The trend of corporations engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR) is becoming more commonplace. For any company looking to get a PR boost, it has almost become a necessity.
Some, like Google carry out CSR through efficient energy usage with its Google Green initiative. Others choose to serve charities. For example, Facebook is helping charities receive more donations by adding a donate button to their Facebook pages.
Then there are companies founded on the sole purpose of promoting social causes, those who believe that startups can exist as an engine of positive change. In the US, you have Watsi, whose goal is to crowdfund medical treatment in developing countries. It partners with several charities, including the African Mission Healthcare Foundation, to achieve its aim.
Now in Singapore, e-commerce startup Gobob — launched in July 2015 — is following the same principle by helping big chain retailers and charities form a mutually beneficial relationship. Through assisting charities to receive more donations, these retailers get to fulfill their CSR objectives.
“We wanted to find a way to help non-profit organisations. Help them to receive more donations without having to organise too many fundraising events,” says Jason Song, Co-founder of Gobob, in an interview with e27.
Song, who is also a Co-founder of the branding agency Acre, first came up with the idea of Gobob after a trip to McDonald’s. He noticed that many McDonald’s outlets had a small coin box, designated for charities, by the counter, and most of the time they were filled with small change.
He wondered how much McDonald’s could realistically raise through these seemingly minuscule donations. He was surprised to learn that, in the US, they amounted to a few million dollars a year.
“We (Co-founder TY Cheng and I) realised the mechanism in place was based on leftovers or loose change. Generally, people do not like to carry loose change around, so they rather throw it away or donate it. We thought to ourselves ‘why don’t we work with merchants to give discounts to customers but instead of just offering rebates, we also give customers the choice to donate it to a charity?’,” explains Song.
Gobob partners with retail chains such as Fred Perry, Robinsons and Courts to sell customisable gift cards and vouchers. Customers who purchase these items accumulate credits that can be converted to cash rebates or donations to Singapore-based charities including Red Cross Singapore, Touch Community Services and the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore.
Gobob purchases gift cards and vouchers in bulk and receives a bulk discount from the retailers. They then pass on the savings to the customer in the form of rebates and donations.
“I serve quite extensively with Touch Community Services. It’s very intensive on labour and participation and there is a lot of money that has to be raised for dinners and things like that. So, why not tap into something which everybody is doing, which is shopping, and put giving into that experience?” he says.
Venturing into uncharted waters
As this was a still an untested concept, Song faced several hurdles, especially in convincing merchants to climb on board.
“For charities, it was really just about going through the different chains of command. For merchants, it was a whole different story. A lot of them said no to us, despite it being a good deal. We are buying vouchers in bulk and it’s up to us to sell them, so the risk is on us. But, still, they said no, because they are wary of the system,” he says.
Eventually, what sold certain retailers was the charitable angle of this business proposition. Robinsons, he says, was not incentivised by money, but by Gobob’s desire to spread goodwill.
“A lot of people sell gift cards, but no one does it with a charitable angle,” he says. “We are not changing the gifts you give your friend, we are changing the way you give it so that it benefits people in need of money.”
Song says that Gobob is not focussing too much on the probability angle. But that naturally creates restrictions on what can and cannot be done. Resource constraints mean that Gobob is not able spend heavily on marketing and PR.
To raise awareness of the startup, Song chose to partner with co-working space and incubator The Manhattan Project, which doesn’t charge its clients and instead gets some equity in return.
“Nelson from The Manhattan Project is helping us come up with marketing strategies. We are looking to market ourselves through digital and social media,” he says.
Gobob leveraged on its partnering charities to spread awareness through its electronic direct emails (EDMs). In addition, it collaborated with electronic magazine Majority Media to hand out retail vouchers as prizes.
Then, there are the conventional strategies such as the member referral incentives and the regular Facebook campaigns.
Last year, Gobob also organised a hairstyling event—similar to the annual ‘Shave for cancer’-called ‘Go bob’. The idea was that people would come and let hairstylists cut a ‘bob’ hairstyle.
“We managed to cut the hair of over 70 people. There were people who had cerebral palsy, wheelchair bound, coming in to get their hair cut. It really raised a lot of awareness. It’s not about the monetary transactions but the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labour,” says Song.
Forecasting the future
Song says that, currently, Gobob will be focussing on partnering with big retail chains that are too big to fail.
“It would not be good PR-wise if people buy vouchers only to find that these retailers have closed shop months later,” says Song.
It plans to seek funding from VCs at a later stage, but, for now, will be relying on organic growth by placing Gobob donation boxes on counters at retailers and other methods.
It will also be coming up with a concerted marketing campaign with The Manhattan Project. Ultimately, Song says, raising awareness about charities has to be a sustained campaign; one that grows with time and makes a long-lasting impact on the community.
“I believe that agencies can come to charities and create, like, advertisements and win awards but there is no long-term benefit, there is no vehicle that we can have a conversation with and there is no relationship. We want to open a conversation between corporations and charities. Be a mediator to create stories,” says Song.
He adds that many of its users are actually choosing to forgo the rebate in favour of the donation, so that is a positive trend.
“We plan to hit 100,000 users in one year, with each spending a minimum of SG$100 (US$70),” he says.
It is still too early to say whether Gobob will eventually expand exponentially or fizzle out. But Song is unfazed by failure.
He concludes with a quote from late American rapper Tupac Shakur:
“Doesn’t matter if what I’m saying doesn’t change the world, but if it sparks off something in someone else, and as long as it keeps sparking in someone else, it’s okay.
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