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Altruism – The Holy Grail for Brands in 2020 and Beyond

Altruism Image

23 July 2020 – Altruism is not a new concept for brands. There has been much discussion about being purpose-led and ‘having heart’ at the core of a business model, but never before has this been more important than during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

As far back as 2013, marketing titles were trumpeting the value of cause-related marketing. In the pandemic era, when memes and pithy internet quotes alike are calling for kindness, it could be argued that only tone-deaf organisations turn a blind eye. But what does this mean for marketers now and in the foreseeable future?

Any doubt that an altruistic image affects consumer behaviour can be dismissed with the outcomes of a study conducted in Taiwan. Authors Chun-Tuan Chang, Xing-Yu, Chu and I-Tin Tsai asked consumers if their attitudes and purchase intentions were influenced by cause-marketing campaigns, and the response was unequivocal. “When consumers perceive the company’s motives as altruistic, they form a more positive attitude toward the brand and a stronger purchase intention. Their actual purchase behaviour also reflects similar patterns,” they wrote.

Of course, theory is one thing, practice quite another. Before COVID-19 was on everyone’s lips, the second greatest disaster of 2020, the Australian bushfires, gave local companies an opportunity to express humanity with a marketing exercise that became a movement.

Most companies started with a social media post detailing a promotion which saw a percentage of sales going towards fighting the fires; yes, they got to do business – and soaring business at that, because consumers could address their needs while helping others simultaneously. But more than this, the companies emerged not only as purveyors of goods but also as national heroes. It was, as anchordigital.com.au put it, a “win-win-win” because Australia’s fire-fighting organisations got to benefit, too.

Those companies that get altruism right reap significant rewards, as the same website points out, citing Jaden Smith’s JUST Water as a great example: valued at $100 million, he’s making money while also ensuring communities have clean water, thanks to its Water Box offering.

Clearly, this is a company that has ‘good’ built into its DNA – but some companies are getting it hopelessly wrong. Usually, the mistakes they’re making are basic by being flippant, irrelevant or downright inauthentic. Of course, there are times when this tone is exactly what you want, but when you’re trying to appeal to people who are feeling vulnerable, jokes may alienate consumers rather than be seen as endearing.

Brand communication that serves best is succinct, informative and genuine. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s honest – blurring the lines, or making claims that you don’t intend to remain true to, is not likely to be forgiven or forgotten. If you’ve advised consumers that you’re donating a certain percentage of your profits, make sure you do so. So, if there’s even the slightest chance that you’re not going to be able to follow through, don’t make a claim in the first place.

Sometimes, it’s not the message that matters – it’s the medium. Naturally, there’s a hashtag for this: #StopHateForProfit. Suffice to say, if companies like Coca-Cola, Honda and Unilever are saying ‘no thanks’ to Facebook because of its policies around hate speech, there’s a good case for considering how an appearance on social media platforms might impact your brand’s image. Interestingly the criteria for considering media channels is shifting; it is becoming more and more about the brand fit (ideologies and philosophies) and not only about how effectively brands can reach their target audience.

Finally, the old adage about being able to tell a lot about people from how they treat the waiter holds true for organisations, too – although, in this case, consumers are looking at how you treat your staff. It’s all very well to promise to work towards the greater good, but if you’re retrenching, forcing pay cuts and generally not caring about your staff, it doesn’t matter how many entities are benefiting from your actions. After all, charity begins at home.

The golden rules: marketing and brand communication, like everything else, is likely to be changed through this pandemic. Those brands that seek to embody the values that we have increasingly come to cherish – like kindness – are expected to survive, so long as these are reflected within the context of existing brand essence and values. People will always remember who was in their corner during a crisis, while those that showed true colours, which turned out to be less than appealing, will feel the pinch in the pocket.

