Retail Insights

Poetry and the Fine Art of Altruism

As someone who enjoys writing, I’ve always taken to heart the idea that writing is like prostitution: First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends and finally you do it for money. I’m beginning to think that corporate altruism can be added the list of once joyous and heartfelt pursuits being retrofit into capitalist metrics. From my strategic perspective, it seems we’re in the “yellow wood” of Robert Frost’s famous poem of decision. In our version, three paths diverge in the Altruism Wood and we’re going to take a MapQuest spin through each of them: First, Authentic Differentiation; Second, Promotional Episodes; and Third and I hope it’s not too much foreshadowing to term it Cynical Me-Tooism.

Why a new third lane in the marketing forest? Because of the emerging truism: Millennials want to buy brands whose purpose they share. Seems right, right? However, our research shows very clearly there are two additional über hypotheses to consider:

  • We are entering a post-consumer marketplace. Those words should strike terror. What if there really is an emerging pervasive fatigue sucking the joy from the shoppers’ world? Contemplate those words for a moment. It’s an alternative explanation for the AWOL hordes formerly known as mall shoppers. Perhaps millennials are just the canaries in our empty coalmines of stuff. They are the early warning system of existential angst leading to consumption’s atrophy.
  • We have entered a post-demographic marketplace. Said another way, “It’s not just millennials folks.” We all want purpose in our lives. Freud says we seek significance. We used to get that feeling from buying “new and improved products” in the belief that “brighter colors and whiter whites” matter. Then, too there were the siren calls of purpose with those wealth-badging logos: The “look at me I’m carrying a $1500 status tote.” Equally, there were brands that served as emblems of personal knowledge, which expressed purpose. I’m looking at you, single malt scotches. But there is something else going on here in terms of meaning in our lives. As one colleague opined: “Boomers and millennials are mirror images of what they want – for different age-related reasons. Social justice was the battle cry for us in the 60s, as it is now, sans Vietnam war.” What if all consumers are seeking purpose and no longer finding it through purchase, or in a limited number of brands? Is there really meaning for anyone in spending money on stuff that is going to be in the landfill in six months? Purpose and meaning is not limited to 20-somethings; it is a post-demographic hope. It presents a new way of considering the marketer’s dilemma, e.g. which forest we must chose to forge a path through.

How Purpose Leads the Way Through the Woods

Authentic Differentiation is for sure a path “one less traveled by.” This is the form of altruism done “for the love of it.” It is also called Conscious Capitalism, and there is an organization dedicated to its principles. We can probably all name (on the fingers of one hand) significant brands which really walk the walk. Here are three: Newman’s Own (“100 percent profits to charity”), Toms Shoes (“One for One”) and Warby Parker (“For every pair purchased, a pair is distributed to someone in need”). In deep-dive consumer explorations (under hypnosis), Toms Shoes’ passionate customers tell us “I feel like they want to give shoes to people who need them and they need me to help, to buy shoes, so I do.”

You can feel the real in both the brand’s story and in the consumer’s response to it. It creates genuine (brand) love, as defined by no less than Aristotle: such love is composed of a single (brand) soul inhabiting two bodies. Look at the authentic differentiation websites. Strong ethics are led by great products. These brands are not asking us to make a trade-off in order to do the right thing. They are making it clear they know the right thing and they believe there are customers out there who know it too. But, let’s also be clear, these are not “category captains” in the CPG/grocery vernacular, nor are they market leaders in apparel or eyewear retailers. But they are thought leaders. And thought leaders are well out in front of the pack as bellwethers that ultimately shape our culture and values. To acknowledge the importance of that fact is to recognize these authentic “better for the world” brands are large enough to be vital, vibrant, growing business – and are nipping at the brand share heels of major category leaders.

Big Brands Make Short-Term Moves to Counter Companies’ Real Commitment

We see knock-offs to authentic companies’ appeal: brands respond through Promotional Episodes, aka marketing campaigns “for a few friends.” If you take a selfie using our product, we’ll send 50-cents to (name of organization). Or order a Negroni during one week of June and Campari will donate some money wherever you tell it to. Or, shop at Kmart during a specific period and it will encourage you to donate cash to St. Jude’s Hospital. In the aggregate, this effort has harvested $22 million, but the retailer is serving principally as a funnel for other peoples’ money.

Each of these promotions reflects the Hippocratic Oath of Marketing: They do no harm. But, they also rarely last very long. They are designed to drive short-term business growth goals. And it is fair game to suspect their authenticity. So, how can you tell authentic from promotional? It is pretty simple.

  • Is it part of the company’s core promise, not merely part of a specific brand’s marketing campaign? Toms may offer a short-term promotion to offer 15 percent discounts to students and teachers on a specific collection, but it never wavers from its “One for One” ethos.
  • Will it go away when leadership changes? Paul Newman died, but the company keeps his covenant. Warby Parker was founded by a couple of entrepreneurs in 2010. Do we think next gen C-suite execs will fiddle with its promise?

Altruism’s Dirty Little Secret: A Cynical Me-Tooism Repurposing in a Full Employment Economy

Now we move to the third road many companies take. In an economy slouching towards full employment, recruitment and retention becomes a more significant corporate goal than promotional sales bumps. So, we begin to see altruism repurposed to monetize its talent management appeal. These companies move the center of altruism from corporate to brand to human resources. If I can recruit better people and keep them longer because I have a “do well by doing good vision” and a riveting manifesto, well, gosh, that reduces my hiring and employee churn costs and sequentially my training budget. It inures me losing my best talent to competitors, since my company has altruistic ambitions.

These corporate shenanigans are easy to spot.

  • Where does the company showcase its “look at us” good guy personae? Corporate or brand website or in its separate foundation arm? You can easily spot a company using its ‘altruism’ for recruiting purposes. Is there a swagger in its ‘look at us’ braggadocio?
  • What type of volunteerism does the company feature? Does it donate ‘services in kind’ or reach out to genuinely help its employees engage and make a difference in their community or the world?
  • From which department is its altruism managed? A philanthropy or non-profit, or is it housed within human resources?

Yesteryear’s Thrilling Altruistic Innovations Become This Year’s Tablestakes

There’s a new audience on the horizon. The one tentatively titled Generation Z, estimated at roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population. It’s the one coming of age now, one eye on their smart phones and one eye on the social justice horizon. They aren’t going to pick a brand based on its features, benefits or philanthropic purpose. They are going to expect brands to behave well. It won’t be newsworthy to them that a company gives money to causes they both believe in; it will be Twitter-worthy when they don’t. Points are not going to be awarded for soft drink manufacturers worrying about the water supply, it will be SnapChat fodder when it becomes clear they don’t.

Our work shows this next audience has grown comfortable using its voice and has gained the sense of personal agency and impatience that comes from that. It’s therefore our belief that every company is going to have to stand for something beyond product performance and price. We need to choose the less traveled path now, because we are not ever coming back to running businesses that are short on purpose and meaning. It will make all the difference.

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