Corporate Courtships: How Social Businesses Can Seal the Deal

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There was no shortage of causes to help when Tyler Merrick started a new social business back in 2008, so he decided to tackle seven areas of need: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, teaching children, quenching the thirsty with clean water, counseling a child of war and planting trees to save the earth.

His idea for what became known as Project 7 sounded simple enough—sell everyday, on-the-go products like gum, mint and bottled water then contribute a portion of the profits to partner nonprofits that had proven track records for creating impact. But Merrick also knew that he needed to find willing retail and manufacturing partners who could scale that impact to the next level.

Enter certain Wal-Mart, Caribou Coffee and W Hotel locations, which have each sold some of Project 7’s products. The latest partnership includes Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s (DPSG) 7UP brand, which has included a unique code under the caps of specially marked soda bottles that can be used to unlock a donation by consumers who get to choose the cause they feel most strongly about. It's a sign that corporate America is now courting small social enterprises, and organizations have certain considerations to keep in mind before forging a new partnership. Merrick and Dave Falk, DPSG’s vice president of marketing, explain.

Typically what’s your strategy when you approach a company for a possible partnership?
Merrick: We’re pitching retailers all the time, trying to get on their shelves. I’ll do that through networking, relationships, cold calling, sending samples, tradeshows. It’s a mixed bag and usually takes multiple trials, and sometimes restraining orders—“please don’t contact us again.” I’ve had that happen. But then I’ve had them change their mind. It’s about taking that rejection with grace, because you never want to burn a bridge.

So how did you get Project 7 partnered up with the 7UP brand?
Merrick: They ended up reaching out on their own.

Falk: We were doing a lot of work around the passion points of 7UP consumers and millennials, and impact was one that really came up. We discovered Tyler and Project 7 and reached out and started cultivating the relationship. We thought it was a perfect marriage in terms of making an impact.

Yet you said it took more than a year of “dating”—discussing, brainstorming and collaborating—before this initiative launched. What concerns did you each have?
Falk: We’re obviously a large brand and Project 7 is up and coming. To me, that was very appealing but definitely something we looked at: What are the differences between an established cause platform versus something like Project 7? But we definitely feel it [has] the right value.

Merrick: I wanted to structure a partnership with someone [where], really, there was authenticity behind what they were doing, especially when you go to a larger, corporate relationship… The trust factor of human relationships is a lot of what it comes down to—do I like working with these people? Are they who they say they are?

Dr Pepper Snapple Group often gets pitched by social businesses. What is it that the company looks for in a potential partner?
Falk: The authenticity. The key is to be authentic to the brand that you’re representing. It’s got to look legitimate. If you’re just looking at it visual effect, consumers will see right through that. Also, in terms of the partner, openness to the back-and-forth, because it is a partnership and your end game has to be the same in terms of wanting to make an impact and difference. If those aren’t tied together it becomes a flash in the pan.

And, Tyler, what lessons have you learned that could help other social entrepreneurs as they consider pursuing a partnership?
Merrick: Just the [importance of] the actual consistency of proving out something in certain markets and certain retailers, and building a good foundation there. You may have an opportunity to go into all these places and do all these things—that carrot is always shiny—so be careful and methodical. Not every opportunity is a great opportunity.  

Then, as far as trying to find the right partner, be diligent. Take time with it because when you’re dealing with larger organizations as an entrepreneur a lot of times you’re a tugboat at sea and you’re like, “I can get around this cruise ship so fast. I can see where we need to go.” But there are things they bring to the table that make you a better social entrepreneur, and if it doesn’t feel that way, don’t be afraid to walk away.

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