Marketing by social enterprises – same as private sector?

By | September 21, 2013

One of the chapters in the Erasmus Mundus social economy project handbook deals with ‘modus operandi’ of social enterprises: how do social enterprises work and what differentiates them from other economic systems? Friend of the project Madeline Powell, a PhD student at York University, is researching marketing in social enterprises in the social care sector and has written this overview of her ongoing research as a guest contribution to the blog. Please ‘leave a reply’ below for comments.

Research looking at the state of marketing within the social enterprise sector is limited at best and even less focus has been paid to social enterprises that operate within the social care sector.  Specifically, those social enterprises which help disadvantaged groups, such as people with learning, mental and physical disabilities, gain employment and transferrable skills which can be used to help them give back to their community. This is an especially important area to be researched as these groups are far less likely to be employed than non-disabled people. Recent figures from 2012 show that only 46.3% of working age disabled people are in employment compared with 76.4% of working age non-disabled people (Office for Disability Issues, 2012). Of those disabled people, figures from 2011 show that the employment rates were lowest for those who had severe learning difficulties, those with mental illnesses or nervous disorders and those with depression or anxiety (Office for National Statistics, 2011). These organisations provide a vital route for disabled people to gain access to employment though helping their community and learning new skills. Yet there is a clear gap in the literature which looks at strategies to help these enterprises remain sustainable business units. As the UK government continues to highlight the important role these social enterprises play in providing services to local communities there is a need for strategies to be developed to which are specific to them to ensure their survival. This could help these enterprises remain sustainable and deliver their services more effectively; marketing is one of these areas which my PhD research aims to look at. My sampling framework is looking at eight different cases; two rural early start-ups, two rural long standing social enterprises, two urban start-ups and two urban long standing social enterprises.

So the first question to be asked is, do social enterprises conduct marketing? My research would suggest yes they do, but it is not what the textbook definition of marketing would define; what they are actually doing is more spontaneous than that. Whilst I would agree that some of the enterprises I conducted research with lacked key skills in marketing and business and further improvements needed to be made in terms of planning and the execution of their marketing plans, marketing is prevalent. When contacting many of cases they assumed they did no marketing but upon meeting and interviewing them it was clear that marketing was being conducted but not perhaps in the traditional sense of the ‘four P’s’. Yet, upon speaking with the enterprises it was clear that this is what they thought they have to do in terms of marketing and this is not surprising as much of the skills training available to these enterprises is around this concept.

Whilst I do acknowledge that some of the more successful cases I researched did have marketing more deeply embedded within the organisation (due to more active acknowledgement of the marketing) and was thus more effective than others, each case did do some form of marketing, even if they were not aware of it. What social enterprises within this sector have to improve on is being more actively aware of the marketing they do, how successful it has been and ways that it can be improved.  The results of my research are still in its early stages, yet there is evidence to suggest that the marketing they do is based around who they know within the community and how they utilise those relationships, this is especially prevalent within the rural social enterprises.  What is interesting, however, is that a lot of training which is offered to these social enterprises is based upon manufacturing marketing, the four P’s; price, place, promotion and product and yet these organisations are not private businesses, and a lot of the training provided is inappropriate to the structure of these enterprises. Most of the social enterprises operating within this area are delivering services and there is a service dominant body of work within the literature that could support them. Furthermore, what is needed is skills training which is specific to the structure and philosophy of these organisations, but before this can be developed, there needs to be an understanding of what type of marketing is appropriate to both social and economic aims of these organisations which my research aims to do.


Office For Disability Issues (2012) Disability Facts and Figures [Online]. Available at (Accessed 10/09/2013).

Office for National Statistics (2011) People with Disabilities in the Labour Market [Online]. Available at (Accessed 10/09/2013).