I used to work for a professional services SMB that gave employees days off each year to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. It was a nice change from the office, so a number of us took full advantage of this. People at the soup kitchen were happy to have the extra hands on deck, and we felt a sense of satisfaction for helping out a worthy cause. All in all, good vibes all around.
But because my employer was quite modest, the only people who ever learned about these regular acts of generosity were fellow employees and the soup kitchen’s staff and patrons. That’s it. The story died with us. That’s unfortunate, because there was a huge and under-appreciated opportunity sitting in the company’s lap. That opportunity was to tactfully amplify these kind acts online to current and prospective clients.
Firms who engage in generous, selfless acts, and then tastefully share details about the groups who benefited from these activities, are harvesting a major brand-strengthening opportunity that is largely under-appreciated. In short, companies can boost loyalty and recognition by branding themselves as “super-cooperators”.
Some scientific stage setting
Before diving into a discussion around the significance of this brand strengthening opportunity, some evolutionary and psychological groundwork is needed first.
Humans are psychologically hard-wired to cooperate with those they trust. That is, we are biologically predisposed to cooperate with those we know will cooperate back. This may come as a surprise to some, but it’s true. A significant percentage of the world’s population is literally born to cooperate.
As the distinguished evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel argues in his recent book, we have an ‘entire evolved psychology of traits and emotions that encourages us to enter into cooperative relationships and protects us once we do’. Biologists have even given our species the title ‘super-cooperator’ to acknowledge the fact that no other animal even comes close to our level of cooperative prowess.
There’s a simple explanation for why this is the case: Deep in our hunter-gatherer past, we developed the remarkable ability to cooperate with unrelated people. Over the course of 100,000+ years, cooperative dispositions eventually became dominant. Cooperating just made good survival sense, and so it flourished. The result is that vast swaths of modern humans are now psychologically primed for cooperative alliances (not including the sociopaths!).
These social and psychological facts about us have stark implications for the way businesses should be branding themselves.
Insights for Branding
Professional service providers want to enter into mutual relationships with prospective clients. That is, they want to exchange resources in a way that’s beneficial for both parties (i.e., the buying and selling of goods and services).
This means that companies want to create conditions where prospects regard their firm and employees as fellow cooperators. They want to demonstrate they are trustworthy partners. So how can you go about doing this?
The answer can be stated in two words: altruistic individuals. Altruistic individuals are those least likely to take advantage of you in an exchange. They are more likely to sacrifice their self-interests for those of the group and because of that, we are reflexively drawn to cooperating with these sorts of folks. They are natural born fair players.
The branding trick for companies, then, is to convince prospects that they are altruists. They need to build a reputation for being altruistic.
The best way to brand yourself as an altruist is to act like one. But how is a company supposed to act altruistically? And what sort of altruistic acts give the best return on a reputation investment?
Publicly and consistently perform selfless acts that are regarded as costly to the party performing them. This is the most efficient strategy for establishing credibility as a altruistic, and worthy, cooperator.
What does this look like? A construction company could devote time to building houses with Habitat for Humanity or an accounting firm could start a campaign to help low income families with their returns during tax season. Acts like these are “‘costly, believable signals’ that demonstrate a commitment to the good of the group; and they are the best way to establish your reputation as fellow cooperator that people can trust” (Pagel). And it is precisely the generous acts that are perceived as most costly that most efficiently build strong reputations.
By leveraging skills employees are already good at, a company can maximize the philanthropic value they are bringing to the table.
Getting the word out that you’re a super-cooperator
Simply performing the costly, selfless acts won’t unlock the reputation enhancing potential though. The key is making others aware of your acts – and for businesses, this means getting the message out to your target audiences tactfully and consistently.
Devote some of your content creation bandwidth to telling the story of the organization that has been helped and highlighting how others can make a contribution too. Social media is a natural fit for sharing this kind of information—it is a highly cost-effective method of regularly refilling and reinforcing your reputation as a cooperator.
Reputations are acquired and bolstered in social contexts. That’s the way it’s been done since the very beginnings of human culture and society. But like money, reputations get used up. They decay as people’s memories fade, and as Mark Pagel points out, reputations are highly vulnerable to malicious gossip and so need to be continually topped up. Promotion through social media lends itself to a slow, steady drip of shared content highlighting your selfless community-building acts. And as a social space, people will be more receptive to information on a company’s trustworthiness (both bad and good). In this way, we can build trust, even from those we have never met.
Calls to Action
For firms already engaging regularly in charitable, community building acts, they should devote more of their content strategy and calendar to highlighting these acts. (But remember to focus on promoting the cause, not the company. Otherwise, these promotional efforts will quickly be judged as self-serving).
If companies are not yet engaging regularly in charity, start by picking an activity that leverages existing strengths — no sense donating skills or products that are totally outside your wheelhouse.
Finally, charitable acts within an organization are best started at the top, with senior leadership. That’s because when you see someone behaving cooperatively or helpfully, you are more likely to reproduce that behavior yourself and this is especially the case when the person performing the act is in a higher-status position. Even buskers understand this fundamental aspect of human psychology, which is why they put money in their hats before they even start to play.
Check out Hinge's free Brand Building Guide for Professional Services Firms to learn more ways to build and strengthen your brand.