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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.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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.