wage, education, and mentorship.
KKi has evolved a great deal since their conception. Originally, KKi relied on their story – Ugandan women empowering themselves by crocheting hats – to draw in consumers. The early days of KKi were less about the product and more about the social mission. Over the years, KKi has strayed from relying on the women as a selling point and has instead put the spotlight on the product while creating a brand identity that appears very different from the original company.
The new KKi is trying to resonate with the consumer that lives freely and loves adventures. She wants to go to music festivals one weekend and backpack in the Grand Canyon the next weekend. The latest KKi collections channel this liberated identity, featuring leopard prints and basic apparel, without any of the knit or graphic details characteristic of their first products. Consistent with this new identity is KKi’s partnership with The Great PNW (or, Pacific Northwest), a brand all about simplicity and the outdoors. Five years ago, the hand-crocheted products of KKi would have seemed ill-fitted for a collaboration with the hoodies and tees of the Great PNW, but KKi has undergone wide transformations in a short period of time. Although KKi still posts articles on their blog about the social impact of their products, the women in Uganda and Peru seem to have taken the back seat in the evolving brand identity.
And maybe that’s ok. If the products themselves are not attracting consumers, KKi needs to shift gears or else they will be unable to generate the revenue necessary to have a positive social impact. KKi seems to be responding to what consumers are saying with their wallets: when it comes down to the purchase, the product’s social cause is not a priority. This is evident when you click on the “Sale” tab of the KKi website. Most of the discounted products are the crocheted hats and scarves that the company was founded upon. Professor of Marketing at Notre Dame, Tonya Bradford says, “At the end of the day, what matters is that they must continue to train and pay the women [in Uganda and Peru], so they must focus on the products that are selling.”
KKi’s changing tides does not mean the women are left of out the equation – they just serve a different function in the company’s strategy. The women continue to be KKi’s primary beneficiaries, but they are no longer the competitive advantage. Professor Bradford sites the example of the Coca-Cola Company as an analogy. Water is the main ingredient of most Coca-Cola products, so it is fitting that the company spends millions of dollars on water conservation issues. But a consumer is not thinking about his or her contribution to water conservation when purchasing a Coke. That is why Coca-Cola’s over $3 billion advertising budget is spent promoting the the product itself, not imploring consumers to spend their dollar responsibly.
KKi is moving toward a more sustainable business plan by creating a brand identity that emphasizes the product, but in the process they should be rigorous in tracking their social impact. Despite most consumers ignoring a brand’s social mission, nearly 20% of Millennials will investigate a brand before a purchase to verify that they follow through on the mission they support. This represents a significant number of the consumer base KKi targets. For that reason KKi should be diligent in transparent monitoring and evaluation of their impact – if not only to ascertain that their own original purpose as a company is being fulfilled.