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Looking at Our Consumers as Friends and Partners

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By Ed Martin, Global Social Enterprise Initiative Executive In Residence*

“Big data” is all the rage these days and it certainly is extremely useful for companies to help uncover buying trends, habits and behaviors. I’m all for using the latest technology that gives us the ability to better connect our products and services to what people want and need. As “business people” it’s our job to do that.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that in this wash of data that these are just people. People simply living their lives, doing their best, striving for purpose – they are us.

So as we leverage all the best and latest technology and innovation let us also “see with different eyes” that go more deeply than numbers and see into what we can do to best support our partners and friends (consumers) as they support our business through their purchasing and advocacy.

A recent ground breaking study done by the Relational Capital Group showed strong purchase and brand loyalty for a company driven by two key factors. The two factors were competence and warmth.

The competence part would be expected by most. A business better deliver a high quality product or service or they will be out of business sooner or later.

It was the “warmth” insight that garnered the most attention in the study. “Warmth” was the belief that a company cared about you and had your best interest at heart – just as a close friend would.

Hershey was rated highly on both warmth and competence.  I’m proud of that fact. The “warmth” I felt towards the company and how we operate was one of the driving forces that led me to work for Hershey.

But consumer as “friend and partner,” in my opinion, is suited for all business globally.

Here is one approach a company might be able to use.

Let’s take a current business challenge and understand who else might benefit if you were able to solve this challenge.

It is becoming more difficult each day for companies to attract and deeply engage consumers all around the world. This is all while there are literally millions of charities in the world (representing the passion and interests of billions of people) who are all competing for a limited and shrinking pool of donated monies.

In light of these circumstances how could we look to our consumer as friend and partner to create profit, growth for our company while it creates a positive impact for our consumer? Simply allow consumers to “opt in” to engage with your company in various aspects of research and marketing in a way that converts their willing engagement into funding for their cause.

Consumers can opt in to do many things that are of significant value to a company, such as:

  • Taking a survey
  • Watching an ad
  • Sending an coupon
  • Friending a Facebook page
  • Sharing information about a new product
  • Helping to co-create a new product

What I’m simply suggesting is partnering with your consumers – they can “opt in” and take a survey or watch an ad or send a coupon etc., and receive a small donation for their effort. This can be a lower cost and higher quality marketing “expense” for a company while providing your consumer another way to support a cause or area they deeply care about. This is clearly another way to build “warmth” for any organization. To help unlock your consumers/friends purpose while helping to deliver against your own business objectives will develop bonds much stronger than a simple financial transaction.I have the special honor of speaking with some of the best and brightest students who come from all over the world to study at Georgetown.  Without exception, I see this desire in them to work for a “purpose driven company,” an organization that wants to double the size of their company in profit but also triple the positive impact in the world. The companies which hold this view authentically will be the winners in the market place and frankly in many other ways that I think matter even more.

The best companies are also beginning to cast their nets wide in who they look to partner with to deliver on their business objectives. If you search for perfection in a person or organization to partner with I’m afraid you will find no-one.

If perfection were the criteria, the first person I would exclude is myself.  I talk too much, I’m obsessive compulsive, I wake up every night and eat all kinds of food I shouldn’t…..and the list goes on. So look for partners who share the same general mission and vision as you and who will win when you win.

Too many groups are rejected outright as partners but are extremely valuable in helping to connect to markets, consumers, stakeholders needed for sustained growth and profit. For example:

- Think government can’t help and gets nothing done?  Try working with Kris Balderston who runs theState Department’s Global  Partnerships Initiative, and you won’t think that anymore. Take just one initiative he is leading with Secretary Clinton with the global Diaspora. Would it be of value for your company to be able to connect in more powerful ways with first and second generation consumers from Mexico, China, Brazil and 180+ others?  Through this Diaspora initiative business can play a unique and powerful role in driving their own profit and growth while elevating the quality of life for communities in the US and all over the world.

- How about Universities….too academic without application? You simply need to look down the hall here at Georgetown and see people like Bill Novelli and Ladan Manteghi and you will be blown away at the work they are doing with corporations, nonprofits, and the government using business solutions to address health challenges, income security, and connecting social entrepreneurs with investors.

- How about big private equity -aren’t they all just out for themselves? Do a little research on Eric Weinberg the CEO of Icapstrat.com and it will change your mind. With investment, business and systems acumen they are partnering and co-developing innovative solutions in developing markets which is laying the groundwork for real scalable change through wealth creation locally as well as for business investors.

- How about the media – don’t they just present depressing and controversial stories? Try looking at what Kelly Flynn and Greg D’Alba are doing with CNN Heroes. There are many ways to partner here! But one simple one – take a look at some of their heroes and celebrity hosts. They may fit perfectly with your own CSR focus. If a Celebrity/CNN Hero has as their focus education and you do as well it’s a perfect opportunity to partner for a “win/win”. For the money you would spend to reach millions of your consumers in traditional media have the celebrity/hero share what you are doing via social media and thank you for the donation you gave them for even more education initiatives. That would be their incentive to share this.  Far better ROI for a company and much deeper engagement when the message comes from a powerful third party source – all while funding even more what a company believes in…not bad!

And the list could go on and on…..faith based groups, foundations, United Nations etc etc. All these groups and communities have their own challenges – we all do. But there is a tremendous amount of common ground and opportunity if you keep your eyes open.

So let us not lose our way in talking about markets and groups and a sea of nameless, faceless consumers….let’s realize that they are our friends and partners in the journey and to help them win is to help ourselves win as well.

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*Ed Martin is a GSEI Executive In Residence and Director of Marketing Excellence and CSR Insights at the Hershey company.