The Real Profit Potential of Business: Altruism

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\"rr_the-real-profit-potential\"One of the undeniable gravitational forces exerting pressure on marketing strategy right now is (Paul) Newman’s Law of Better Business Physics: Any brand at rest will remain at rest unless fully aligned to solve a social problem. The basic notion is that we can see the power of Newman’s Law in two dimensions: first, when millennials flock to it because (as every PowerPoint on the topic asserts) this cohort “shops their values;” and, second, when the company experiences the momentum and positive buzz enjoyed by firms with escalating recruitment and retention scores.

The business growth power of “doing well by doing good” has risen to the status of Unassailable Truth. We see it working in categories as diverse as Dawn dishwashing liquid (Love those duckies! Save those duckies!) to Warby Parker to Comcast. The logic is persuasive.


Along about July 8, 2016, David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece for “The New York Times” that basically put a question mark over the whole proposition. His thought: There are two types of human motivations, moral and economic. The conundrum is when we cross those two wires (as in “You buy this and we’ll do that good for the world”); we reduce the power of both, most particularly in the cause and effect of moral behaviors. We begin to denude the inherent power of moral behaviors by conflating them with economic gain. Eeck.

With this in mind, we began to explore the notion of the power of economic means to support moral goals. Does “the invisible hand” put its finger on one or the other side of the scale? Or is part of the diminishment in brand meaning and “better for the world” differentiation simply happening because these activities are becoming table stakes. Is it merely part of the chatter brands push out in the hopes that it might spark an actual conversation for some meaningful group of consumers? Is it simply a belief that, somehow, we can SnapChat our way to social significance?

What we found is that the more closely aligned to the brand’s mission the “better for the world” activities are, the less likely they are to be meaningful. Let’s pause to consider that because it so defies conventional wisdom. How best to understand it? Perhaps by example. When a company known for using massive amounts of water to make its products takes out a full-page ad to explain all the water treatment facilities it has constructed in many developing nations, it is part of the “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Of course, they have to do that. It’s good business practice. Why would consumers award better-for-us points for that?

Alternatively, when a company does something totally outside its normal purview and where its employees are obviously and profoundly engaged (think Target employees working in schools), then consumers decide to engage and support. Fascinating right? They’ll actually say, “I decided to shop at Target for my children’s back to school stuff because of that program.”

What we’re learning is that for people who personally engage in authentic good-for-the-world behaviors, the most exhilarating experiences are those which take them out of their day-in, day-out lives and fling them into flood ravaged waters to build houses for people they don’t know in towns they don’t even live in. The best experiences, most meaningful, most life altering are those, which are radically outside our normal lives. Ditto for brands.

This strategy-bending and provocative thesis says that to genuinely engage consumers with the brand, its better-for-the-world work must be wholly unrelated to its core mission and underlying competences.


Yes. It has to be genuinely altruistic. Noticeable not for its brand or business logic, but for its essential, well, illogic. Powerful for its emotional valiance: We need to honestly feel that something fresh and important is going on in our lives when we participate in the promotion or activity. It can’t be easy (“10 percent of what you spend goes to support XYZ today”). It can’t be silly (note to Walgreen’s Red Nose Day). It must be active and out-of-my-way (“Sign up and walk 10 miles for the cure”) vs. passive and financially driven (“Would you like to donate $1 to ABC today? Just tap yes on the check-out screen.”)

We found two even more difficult hurdles: First up, the program should involve not just the marketing budget but employees’ time and attention. What can this possibly mean? Well for starters, it means that the entire organization is willing to commit time and talent to the initiative. It’s not just an ad campaign or a borrowed interest promotion designed to spike sales on the backs of rescue dogs, veterans with PTSD, children with debilitating diseases or families living in poverty. Programs that pull at our heartstrings in order to get at our purse strings elicit guilt and sorrow, not optimism and the genuine joy of lending a hand to a stranger in need.

The best programs must also have some mechanism to measure impact. We’re not talking how much money was raised or miles walked, but how many homes and, therefore, families rebuilt? How many cancer trials funded and therefore lives lengthened? Schoolrooms painted and shined and therefore lessons learned.

We’re on the cusp of understanding even more. The trajectory of successful corporate altruism runs nearly perfectly parallel to consumer altruism, which is often learned through participation in church or school sponsored activities. There is a resistance at first, then a foot-dragging participation that somehow (through the acquisition of Girl Scout badges or parent subsidized read-a-thons to quality for an iPad drawing or the sheer power of “it’s not me” relief after volunteering at a homeless shelter dinner) gets us through to a genuine joy of doing something we see is actually having an impact. That’s the part non-profits, brands and businesses can each count on: We can trust there is a remarkable joy at the end of the day. Genuinely differentiating from nearly any other activity. Genuinely profitable in so many dimensions.

Paul Newman knew it. After all, what did a movie star know about making popcorn and salad dressing? And, yet. He relied on it. Now we can too.




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