More and more startups are trying to use social responsibility as a business tool - as a way to stand out from the crowd and attract customers who prefer to do business with socially conscious companies. For these three companies, the strategy works.

Being Ethical Is a Business Advantage

“Given a choice between brands of comparable quality, a large percentage [of consumers] will choose the company they see as giving back or making the world better,” says Shel Horowitz, author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. With so many businesses today weighed down by a reputation of greed and lack of ethics, “those that clearly stand out as ethical have a decided advantage,” he explains.

That’s the path chosen by Mark Drake and Stephen Woodcock, the successful founders of imSMB, a Web hosting and design company. But they wanted to give back as well as prosper, so they created WebsiteHostingCampaign.com, a Web hosting company that donates $55 of each client’s Web hosting fees to charities listed on the site. “What better way to invite new businesses to host with us and service businesses that truly care about helping others?” Woodcock says.

“Small businesses want to give back - it’s rewarding and just feels right,” says imSMB co-founder Mark Drake. The charities, carefully selected by the founders, range from stopping animal cruelty to helping returning veterans.

Horowitz advises that differentiating yourself in the marketplace, especially for startups, is crucial. “If you’re just another widget-seller, there’s no reason" for customers to use your business, he explains. “However, if you can make your customer feel validated in his or her choices, or see themselves as better citizens of the world, you can leapfrog.”

Gardening and Volunteering

Being socially responsible also came naturally to the founders of SpareFoot, an online marketplace for self-storage unit reservations. “We saw great opportunities to give back to the community and work with fantastic organizations,” says co-founder Chuck Gordon. Gordon and Mario Feghali started SpareFoot in 2008 while they were both still in college. While looking for a place to store his belongings while he studied abroad in Singapore, Gordon realized people needed help finding affordable places to store their belongings. When he returned from Singapore, he and Feghali created the website, which is now the largest online storage directory network.

SpareFoot has raised its socially conscious profile by getting involved in gardening to raise produce for a children’s home, volunteering at a low-income elementary school, sponsoring an event to raise money for cancer-related causes, and offering a $5,000 college scholarship.

Making the World a Better Place - with Ads

When ad agency co-workers Shaun Walker and Reid Stone were laid off from their jobs, they knew that starting a plain old traditional ad agency wouldn’t cut it in today’s ultracompetitive environment. “Reid and I envisioned a new approach for advertising. HERO|farm is about more than doing work; it’s about doing our part to make the world a better place for everyone,” Walker says. The philosophy the entrepreneurs laid out for their new ad agency: “Do great work for good people.”

A cornerstone of HERO|farm is to do at least one campaign per year pro bono for a nonprofit, as well as to work with clients who have admirable missions of their own. “This approach makes our work more meaningful and enjoyable, eliminating the age-old ‘Is it 5 o’clock yet?’ syndrome,” Walker says.

But does it really matter to your clients or customers if you’re running a socially responsible company? Walker thinks so: “Clients like to know that you’re about more than just the bottom line. Connecting your work with a worthwhile endeavor makes it not only meaningful to those who work on it, but also more appealing to those who view or experience it.”

It’s crucial, however, to market these attributes so they don’t get lost in the clutter. “People will always care about social issues,” Walker says. “The key is making your message relevant or beneficial to them in some way, which is why we like to use guerrilla marketing as much as possible - intersecting with the public in unexpected, meaningful ways.”

What works for HERO|farm? “One of the best lessons for any company is to make the brand as humanistic as possible - meaning, give it a personality that people can relate to,” Walker says. “Why not stand out? If you’re not trying to change the world for the better or having some kind of positive impact on it, all you’re doing is taking up space.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.