Marketing Challenge: Can We Profit From Poverty?

futurelab default header

by: Alain Thys

Every day thousands of people die from bad marketing.  Neither Google nor I remember where I read these words.  Perhaps I never read them at all. But as I was flying from Zurich to Amsterdam I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

I had just read about Sir Bob Geldof badgering a number of CEO’s on their moral obligation to get involved in poverty.  And while – bless him – he probably saved quite a few lives by guilting them into a donation, I doubt whether anything beyond “token money” will change hands.

Poverty – I thought – needed to get itself a marketing department which could think of better angles than guilt to make people, governments and brands part with their money.  It should pick the minds of the Godin’s, the Lafley’s and the thousands of other commercial pros which know how to move people beyond charity.

But then we get to the real problem

At the risk of losing your respect, brutal honesty requires me to say that this boy isn’t willing to give up his six digit income to go and help the poor.  Do I feel guilty about this?  Of course.  Do I buy off this guilt with the occasional donation?  Sure.  Do I admire those who make a difference?  Greatly.  Will I change my ways to head off to Africa or India on something else than a holiday?  No.

And from conversations I’ve had, many executives I know feel the same.  Something could and should be done, yet it’s always someone else who needs to do the doing. No money means no time.

And that’s when I had an idea

What if we could turn the problem into an opportunity?  What if we would stop looking at solving poverty as a cost or a moral obligation.  Learn from today’s green movement and see it as a way to make money?

Only a few years ago, “being green” was something for world-weary activists.  Mentioning the G word in a boardroom would have gotten you some pretty weird looks.  Today, we have reached the point where people declare being green as an inevitability.

What happened in the middle is that entrepreneurs, VC’s and the finance community started seeing the money in being green.  Money because consumers would like you better, money because you could have a positive ROI on green investments, money because the government gave a hand in creating an ever bigger market.

And while some could argue that the Silicon Valley bubble merchants are going into overdrive again, the net result is that the last 3 years more has been achieved on the eco-front than the decades before.

So what if …

… we’d assume that Al Gore and his friends will take care of the environment (

and focused our efforts on doing the same for poverty?  What if we could find and promote business models which allowed entrepreneurs and financiers to actually get rich from helping the poor. 

There is plenty of room for this. That consumers want companies to play it straight has been proven once again with Starbucks 180° on Ethiopian coffee.  But on the positive side, think of the opportunity presented in Prahalad’s seminal work about the bottom of the pyramid.  Think of the Digital Provide.  Think about the opportunities in micro-financing.  Think about the fact that the Peruvian economist De Soto identified that Peru’s poor own assets of ca. $ 60-70 billion, yet can’t leverage these because of insufficient property legislation preventing them to get mortgages or other forms of debt to build their business.

But even on a smaller scale, there is room.  Just imagine that:

  • would provide financiers with a market interest rate.  Would they be able to unleash real savings rather than the typical € 50 donation?  Would major banks like Credit Agricole or CitiGroup start offering the product at retail (note that I realise that Citi is already contributing, yet the point is about thinking commercially about it)
  • Alchemy world in Ethopia started a fund offering unsecured debt or even convertibles to sophisticated financial investors seeking to spread their portfolio.  Would the esotheric investment players in the London City or on Wall Street play ball?  If hedge funds already diversify into venture capital because they’re too flush with cash, a few percent can go a long way.

I voiced these thoughts to a banker who basically told me he found it morally repulsive to make money from people who survived on only a few euro’s per day.  I also know of a number of major corporations who are doing great things, yet avoid publicity for fear of being condemned.  But if the alternative to profiting from poverty is not helping the poor at all … I don’t know.

I believe that as long as poverty stays in the corner of Corporate Social Responsibility, “real money” won’t hit the streets of Bahar Dar.  And be honest, would you like it if the companies where you invested your pension fund would suddenly started donating billions to developing nations?  Of course you wouldn’t.  Yet if they could demonstrate this move was actually a shrewd investment, would you mind making money and doing some good in the process?

So here’s my marketing challenge…

There is great work being done by NGO’s in the area of profit alleviation, and we should all give them our continued support.  Yet as long as there isn’t a serious movement to change the dialogue to unleash some “real money”, I have the feeling things are going too slow.

So, if all of us are so damn’ good at marketing and finding new opportunities for making money, can’t we prove the case for poverty?  In the presentation below I’ve put my call to action.

If you think I’m on to something, …

… join the conversation.  Look at the data, write a blogpost, speak, think, communicate.  Go tag bloggers who’s opinion you value and respect.  Contribute your 2 cents on a how business models for poverty could work.  Establish the ethical boundaries of what is and just isn’t done.  Propose ways for money flows to be organised.  

This type of thing is too big for any one individual and it either goes viral to become a meme or it dies.

And if you think I’m mad or – to quote Guy – full of Bull-Shitake …

… you can simply let this post drown in Technorati’s blogpool.  At least I know I gave it a try.