This article is part of our coverage of Net Impact 2012. To follow along, visit this page.
By Erica Schlaikjer
“What is your true purpose, my friend?” asked Udaiyan Jatar to a panel of entrepreneurs at the Net Impact Conference in Baltimore.
He was leading a discussion on Transformational Innovation & Iconic Branding: Scaling Social & Business Impact.
His consulting company, Blue Earth Network, offers services in “transformational” innovation and branding to help clients succeed.
The panel provided three case studies of small brands doing big things, including a Belgian chocolatier, a homeless agency in Atlanta, and a Native American nation.
Jatar opened the discussion with an explanation of how to build a movement: “It’s about a great compelling idea that is adopted by humanity, whether it’s a product, service or solution,” he said.
So-called “transcendent brands” offer a superior product, with solid leadership, mass distribution, big investments, and heavy advertising and marketing. But there is a secret ingredient: “If you’re doing something disruptive and real, find those few people that are going to try something that you desperately need.”
He said transcendent brands always start small, and he encourages his clients to adopt the mantra of “think massive, start tiny, scale consciously.” This leads to lower risk, lower investment, a faster path to create scale, and sustainable loyalty.
Transcendent brands (or movement leaders) also put their followers at the center of their story, with calls to action like “Just do it” (Nike), “I have a dream” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) or “Gives you wings” (Red Bull).
Here are three examples of start-up social entrepreneurs, looking to make a bigger impact through iconic branding:
Case study #1: Sustainable fishery
Floyd Jourdain is the elected tribal chairman of the Red Lake band of Chippewa Indians, or “Ojibwe,” of northwestern Minnesota. The Blue Earth Network helped transform the brand of the Red Lake Nation to give it a sustainable corporate code, an accountable business model, and financial controls. In doing so, the tribe was able to “leapfrog” the typical exploitation model, so common to other indigenous groups, Jatar said, and sustain the tribe’s long-held respect for land and nature.
The Red Lake Nation contains one of the largest inland bodies of freshwater in America. Blue Earth Network helped the tribe create the Akina brand, a sustainable fishery that sells hand-caught Red Lake Walleye and ships it to customers in eco-friendly packaging.
The brand is based on the traditional philosophy that everybody in society has a role to play, and everyone is on an equal playing field. The goal of setting up the fishing business was not just to create jobs, but rather, thriving jobs.
As Jatar said, “It’s not just about selling fish, but about propagating a point of view on life, that we live our lives with honor and dignity.”
As a result of this shift in perspective, the number of people employed at Red Lake Nation’s Akina fisheries has grown from 15 to 100.
“It’s really an investment in the way people feel—working hard, feeling good and having pride,” Jourdain said. “We measure success that way.”
Case study #2: Chocolate shop
Walk down the chocolate aisle of any grocery store and you’ll notice the commoditization of the chocolate industry. There are many copycat products, all vying for customers’ attention. How do you break out of it?
Benoit de Bruyn, a bio-engineer turned Belgian chocolatier, re-branded his NEWTREE chocolate company to stand out from competitors.
His old brand focused too much on detail, listing out all the ingredients, claiming all the credentials of being organic and fair-trade, and, in general, being too product-centric.
With the new brand, NEWTREE shifted its focus from the product to the experience. As Jatar said, “It’s not about the chocolate; it’s about savoring life.”
The product packaging and company website quickly changed designs to reflect the new philosophy.
The company also opened the NEWTREE Cafe and Chocolate Shop in San Francisco, featuring recycled, repurposed, non-toxic and energy-efficient materials, to complement its eco-friendly treats.
After opening just four months ago, 50 percent of the cafe’s customers are regulars that come every day.
Case study #3: Homeless Shelter
Charles Edwards, president and CEO of the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency, wanted to break out of the typical homeless shelter model of giving food, clothing, donations and jobs. He wanted to change the “fix homelessness” mentality into one that “unleashed the power of people to thrive.”
One of the ways he does this is through the Veterans Employment Assistance Initiative, which supports homeless veterans in their efforts to re-enter the workforce program. The center also offers its CareerWorks, providing support for the job search process.
Edwards calls his clients “VIPs,” or Visionary Innovative Partners, recognizing their high potential. The center even offers a three-day curriculum to identify clients’ passions.
“These are very smart people; you cannot be stupid and survive on the streets,” Edwards said. One client, he adds, has the equivalent of a “PhD in getting services from homeless agencies.”
Edwards is proud to say that the job retention rate of the center’s VIPs is 75 percent after 180 days.