I recently took the ferry from Sydney to Manly and was impressed by a local Australian bank called Bank West. As I waited to board the ferry I was handed a little promo by an attractive young gal. Yes, yes, "young and attractive" are always smart things to attach your brand to, but this was different.
To be perfectly honest, I had my ipod on and over the sounds of a Rage Against The Machine ballad I said THANKS! (a little too loudly) and ignored the promo until I slowly began to watch this piece of cardboard become the topic of smiling conversation all around me.
Much to my embarrassment, I realised that what I ignored was something this heavily tattooed guy forgot to bring (and badly needed) on the ferry ride to Manly - sun block! "We're looking out for you this summer" the packet read. I smiled and kept it.
Being new to the city, I was still sorting out my finances and a week or two later I went out of my way to find a Bank West. No seriously, I really did go out of my way.
I know what you're thinking and BELIEVE ME when I say I'm probably more cynical than you, BUT along with my unhealthy cynicism is a healthy dose of child like curiosity. So, I dove into my old social psychology notes and found what I think is the humbling answer.
A couple of years ago, I attended a seminar on persuasion and compliance by a Stanford Professor named Dr. Robert Cialdini. He is one of the most successful and well known social psychologists in the world and also surprisingly hilarious.
I studied social psychology at University and Dr. Cialdini's seminar directed me towards some old notes titled "Why karma works!"
The notes outlined an experiment that took place towards the end of my first semester back at school, near the Christmas break. A classmate and I picked 50 perfect strangers names from the local phone book and sent them Christmas cards.
We basically wrote "Just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!" - Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we received 34 cards back...from perfect strangers - wishing us a Merry Christmas (that's like a 68% response!!!). If you're a true cynic this is the part where you'll silently start to get turned off. Start thinking aww, this guy is full of shit. So, I recommend that you let your curiosity silence that cynicism by trying it. It's cheap and entertaining :)
One of the principles Dr. Cialdini described is called "the law of reciprocal exchange" (its what made strangers feel the need to mail us back). It's a law that is innately in us all. Every single country, state, city, village, culture, every race, gender on the planet. It's a human law that simply states: If someone does something for you, you should do something for them. It may be conscious, it may be subconscious - but for most of us, it's very very real.
Next time you do something for someone at work, next time you go out of your way to help out a friend, next time you do anything and feel a bit pissed off at your favour not being returned - instead of responding with a "No problem" to THANK YOU - throwing away any sense of future credit, say "I know that you would have done the same for me" - watch how much easier your favours will be returned! It's brilliant. That one act alone, has changed my work and social life for the positive.
This human law, also has implications for brands. There's a famous case study where the same brand, in the same city, branded two different things with two very different attitudinal scores: One group was given a branded coffee cup - low to negative response. The other, a branded cup holder that protects the fingers of customers from the heat of the cup - positive response. We ALL have a sense of "future obligation" towards people, groups, even brands that FIRST give us something.
Is this basic human truth the engine that drives Karma? I think it is.
In this new age of advertising (that sounded very Star Trek! haha) - brands like Youtube, Google, Flickr, etc...ALL seem to GIVE FIRST, in order to RECEIVE LATER. It's not about a product OR a service - it's learning how to think about your product AS a service.
It's about brands learning to believe in Karma.