On Lifeless Commodities and What People Actually Buy, Part 1

I met one of the most clever marketers I’ve met in a long time, and it just so happened to be a middle-aged woman scanning my groceries at the local market.

As she slid the milk and eggs across the infrared reader she politely asked, “Would you like to donate $5 to [insert giant aid organization here]?” Most people would agree that giving to aid organizations is a noble and generous act. And I’d venture to guess that capturing people at the grocery store register is probably a an effective way of raising funds. I had noticed, though, that everyone in surrounding checkout lines all responded with some form of “No, not today.” Which is exactly what I said when she asked me.

I began to think through all of the reasons people might be saying no. Maybe they already give money somewhere. Maybe they don’t have $5 to spare. Maybe the aid organization’s mission isn’t close to their heart. Why did I say no?

As I pulled out money to pay the cashier, she interrupted my thoughts: “I know you can’t give $5, but would you consider giving $1? If I get the most donations, I’ll get a paid weekend off. And I’d really love a weekend off.”

“Brilliant,” I thought as she pulled the stack of $1 donation cards out from under the stack of $5 cards. “Sure, why not. Throw a dollar on the total.”

It could be that the cashier was brandishing every trick she knew in order to get that coveted weekend off, but I think she understood something deeper about why so many people neglect to give.

First, I think she knew from experience that $5 was too high of a barrier of entry for most people. If she could create a comparison between the $5 and $1 price-points, people would be much more likely to give when they felt that the barrier had been significantly lowered.

Next, and more importantly, I think she realized that it was almost impossible to make a cause tangible – to really personalize a donation – in a 10-second pitch at a grocery store register. For many people (including me), it might not be that they don’t care or don’t have a few extra dollars, it’s that there are so many considerations involved in donating money to a cause that aren’t addressed in such a short pitch. Add to that the number of times that people are asked to donate money in similar situations and you get a whole lot of “no’s.”

Nine-times out of ten, people will connect with a personal story before they connect with the impersonal name of an organization. And that’s exactly what the cashier presented to her customers. She made a $1 a fully tangible part of her quest to get a weekend off of work, and grocery shoppers identified with that story.

I’m not saying that her vacation should be more important than the cause of an aid organization, or that anyone should trick people into giving money, but I do think there is a really valuable reminder for brands:

People will buy people first, and a tangible story is one of the most effective ways to connect with customers as they swim through a sea of commodities.

(Also, always keep the $1 cards hidden under the $5 cards.)

  • http://jeffhora.wordpress.com Jeff Hora

    This is a fairly common psychological tactic, seen regularly during election seasons (when are we NOT in an election season?).  For example, the person canvassing a neighborhood comes to your door and pitches the candidate and her/his positions, asking for time and/or donations. You decline.  As a follow-up they ask if they might place a small sign on your front lawn. Unless you are vehemently against the candidate and/or those positions, you’re likely to say yes, as you feel a little obligation to them, having said ‘No” to the earlier request.  So the $5 donation is the time/money request, and the sign is the $1 donation (the story is really the time you’ve spent together on your front steps chatting about the candidate and developing enough of a relationship that this action becomes more of a person-to-person thing and less of a campaign thing).

    Story remains central, especially when you realize that you’re actually part of the story.

    • http://www.brainsonfire.com Eric Dodds

      “When are we NOT in an election season”…made me laugh, Jeff. It’s so true.

      Your point about the personal connection you develop by spending time being the actual story (and turning the interaction into a “person-to-person thing”) is spot-on. 

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  • http://twitter.com/techherding Dick Carlson

    Yeah, I would have given her the dollar.  I’m really fed up with the corporate types wanting me to do their giving for them, but if a real person actually asked me I’d fall for it.  And having a less expensive backup option is what I used to teach my sales clerks so many years ago.  They should make her manager.  But they won’t.

    • http://www.brainsonfire.com Eric Dodds

      Real people have a tendency to do that to us, don’t they? I agree, they should make her manager.

  • Justin

    You’ve actually reminded me of a similar situation.

    Petsmart will ask me if I want to donate however-many-dollars to some pet charity thing… but Petco just asks if i’d like to round up my balance to the nearest dollar and give that difference to the pet charity.

    I think people are more likely to say “yes” to rounding up their balance to the next dollar vs. giving a standard donation.

    • http://brainsonfire.com/individuals/view/eric_dodds/ Eric Dodds

      I completely agree – someone told me recently that JC Penny asks them to round up and they give almost every time. 

  • http://www.abundatrade.com Tracy Geier

    Publix asks on a regular basis.  Found it ironic, that I say the same, “No, not today,” as you mentioned above.  I guess maybe I had heard that response from other shoppers and adopted it as my own. 

    I definitely agree that her tactic of asking for $1 instead after asking for $5 along with the reasoning behind her request sounds like a very effective tactic for those that can give on a more regular basis.

    • http://brainsonfire.com/individuals/view/eric_dodds/ Eric Dodds

      Isn’t the fact that so many of us respond the same way funny? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Tim Srigley

    I think a lot of people by nature are givers – I count myself among that crowd. Perhaps my years in sales and marketing has me more focused on the believability factor. While one could argue the personal appeal (in the example given) may deliver more donations, it seems to cast an unpleasant taste about it – and that could negatively drive long-term attitudes towards giving. I say donate to the cause (if you support it) and not the carnies. There is a enough real need out there and people either see it or they don’t…

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