Connecting Customers and Stories

The holiday season is in full swing with Thanksgiving just passing. The Salvation Army bell-ringers are out and many people are feeling the need to give back. Why do we do this? Recently, Seth Godin wrote a post about why people give to charity. His argument is that people give to good causes because of the story that they get out of it.

This is essence behind most marketing (and the Future of Branding) but I think the ‘giving’ story is often very different than the stories brands try to tell with marketing. Also, the model is shifting from giving to collaborating. People want to be active participants because that leads to a richer narrative and increased connection. I think that many companies have the opportunity to participate in this changing model, to move the customer/story interface, all while pursuing socially responsible business.

Two groups that are already making use of this model are Kiva and Tom’s.

Kiva, a micro-lending service, has made use of the connection economy to reduce the logistical challenge of collaborating with partners in need in other parts of the world. Now, instead of just giving, it is possible to invest in other people, to enable and empower them to do things like buy new cows to produce organic dairy productsor distribute more fuel-efficient cookstoves. This leads to an interaction rather than a one way act, which sidesteps the patriarchal relationship that can be developed when giving aid and allows people to interact as partners, peers, and collaborators.

The socially responsible business model of Tom’s One for One program, in which a pair of shoes is given to a child in need for every pair that is purchased, also enriches the story for the customer. By focusing on footwear, and now eyeglasses, Tom’s addresses serious problems (health, education, a better tomorrow) in a very specific way. The customer who buys a pair of shoes or eyeglasses knows exactly what their contribution does, enhancing their story.

Further, the new Tom’s Marketplace is promoting a new type of giving. The Marketplaces acts as a platform for social entrepreneurs to promote and sell their socially conscious products. The Marketplace also has a slightly different narrative than the One for One giving. Each product on the Marketplace gives in different ways. For example, this iPad case helps provide scholarships to children and this journal contributes to building a school in Mali. Also, like Kiva, it is easy to search for products by the cause (children, education, health, water, etc) or region they support.

I believe existing companies have the opportunity to adopt this model. I’ll use General Electric as an example for how this could look. GE is currently involved in great projects through the Ecomagination and GE Citizenship initiatives and their philanthropic arm, GE Foundation. However, there seems to be a gap between the customers and the initiatives that GE is engaged in. I think that GE could make the structure flatter, to create a stronger customer/story interface with a more direct connection between the customer and a specific project.

There are many ways this could be done. In the developing world, having electricity and light can lead to better educational, economic and health outcomes (see herehere and here for more). Simply having a light to read by at night can lead to better educational outcomes for children and give adults more time to participate in income generating activities. Emulating Tom’s, a One for One lightbulb program would supply a lightbulb to a community in the developing world for every lightbulb you purchase. In this program, GE would work with local organizations to find high impact places to donate, such as schools, hospitals and communities with access to electricity but that have difficulty acquiring lightbulbs.

Of course, there are many communities who do not have access to electricity in the first place and there are a plethora of other projects beyond electrification that are very important. To address a multitude of projects, GE could create something like the Tom’s marketplace, in which certain products are connected to particular projects. For example, the purchase of kitchen appliances could contribute to a fuel efficient, improved cookstoves program in the developing world.

There are myriad ways that products and projects could be paired but the key is that purchasing a particular product is connected to a very specific project, such as electrifying a particular town, not a broad, sweeping initiative, like rural electrification. The story and the connection occur when you buy a new oven and get the specific story of how you helped distribute improved cookstoves in Honduras.

Companies like General Electric already have community engagement initiatives and are involved in building sustainable infrastructure, but they should put that at the forefront, at the customer interface, so that the customer can directly participate in the story and share the connection.