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.)

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