The Bedroom at Arles

The Bedroom at Arles

It was given to me to be in its presence twice:- once at the Van Gogh House in Amsterdam and once at the National Gallery in Canberra.  Both times I was under severe strain.  In Amsterdam, my anxiety came from being part of a group who thought that 48 hours in Amsterdam demanded more earthly forays into the sort of pleasure you seek when you are 22 years old and have the run of a city famous for its pleasures on display for the ultimate select before you pay.  In Canberra, the stress came from having only 5 hours to see an entire collection of Impressionists on a tour of the world, courtesy of the French Cultural Attaché office in Paris.

Apart from those two opportunities, I must have spent countless more hours pouring over pictures of the painting since spotting it the first time as a junior school kid on a Free State farm when my sister finished her degree and came home with all her books.  These books introduced me to lots of new ideas, including some stuff from the psychology textbooks entirely appropriate reading for children my age.  The art appreciation volumes kept my attention longer though and started my fascination with the bedroom (I am talking about the one in Arles for those of you who thought I was still in the psychology textbooks or on the tour in Amsterdam) which is still with me 55 years later.

Why the angle of the floor?  Why the chair turned to the door?  Should the bed have been so obviously uncomfortable, narrow and not made for sleeping in?  The blues and yellows in a sad picture which is so obviously trying to be colour happy?  Why?  Why? Why?

I now know some of the answers to some of the questions.  Not remotely all of the answers, because for a painting like this the learning potential inherent in the flat piece of canvas could take an entire lifetime of discovery.  In the typical state of mind induced by the Tocqueville paradox, I know that if I had known then what I know now, the painting and being in its presence on those two occasions would have been immensely more enriching.  What I needed at the time was a preview experience which would have sensitised me to the things to look out for in the painting before seeing it.  Not Wikipedia … please not Wikipedia.  Not a YouTube video done by someone who thinks they know everything and whose stuff we feel compelled to watch because their sense of naiveté is so touchingly endearing.  Not a 4-week Coursera course which is so intent on pleasing everybody that it ends up pleasing only those who would have felt thus about anything they had been “taught”.  Something deeper, better, and more insightful than what these options would have been able to afford me.

My chances of being in the presence of “The Bedroom at Arles” again are practically zero now.  But if there was a chance of it happening again, I would have wanted a binge-watch opportunity from something like Showmax.  Just 15 minutes of undiluted and indulgent listening to people who really know the bedroom while they point out the hidden subtleties; the slope of the floor, the colours of the curtain, and bedstead, yes … but also the Provencal landscape features visible through the open window and the reasons for the washstand.

The need for continuous adult learning is now so real that it is no longer something only people who want more than splendid senility in a retirement home is talking about.  It is something we instinctively know we all need.  Adults have been exposed to learning new ways of doing things over the past few months while COVID-19 ravaged our world of languid security in the spaces we thought we controlled.  The world of learning, however, thinks that this need could be satisfied with what we have on offer now: classes to show grandpa how to make sourdough bread and one of those yobs who has found a way of subsisting on restaurant scraps while also keeping 50 high-production hens fed on what even he could not eat and now thinks to have a Go-Pro and an incoherent theory on how to save the world makes for time on YouTube.

While the pandemic did give Showmax and Netflix the boost these companies could not have executive managed themselves, it also made us aware of the lack of something out there which could respond to our need for serious information about something as life-changing as being able to be in the presence of “The Bedroom at Arles”.  A University of Binge which could, in 15 minutes of screen-time, give us what we need to know about brands and branding, introduce us to segmentation and why it is a lifeline for a struggling business, and divine the essentials of logistics to help us know how it is different from what it was before COVID, the core requirements for a really effective supply chain even when China has its next virus ready for export, and so much more that could be classified as serious information ready for adult learning in an idle 15 minutes before an important business meeting or while waiting for our chance to pitch for a project we need to have a bit of a knowledge edge on.

This is the type of learning which should be available to anyone with 50 US to spare and the need to spend it on something which will make them a better person with more knowledge than they had 15 minutes ago.  It is also the knowledge that is not available at the moment and a gap in the market for anyone with a useable platform and an inclination to impart knowledge.