Conspicuous charity and the rise of BRAND ME

Looking around at almost all of my friend’s places there is at least one prominently positioned product aiding charity. From the Who Gives A Crap toilet paper, to the Thank You water in the fridge or the Thank You hand wash at my yoga studio, the Thank You nappies in the stroller or the Thank You muesli that sits valiantly on the kitchen counter. And if it’s not in their home then it’s definitely plastered all over social media. From Mo’ spaces to fun run fundraising pages it seems that every other person is doing their bit for charity. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is wonderful! I just find it interesting to see the shift in consumer behaviour from charity being a quiet, private, personal thing you did behind the scenes to something that is now a fundamental part of ‘brand me’.

A beautifully kept 1950s Australian home would dare not have their toilet paper on display, it would be hidden away out of sight and perhaps the only marker to show your guests that you splurged on the good stuff was the nice pattern on the roll to show it wasn’t generic. Now the loo paper sits right there where everyone can see it and I’m sure that 1950s vogue living certainly wouldn’t approve!

Social enterprises appear to be one of the fastest growing market opportunities right now. Many consumers value convenience and if they can brand themselves as ‘good people’ by purchasing a few select products then why not? Undoubtedly the majority have never actually researched into how said charities and social start-ups use their funds and whether the premium price they pay is actually the most good they can do with their hard earned money. But the payoff is that not only do they feel good about doing their bit for charity they can tell everyone about it in a manner that has now been deemed socially acceptable. And quite possibly in some social circles; expected. The vast middle class of Australian families are in a very comfortable position, so why not buy brands that are doing good and wear your charity like a badge of honour the next time you have your friends around for a good old Aussie BBQ.

So what has led to the conspicuous charity trend and what are the implications for marketing? Is it social media and our ability to curate the life we share with the outside world? The Guardian wrote a great piece on the narcissistic culture being fuelled by social media with more than 80 million photos being uploaded to Instagram every day and more than 3.5bn likes. Is it simply our ego needs which were always there well before social media gave us a platform to collect likes? Marketers have been referring to our physiological and psychological needs to sell products for years. The magic with social enterprise is that they fulfil both the physiological need (i.e. for water) while also fulfilling our higher level ego needs of charitable giving – marketing magic.

I remember a time when volunteering was something I would plan with my family and do privately perhaps only sharing my experiences with a close friend. Now when I volunteer, as a marketer I share photos of my experience on social media not only because I document my everyday life online but also to build awareness for the causes I believe in. As I share it, I do feel a little pang of “am I boasting?” or “should I even share this” but then as soon as the notifications of likes and commending comments come in my ego takes over and I can easily justify that my post is bringing greater awareness to the issue. Voluntourism has become a major trend for young people of wealthy countries like Australia but there are many arguments to suggest that it’s potentially doing more harm than good in some places.

So by all means, continue to buy products that do some good. But at least take a look at how they use their funds and whether or not it is actually the most good you could do. One of my favourite Australians, Peter Singer, wrote a great book with that very title and challenges you to question what is actually the best use of my discretionary income? Perhaps it’s the conspicuous charity on social media spreading awareness for causes you believe in, perhaps the products you buy really are making a difference or maybe it’s the silent donation you make to causes that really are changing the world.