Social Movements Change Business, But One Thing Hasn’t Changed


It’s OK to have a cause. Just don’t lose sight of why your customers are your customers.

That’s part of the message Derrick Feldmann delivered to a crowd of 50 Tuesday at San Francisco NewCo Presidio Institute. As founder of The Millennial Impact Project and author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, it’s his job to talk to activists, nonprofits and businesses who do good.

Feldmann and his team spoke to organizers of and participants in social movements and business, from #BlackLivesMatter and ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Patagonia and New Belgium Brewery.

Feldmann sees three kinds of companies in the cause and social movement space: Those executing a straight-up marketing campaign, social entrepreneurs who want to create a genuine social movement, and businesses that have woven social good into their company culture. The research team’s work started with more than 200 movements that occurred in the last five years, but focusing on campaigns that actually made change happen narrowed the list to around 60.

How do social movements affect business?

Feldmann answered that question by first stating that his team was unable to replicate studies that claim businesses can succeed on cause alone. A customer’s second or third purchase may be driven by a desire to support a cause but the first purchase will be because the product was popular or the right price. (Similarly, when it comes to employee retention, the team found that cause comes into consideration after pay and benefits.)

Your company may be asking too much of people if you expect them to buy solely based on cause, Feldmann said. Social entrepreneurs in particular have to keep this in mind. If you want to build a social movement that creates a sustained, positive impact, you’re going to need time. Human Rights Campaign’s red equal sign didn’t go viral because the organization got lucky. That moment was years in the making, Feldmann said, longer than a business can wait to start selling.

There are people who want to build a post-capitalist economy today after living through the 2008 financial crisis, but the factors that drive sales before and after remain the same. A cause is amazing. It’s hard not to make doing good a part of business today. Just don’t forget your customers’ primary motivators. They haven’t changed.

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