Lessons in building a brand that exists for social good
Photo credit: WaterAid Ernest Randriarimalala
Whenever I walk into a restaurant and see a Belu water bottle it makes me smile. I’ve long been an admirer of the brand, which sells ethical water products and donates 100% of its profits to Water Aid.
Nine years ago Karen Lynch left corporate life to join the then struggling social enterprise as a Marketing Director. She was soon promoted to CEO and has since turned the business around, creating a highly profitable, multi award winning enterprise, which has to date donated over £4m to Water Aid (having this year announced a record £1m donation).
Five minutes into my conversation with Karen and I could see why she has been so successful. Radiating determination and fiery confidence, she has achieved absolute clarity in the Belu brand and its mission to transform lives with clean water.
Lesson 1: It’s all about your brand
“We don’t think of marketing as a department or a function; our whole business operates through a marketing lens.”
Astute words from Karen that kicked off our chat. When she first joined Belu, Karen developed a set of values to guide every business decision. Since then, she has ensured everything they do is genuinely led by the brand and aligned to their mission to deliver long term environmental impact.
When it comes to marketing, they are incredibly disciplined and targeted in everything they do. Every commercial decision involving expenditure also represents a strategic brand investment: marketing is at the very core of their business model.
Karen is a firm believer in the importance of transparency, so prioritises budget on evidencing their impact. They use World Water Day in March each year to announce their results, publish audited detailed accounts online, have their carbon footprint measured, and share clear impact reports annually. As a social enterprise, if you can evidence your impact then you have the foundation to consistently tell a robust brand story. Data is the key to confident communications in a world where educated customers demand unwavering integrity.
Lesson 2: Don’t let distractions diminish your focus
“We can’t compete with the big global players like Evian and San Pellegrino like for like, so needed to change the rules of the game. For us it was about saying UK hospitality is our lead and focusing all our marketing efforts in that sector.”
Karen told me that the best strategic marketing decision she ever made was deciding to focus on the hotel, restaurant and catering (‘Horeca’) sector. She steered clear of creating a high-volume low margin supermarket brand, where a small social enterprise would struggle to compete. The Horeca sector represented a much better fit for the Belu brand, where they do not compete on price, but instead only work with like-minded customers who engage with their mission.
The temptation to go after short term profits can undermine long-term impact, so it’s vital to be strategic about who you market your products to. Karen tactically markets to a sector where there’s a clear opportunity, and hasn’t let distractions diminish this core focus of the business.
Lesson 3: Turn your customers into your partners
“People are always surprised at how small we are – there’s 9 of us, we all work flexibly and half of us work part time. We seem big because people say they see us everywhere.”
As a small business, Belu manages to successfully extend their reach by turning their customers into partners. They achieve this by working closely with sustainable restaurant associations, where they can collaborate with like-minded businesses. They also work with customers to develop the stories of their impact to share with their own audiences. A story told by a customer is significantly more powerful than a story being told by the brand itself.
They have also partnered with customers to create special editions of the brand, recently working with Cobra in a partnership that led to 20,000 cases worth of product sales (and in turn, free marketing).
Karen will only work with customers who buy into the Belu mission and who will create long term value, standing by the ethos that if you create a brand that people want to work with, then the right customers will come to you. Creating a network of brand ambassadors through your partners will empower them to do your marketing for you.
Lesson 4: Embrace innovation
The thriving Belu business is continuing to break new ground, now focusing on an innovative new filtration initiative. Working with restaurants to supply filtration systems and water bottles, each time a filtered bottle is served to a table the customer donates £1 to Belu. It’s a simple scheme but one that has huge potential across the restaurant and hotel industry. The pioneering idea has already been recognised, recently winning a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in innovation.
We all know that for any business to be sustainable it must continually innovate. Not only will this keep you one step ahead of your competitors, but it will foster creativity and ensure you continue to build your brand. “The filtration initiative provides a great opportunity to all work together, invest a little bit and something amazing happens”, Karen shared with me.
With Karen leading the charge, I have no doubt amazing things will continue to happen for Belu – I can’t wait to see what comes next in their story.