« Klout May Not Be Serving Online Influence, But It's Sure Dishing Out Hope | Main | How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Netflix Price Bomb. »

The Viral Nature of Doing Good & The Search for The Subservient Chicken

Like many a marketing consultant, I often get questions from clients on how their business can achieve a greater brand awareness, more influence, more twitter followers, more mentions, more likes on their Facebook fan page, more WOM, more buzz.

When it comes down to it, most companies have the desire to "go viral". And underlying this is the belief that if only they had the right PR stunt, the right social media strategy and the best platforms and tools to support these, that somehow all would converge to create an unstoppable force of demand for their product or service. I like to think of all this as The Search for The Subservient Chicken.

Yet as much as its relatively easy to go through all the motions - to get the tools and platforms, implant your company on the social networks- the truly hard part is adopting a sustained cultural change of acting outside the usual corporate boundaries. Some of the most successful viral PR stunts work because they go outside these boundaries, striking directly to a pure emotional connection between a company and its fans. Certainly there's a wide spectrum of activities to align a brand with a wider  social and world purpose - whether its to position the brand within a social cause, an environmental concern or by participating in disaster relief. These are so close to corporate philanthropic roots that most companies get that part. The far harder part is to realise that it's the simple acts of kindness, of generosity and helping that can create a powerful wave of good will - the much sought after humanized brand. One of the main posts of this post is that even fewer realize that there's a potent source of viral energy that they're already paying for today - your employees.

Do you really need grand gestures to seize a PR moment? Take a look at the recent publicity when HARO founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Peter Shankman tweeted on a plane that he'd really like a Morton's porterhouse steak. As described on his blog, the company listened and when Shankman arrived at his destination, a nice 24 ounce steak was waiting for him, brought by Morton's Steakhouse employees. All took place within 3 hours.

Now that's a fabulous PR and brand coup for Morton's.  But I'd submit (along with Danny Brown) that part of the reason this act of goodness met with some controversy  is that the stunt was viewed as not part of the day to day culture of the Morton's brand, but rather a pure PR stunt aimed at a customer known to have 10,000+ Twitter followers. It might have been a steak delivered, but many smelled a subservient chicken in the bag.  (To Morton's credit, the company followed up later by delivering steaks to lesser known customers who tweeted a hashtag.)

But too often, as I'll expand on here, companies have blinders on: The day-to-day actions of their company and  employees are outside the larger world and social context. The majority of firms consider that these externalities are light years away from their daily business interests.

Want to go viral?  Be a mensch of a company. Allow your employees to do good.

For there's a fundamental state change underfoot. And there's indication that humanizing a brand is not an institutional act, but rather best carried out by letting "the humans formerly known as your employees" more than occasionally hold the reins of your brand.

Here are a few stories that make this point in entirely different but interweaving ways.

Twitter: Technology for Scaling Good

Take Amy Jo Martin's recent piece in the Harvard Business Review.  Ms. Martin, founder of Digital Royalty,  knows a lot about scaling smiles to a national level. In her agency's wildly popular "Random Acts of Shaqness", famous NBAer Shaquille O'Neal  posed as a statue in Harvard Square so fans could take pictures of him. Like the steak delivered to Shankman, this is quite a simple act of kindness and celebrity-to-fan connectivity.

Ms. Martin's thesis in the post can be summarized by her revelation that "Twitter creates a strange chemistry between the seemingly immiscible elements of self-centeredness and altruism".  In her view, the brand amplifying power of Twitter, what makes goodness scale on the platform, is that "Twitter connects 200 million participants 24/7 on an open network that enables instantaneous delivery and nearly instantaneous delivery."


Similarly, reflecting on what made this year's Woman's World Cup Finals between Japan and US such a phenomenally viral Twitter event,  where twitter records were broken with 7,196 tweets per second, Ms. Martin explores the value of emotional connections of brands to their fans, writing,

"This was about live emotion, feeling good and creating more "good"... People want to help and people want to witness others helping each other."

One feature of Twitter she points out captured my attention. She writes,

"Accountability and transparency spin narcissistic acts into selfless acts. You tend to be on your best behavior in public and on Twitter, everything you say is public...Twitter invites constant surveillance of your ideas. It's the epitome of positive peer pressure, and leads to people using the channel to broadcast what they want the rest of the world to think about them"

Her message to corporations is that too few realise that  these same desires for human-to-human connection as well as  peer pressure forces are operating when people as employees are interacting on social networks. Extending her observation to the corporate world, Ms. Martin intriguingly suggests "This is an opportunity to motivate employees and to add purpose to their work day in a way that's unmatched historically".

