To Sell Products That Help The World, Convince Consumers That They're Helping Themselves

People are selfish. If you want to get them interested, appeal to their self-interest, not their desire to do good.

If you are one of the many retailers that believes being a good corporate citizen will help you sell more products, then we have a little secret to share with you. Despite what the numerous surveys will tell you about consumers rewarding companies for being good corporate citizens, the truth is not nearly as simple or as obvious as they suggest.

Because what people say and do is often very different, especially when it comes to social causes. Consumers’ desire for a certain type of brand, or color, or fit drives much more of their purchasing habits than whether or not the company gives back to community. So if you are interested in selling more products using cause as a driver, then it’s time to get real and appeal much more to consumers’ self-interest than to their desire to do good. Disingenuous? Unethical? Just plain wrong you say? Read on.

We do not do as we say

The anthropologist Margaret Mead famously noted that "what people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things." So believing at face value that consumers will support your companies’ products and services simply because you are a generous corporate citizen is not true. This may seem counter intuitive to Cone Communications’ recent Holiday Trend Survey that states that 71% of Americans would purchase a product that supports a cause over one that does not; or Edelman’s Good Purpose Survey that tells you that 76% of global consumers will buy products or services from companies that support a good cause; or Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands Survey that says 71% of consumers want companies involved in solving social problems. And it’s not that people don’t believe this to be true, because on the surface, without having to deal with trade offs tied to price, quality or preference, it is true.

But consider this. If these survey results are accurate, why is it that peoples’ stated concern for the environment does not translate to individuals buying cleaner cars? And why does our widespread support for fair trade products not translate into meaningful fair trade sales (accounts for little more than 0.01% of global trade.)? And why wasn’t the red iPod that contributed to the Global AIDS Fund the top selling product from Apple? Because our desire to do good and our willingness to act on it are not completely aligned.

So if you are truly motivated to sell product and do good, it’s time to appeal to consumers’ self-interest. It’s time to get over the charity hangover that says giving must be pure and embrace the fact that self-interest can and must drive pro social consumer behavior. Here are three ways this can be achieved:

1: Direct Personal Benefit

Don’t be shy. Don’t feel guilty. Offering consumers something directly beneficial for purchasing a product with a social good attached is perfectly all right. In fact, if you are creating social impact, benefiting your consumer beyond the feel good is a scalable way to accomplish this. So embrace the marketing tradition of discounts, free products, exclusive offers, and loyalty points as a thank you for engaging in your cause marketing promotion because they are more likely to take part if there is something in it for them.

AARP is a case in point. Yes, they advocate for seniors’ rights and interests, but the reason people sign on as members has more to do with the benefits they offer. As Peter Murray concludes in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, the success of AARP lies in building membership, making money and swaying public policy via access to discounts, insurance, travel advice, financial services and free subscriptions to the magazine.

2: Social Status

As individuals, we strongly seek social approval. So why not play into this when it comes to the purchases we make? If we can literally wear our social consciousness as a "badge of honor", why not play this up? TOMS Shoes has built its entire model on this premise, as has Warby Parker and FEED. Caring about kids in the developing world, restoring eyesight and addressing hunger is admirable and cool, so why not allow us to wear our caring on our sleeve, face and feet?

This is supported by the fact that people will act more pro-socially in public rather than in private settings. In "Doing Good or Doing Well?" behavioral scientist Dan Ariely confirms that people are more charitable if their donations are public and that people very seldom give anonymously to charities. So the more companies and brands design their products and cause marketing campaign with the ability for consumers to flaunt their association with the cause, the more successful they are likely to be.

3: Prestige and Recognition

Consumers have a strong desire to associate with people and organizations perceived to be of high social status. Think of your own experience with name-dropping. How often have you found people telling you of all the important people they know? Studies have shown people use name-dropping and other ingratiation tactics to gain more social status and power. And the same can be done with products and promotions.

A good example is Freitag, a Swiss company started by designers Daniel and Markus Freitag, who came up with the idea to use old truck tarpaulins, car safety belts and bicycle inner tubes as the main materials for their bags. The idea was so good that the Freitag bag has made its way into the Museum of Modern Art. While the company makes a massive social and environmental impact from recycling vast amounts of material, sales are driven by the prestige associated with possessing their high quality, innovative products. As Markus Freitag pointed out "Our surname has become a real brand. In a way that's great, but it's also worrying to see people buying a bag merely because the word 'Freitag' is written on it. Now some customers don't even care that the bags are made of old truck tarps.",

Embracing Shared Interest

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." We believe that the same applies to supporting social and environmental causes. Companies need to find meaningful ways to align their cause initiatives with the self-interests of consumers. We call this "profitable good" and while it may feel strange to reward consumers beyond the feel good effect of the cause, it is the only way to drive meaningful and scalable social impact and sales.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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  • Don Nasca

    I agree that good works need to fill real needs and wants of consumers. I don't agree with the premise that people are selfish; therefore we need to sell them products and services to fill their selfish desires. Some people are selfish, many are just too busy or lack the skills to find the optimal product.

    Charitable donors are mostly driven by the cause and the tax deduction. I also agree that buyers of products and services who care about using their dollars in the most socially and environmentally conscious way clearly want to identify with brands that show they are putting their money where their mouth is. Again, I do not think the issue is simply appealing to selfish desires.

    Personally, I have been searching for products that come from local suppliers and sadly, they are not visible. It takes endless research and research takes time and nobody has time to spare. I would gladly pay 20% more for items that did not come from China!

  • I loved this article, I find it particularly difficult to convince my non-profit clients that the mission has to reach in a consumer model as well. Take for instance what we did in the 90's in Austin.

    We appealed to the donor in two ways, improved education trips, meant that the schools would not have to ask for more money to handle dropouts, etc. AND because the kids were on constructive trips during the summer, divergent behavior was minimized....we won awards for thinking like that.... and it is still relevant today. Thanks for the inspiration much needed.

  • Jull Sanders

    Maybe I am wrong, but I know several people making donations anonymously and disliking the idea of being disclosed, I also know people, who are against charity and are not likely at all to purchase products which support a cause. I mean that they will definitely buy what they really need, but independently of the fact whether it is for charity purposes or not. I myself become a bit irritated with such offers and somewhat repulsive to buy anything imposed in such a way for me. Jull from http://personalmoneyservice.com/short-term-loans/

  • Nikolai Erland

    A very good article. Loved it! Gained so much important information about how to advertise and manage products. Thanks alot :D !

  • Nikolai Erland

    A very good article. I loved it and gained much information that I can you in the future. Thanks :D !

  • Reminds me of a startup I saw recently that sells artworks and also gives to charitable causes, appealing to the buyers desire for a unique luxury good such as art, but then giving back to a charity so they feel even better about purchasing that artwork for their walls. The startup was Fenumbra (fenumbra.com), I believe they are still in beta.

  • It seems that the disconnect between what is said and what is done is that there is an invisible assumption being made at the beginning of each question in every survey. For example, the question, "Would you purchase a product that supports a cause over one that does not?" is interpreted as "All other things being equal, would you purchase a product that supports a cause over one that does not?" and answered as such.

    It would be more wise, then, for studies to focus on what other differences consumers would be willing to tolerate when evaluating a cause-benefiting purchase vs a regular purchase.

  • Claire Lukawski Felong

    Often is comes down to cost. Many young people would choose the charitable or fair trade option if it were affordable. Often those goods are out of their price range.