Adam Grant’s book Give and Take suggests that all people take different dominant approaches to their jobs. They are either defined as “givers,” “takers” or “matchers.” Research shows that these different styles can affect performance and satisfaction.
I wonder if the same paradigm could be applied to brands, and whether some of the psychologically based research that Adam reports could shed light on the management of firms and brands. Are some brands and the firms they represent “givers?” And if so, under what circumstances is that style of operating likely to result in superior short-term or long-term performance?
A “giver” is concerned with what others need and is both willing and able to spend time and energy helping others, even if that time and energy will not result in personal gain. A “taker” is self-focused with an unrelenting goal of advancing his or her own career agenda. A “matcher” takes a more balanced approach, helping others when the net result will be reciprocated in a balanced way and result in fairness.
A host of studies have shown that being a “giver” can result in inferior personal performance, especially if the “giver” has little self-interest and if the measurement is not extended over time. However, the “giver” style tends to win, sometimes big, over time when the effects of creating trust, forming relationships, creating networks and moving into areas in which collaboration is important becomes more relevant factors. Though the “giver” style tends to be successful in the long run, it does require a measure of self-interest as well. There needs to be some ambition there.
An important caveat is that successful “givers” need to be authentic. Those that appear as “givers” but are really self-oriented and interested in promoting their own image (either by exaggerating their accomplishments and/or manipulating their audience) will often eventually lose, and lose big.
How would these ideas apply to brands?
A “giver” brand is customer oriented in order to not only maximize sales but also because there is an intrinsic interest in customers and their concerns. The brand would likely also be guided by a higher purpose. They would tend to be passionate about something – think organic food and Whole Foods, on protecting the environment and Patagonia, or helping people live healthier and Kaiser Permanente. This higher purpose may be directed to people that are not just customers but also include those that share common problems like climate change, hunger or water shortage. Their “other” orientation would be sincere and supported by real programs such as Pamper Village’s microsite for baby care tips and forums, or IBM’s effort to improve education.
A “taker” brand has a single-minded mission to achieve growth in sales and profits. It would tend to focus on the products and services of the firm exclusively and look to the customer mainly to make those products and services more attractive in the marketplace. A brand “taker” would subscribe to the Milton Friedman prescription that “the social responsibility of business is to make profits.”
Can being a “giver” still result in superior performance? Will success improve over time, as the impact of more motivated employees and more committed customers provide traction?
There is no shortage of studies that show that firms that meet the giver criterion do well. For example, in his book Grow, Jim Stengel stated that 50 firms that “centered on improving people’s lives” had a decade long performance that was 400 percent more profitable than the S&P. And in their book Firms of Endearment, Sisodia, Sheth and Wolfe found that 18 publicly traded “firms of endearment” had financial performance over eight times that of the S&P. These studies and others like them fall well short of showing a cause-and-effect relationship, but they are still suggestive. Perhaps more persuasive is the concept that the sheer incidence of “giver” behavior in the marketplace would not occur if it did not have some positive impact on financials.
Brands, like people, should realize that the “giver” label should not be self-applied when the belief is not authentic and supported by substance. Like people “givers,” brand “givers” that have a false front exposed will be worse off. Not only will its image suffer, so will its long-term credibility. A brand cannot be in business only to be a “giver.” It needs evidence that its ambition will do well commercially. So those firms that allow the higher purpose to dominate, to eclipse the “giver” goals, will be at risk.
There are a lot of ways to communicate an effort beyond obsession with financial performance. I often use the phrase “higher purpose.” But the concept of being a “giver” instead of a “matcher” or “taker” is a different and interesting perspective. Further, the empirical research on people who are “givers” vs. those that are “takers” is suggestive, if not provocative, when applied to brands and the companies they represent.