Ethical marketing (part II): transforming your value proposition into a collective promise for inclusive change


Ethical Marketing - Collective PromiseHaving a resonating value proposition lies at the centre of any successful organisational strategy. A value proposition needs to drive each action the organisation takes, from recruitment and product development to marketing, sales and customer service. And the process of building one, though not easy, is usually clear-cut: ask your customers what they need, make sure you meet those needs, and clearly communicate the unique benefits you bring.

However, in the space of social or environmental impact, this process can get a bit more complex. The basic formula stays the same, but when multiple audiences are involved and their needs and goals might vary, how do we build a proposition that really moves the needle and creates inclusive change? How do we make sure that it is the needs of the communities and the environment to which the organisation has dedicated itself to that are first and foremost met, while still garnering all the support needed to generate impact?

The answer should be simple. Make those needs a priority and stick to that decision at all times. But as we see time and again, in the pursuit for funding, many organisations tend to compromise this principle and prioritise the requirements of their donors or investors instead. This results in top-down approaches and unintended consequences.

Take the example of the failing clean cookstove development programmes addressing women around the world. In spite of the substantial funding over the years, the adoption rate is still extremely low. As Caroline Criado Pérez writes in her eye-opening book, ‘Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’: “Despite what academics, NGOs and expatriate technicians seem to think, the problem is not the women. It is the stoves: developers have consistently prioritised technical parameters such as fuel efficiency over the needs of the stove user, frequently leading users to reject them, explains [Emma] Crewe. And although the low adoption rate is a problem going back decades, development agencies have yet to crack the problem, for the very simple reason that they still haven’t got the hang of consulting women and then designing a product rather than enforcing a centralised design on them from above.”

Although this example is about product design, we know how inextricably linked design is with an organisation’s value proposition.

The case for a Collective Promise

In light of all this, what if we started thinking of value propositions more as collective promises? What if those promises were co-created with and guided by the people for whom the organisations were started in the first place?

No-one knows better what the real problem is than the people who are directly impacted by it. That’s why, a proposition that is likely to change the status quo of a group of people needs to be co-created with that exact same group of people. Besides it being a matter of respect and morality, it also makes economic sense in the long run. When a problem is deeply understood and people are invested in addressing it, better action can be taken, leading to better results and building proof that the action works. This in turn will attract increasing support and trust, which will help create change that lasts.

As mentioned in the previous blog post on ethical marketing principles, solid values rooted in a higher goal of a more just and sustainable world can only lead to change if they’re integrated in every decision made down the road. A higher goal related to social and environmental impact is about making sure that the humans and nature most impacted can thrive. And thriving can only take place when people own their stories.

As Anne Moraa, Co-Founder and Director of The LAM Sisterhood, said at the Partos Innovation event in October 2021, “No-one is an expert at somebody else’s life. [The guiding question should always be]: “Who are you really there for?”

Cause CanvasIn the Cause Canvas – a marketing strategy framework I’ve developed for purpose-driven organisations committed to addressing these issues – the first step after defining the Higher Goal is working with the Community Partners. Only afterwards, do we look at crafting a Collective Promise.

The Community Partners are the communities impacted by the current state of affairs. They are the actual drivers of the cause, the ones from whom we can continuously learn what is needed to accelerate change and who will lead the way to lasting impact. As Sarah Page, Communications Manager at Spark, stated at the Partos event, “All you need to be is a platform”.

Setting the stage for a Collective Promise

As mentioned, the Collective Promise can be developed after tuning into the Community Partners’ needs, goals and aspirations, listening actively and with humility, and truly grasping all the issues at play. This helps prevent a top-down approach or unintended consequences. In other words, it’s about asking: Is there agreement on whether there is a problem and what the problem exactly is? Is there a common understanding as to how the problem needs to be tackled? Ensuring that all voices are included (especially those of underprivileged groups who are so often overlooked) and looking at disaggregated data is key here.

In the Cause Canvas, the following guiding questions are suggested:

• What is the local sentiment about the status quo?
• What are the Community Partners’ needs, aspirations and motivations?
• What is the socio-economic, demographic, cultural, political and environmental context?
• What is the local interest in pursuing a new state of affairs?

The insights gained at this stage might also indicate a different direction to pursuing the Higher Goal than you initially had in mind, albeit conducive to the impact that matters most.

Developing a Collective Promise

In the Cause Canvas framework, the following questions are aimed at building a Collective Promise:

• What do you, together with the Community Partners, commit to doing in order to change the current state of affairs and move closer to the Higher Goal?
• What makes your promise different from those of other organisations (eg. novel approach, different angle, a more comprehensive approach, a different way of communicating)?
• How will you measure the fulfillment of the Collective Promise?

This exercise can help clarify the ‘Why’, ‘What’, ‘How’ and ‘Who’ of the promise. Articulating how the promise can contribute to the Higher Goal and how you’ll know that it has effectively done so will strengthen your ‘Why’ and ensure clarity and accountability.

Now back to the matter of garnering support to amplify our impact. Using the Collective Promise approach doesn’t mean that we don’t take into account the people and organisations that will support our cause. It merely means that any key message, as tailored as it needs to be, will be anchored in a clear, unwavering Collective Promise. This can be illustrated through the tree visualisation below.

Ethical Marketing - Collective Promise explained

Rooted in a Higher Goal and clear values, we build a Collective Promise with the Community Partners, the people at the core of our cause. From a strong and stable ‘trunk’, all other actions can grow and flourish: key messages for donors/supporters, concrete programmes, services and products development, promotional campaigns etc.

However, that’s not to say that the Collective Promise is a static element. It gets strengthened by a continuous dialogue with the Community Partners and the circular nature of the Cause Canvas, which encourages changemakers to integrate the insights gained at every step back into the model. This means that knowledge generated later in the process (eg. Action, Proof and Supporters) can further strengthen the Collective Promise but its principles will stay the same.

Download your copy of the Cause Canvas and start building your organisation’s Collective Promise today!

Also, stay tuned for my next post in the ethical marketing blog series and leave your comments below.


Published on 25 November 2021 by Laura Tufis. Updated on 27 September 2022.