Two years ago, Kind, the healthy snack company, learned first-hand why most businesses don’t ask customers to do good deeds for them— and certainly don’t reward that behavior. "It just kind of ended up being a logistical nightmare," says Kristin Lane, the company’s associate communications manager. "We had people logging on and saying, ‘I gave my friend a glass of water.’ There was no quality control."
Those were the early days of a campaign the company was running called "Do the KIND Thing," which was an online platform meant to encourage folks to "pay it forward" in real life. Today, though, the experiment has shifted, transitioning from a warning story into a new kind of template for how companies might better harness the power of "social enterprise," that business model where for-profit brands get more buy-in from consumers because they exist for a larger, socially helpful purpose. It looked rocky at first, but Kind has found a way to give their customers a bigger emotional stake in the company by making them a part of larger feel-good missions. "It’s about humanizing people on the streets," says founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky. "We try to inspire unexpected acts of kindness from the people who you’d least expect it."
How? Let’s start with how not to do this first. In early 2010, the company, which makes snack bars from all-natural mixed nuts and dried fruits as opposed to other highly emulsified, artificial or ultra-chewy offerings, began directing customers to a website—kindmovement.com—via messaging on boxes and snack bar wrappers. There, they found a list of nonprofits representing about 150 different causes that needed funding. The idea was to do a good deed then log on, where your recorded good deed would count as a vote in support of your cause celebre. At the end of three months, the top three vote getters would share $40,000 in additional funding.
The problem: As charities rallied supporters, some gamed the system, focusing on quantity of deeds over quality to cast as many votes as possible. The bigger loss for the system was that as several front runners broke away in the voting, many people doing really authentic deeds lost interest, since their favorite had no chance. There was too much emphasis on competition and not enough on cooperating toward a greater good. In June 2010, Lubetzky realized that, though he had generated tens of thousands of acts of kindness, more wasn’t necessarily better. He shut down the operation to re-think it.
In February 2011, Kind tried again, re-launching in a more Groupon-like format. Each month, fans of the brand, called Kindaholics, can log on and commit to a Kinding Mission, one small but specific act like giving a warm beverage to someone else during the cold winter. If enough users commit to an action, the company will jump in with its own, thematically significant Big Kind Act, like donating a mass shipment of coats to homeless shelters. They often partner with recognizable charities like Soles 4 Souls or the National Breast Cancer Foundation. (And yes, Kind tends to use Kindtastic words to describe lots of things.)
Since the revamp, Kind’s volunteer corps has committed more than 200,000 now not-so-random deeds, inspiring 16 Big Kind Acts, reaching an estimated 500,000 people. Total cost to the company: about $200,000 annually. For Lubetzky, it’s a way to actually live out the company motto: "Do the KIND Thing for your body, your taste buds, and the world."
Of course, Lubetzky downplays whether the initiative is doing anything to boost the bottom line. "I don’t want anyone to think that we are doing this to sell more bars," he says. But that belies that fact that he is already a master of social enterprise. Lubetzky actually trademarked the phrase "not-ONLY-for-profit" more than a decade ago for another company, PeaceWorks, which seeks to inspire global peace by creating business ventures between historically polarized cultural groups like Israelis and Palestinians. Today, Kind bar sales are up 128% year over year, compared to just 17% overall among competitors, the company says. The brand has won prime shelf space at grocers like Whole Foods and mega-chains like Starbucks. "The brand will be stronger because people believe in the sincerity of our mission and our focus," Lubetzky adds. "And because the product is delicious."
But using Kindaholics as brand ambassadors is actually a triple win. It not only creates great word of mouth for the company, but there is emotional payback for both the good deed giver and receiver. "If you surprise someone with an act of kindness you make their day and really feel fulfilled," Lubetzky says.
Sales wise, none of that matters if there isn’t some way for potential customers to actually try the product. The initial Kind movement didn’t do that (perhaps another reason why the company was so quick to shut it down), but in the current version, the first 2,000 people to sign up for each monthly mission get the chance to send two free bars to friends. To be clear: That means that Kindaholics keep giving—not taking gratis product for themselves. "You don’t want to buy them off. It completely destroys the purpose of the kindness," Lubetzky says. Most individual campaigns average 15,000 actions while the threshold to tip it to the Big Kind Act is at about 7,000 sign-ups. To keep the pressure on, that bar increases by 10% monthly.
What happens if not enough people commit to an act? The company found that out in June 2011, when one of their more complicated directives—to give an orange to a person who provides you physical or emotional nourishment—drew fewer than 1,200 responses. In exchange, Kind was supposed to donate to hungry children at Washington D.C.’s Capitol Area Food Bank but now technically couldn’t. Rather than cover up the loss, Lubetzky posted prominently about it on their webpage. "If we want to treat people as our partners for making a better world then they need to be accountable for that," he says. The next month, people rallied. A mission to send a thank you note to someone who protects you received a record high of more 30,000 participants. That resulted a homecoming celebration for some veterans and a half million Kind bars being donated to current troops and veterans. (Kind also found a different way to still support the food bank behind the scenes.)
For Lubetzky, the incident taught another important lesson. Initially, he’d conceived of Kindings as very public, visual acts: If enough people are seen passing on oranges, others might realize there is something cool happening and want to get involved. But the more specific and overt an act is, the harder it is to accomplish. Today, most missions are kept general, giving people some leeway in how they are executed.
The company is now concentrating on building their community online instead. This June, they revamped their homepage, transitioning from a dashboard-like deed counter to a community "mosaic" with individual tiles that act like mini-diaries for their users. Click on one, and you can view uploaded photos, videos or anecdotes about the people and their missions. The new page also ties directly into Facebook for wider status updates.
User statistics and sales increases aside, Lubetzky doesn’t consider any of this a success yet. Eventually, he wants enough users that the little impacts combine to dwarf the company’s bigger acts. "In my vision we haven’t scratched the surface. We are way behind from where we need to be and not doing a good enough job to inspire it," he says. In other words, he’s open to failing more often, if it serves the greater good.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Kind bar sales are up 182% year over year. They are up 128%.