Many companies may pause on this point: Is this branding expert really saying Twitter can influence employee motivation? That human to human interactions on a social network can work to a company's unplanned benefit and impact brand? Yes! She like others has come to the view that the emotional ties, the simple day-to-day reciprocities which occur on Twitter and other social networks can create stronger emotional ties to the company brand. It's not viral ad-powered, it's people-powered.

But there's even a more compelling reason for brands  to attend to the emotional connections being sparked by their employees on the social networks. Namely - there's a significant "humanizing" movement  taking place in business practice offline.

You can sniff this  change in the air particularly among new wave of social entrepreneurs. Far from the common corporate view that doing good and philanthropic acts are add-ons to a brand, the movement sees doing good, interacting and collaborating as a key part of a company's actions, as important as its products and services offered.


Designing Good into the Product: Stanford's d.school 

The new movement afoot dislodges the traditional corporate mainstay dependence on safe insularity and product focus within a company, emphasising instead integrating the outside world and highly social connections into product design.

Case in point: The Stanford d.school. Most of the write-ups on the d.school focus on its innovative use of work space, its non-hierarchical approach to the design process and its "IDEO in the Classroom" method of  encouraging multidisciplinary and cooperative thinking.

And while all these elements surely play in the d.school's emergent success, my interest here is in its human-centered design, where often social good is a key starting point in teaching the product and service design process.

As d.school founder, David Kelley describes,

"We want to try to develop empathy for people, see what the value is to humans and try to use that to create big ideas, so we call our method human-centered design. There's a creative act in trying to decide what problem is worth working in the first place".

A key part of the school's process is that students themselves think of what problems need addressing, focusing on social or institutional conditions that pose challenges for human beings. Encouragement is offered by the types of courses offered:

  • Designing Liberation Technologies focuses on fostering democracy.
  • d.health: You've Been Warned covers aiding individuals with threatening medical profiles
  • Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, focused on products for the developing world

And societal purpose is obvious in the projects and products delivered:

  • A water pump that dramatically improved the ability of Myanmar farmers to irrigate their land
  • The "Embrace", a low-cost baby warmer, designed to decrease the large number of hypothermia-related infant deaths around the world
  • Project Goldfinger, addressing remedies to male mid-life crisis
  • Project Amplify, a crowdsourced micro-investment strategy benefiting emerging musical artists.

It's no wonder that students from many disciplines at Stanford are fighting their way into the d.school.

What's important in our discussion here is that for the first time we have a new generation of entrepreneur and business problem solvers entering the world that are trained to work collaboratively and with passion. 

Common & How The Subservient Chicken Has Evolved

This brings me to a second and highly related case of the new humanized business movement: Common, the brain child of world-class designers and sustainability business thinkers, Alex & Ana Bogusky, Rob Schuham and John Bielenberg, is a newly formed creative community whose mission is to rapidly prototype social ventures --- all done under a unified and collaborative brand. 

Prefatory but important side note: Given that we are discussing the virality of doing good, it is somewhat ironic that Bogusky is best known as one of the primary creators of Burger King's 2005's Subservient Chicken campaign. But let's continue..

As the founders describe, the goal of Common is to "lift up the little ideas that are big enough to change the world." Much as in the d.school, Common's view is that collaboration is the new competition. And their endgame is to create an umbrella brand  "designed by the community, owned by the community and for the community". 

Warning, Onlooking Corporations: These entities are forming a new generation of companies where good is embedded in the product. This is what happens when collaboration is allowed to run rampant. Harkening back to Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, in these new social entrepreneurial organizations, the corporate good is merged with the common good.

The question is: Why can't today's corporations see the power of harnessing the collective energy of employees much as these newer organizations are harnessing the energy of students and social entrepreneurs?  

It is worth asking yourself: If your company isn't comfortable now with employees collaborating offline and online with customers, how well will your company fare in a new world where...

The New Competition is Collaboration?

Some insight into harnessing the motivational energy  that Ms. Martin is referring to and that both the Stanford d.school and Common are exploring, is provided by Yochai Benkler, Harvard professor and author of The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest. Benkler's thesis is there's a misbegotten framework adopted by most of today's corporate leaders trained in an era where  humans, and ergo employees, were believed to be, by nature, hardwired to be selfish, uncooperative and hence, to be distrusted in acting good. (Note: PR, marketing and advertising humans seem to be exempt from this belief system). Instead, Benkler's research - drawing from behavioral studies, nueroscience and more recent economic theories -  supports a view that humans are naturally generous, cooperative and selfless.

In a recent article, The Unselfish Gene, Benkler gives several examples of how humans are naturally collaborative. 

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for showing how commons can—and do—sustain themselves for centuries as well-functioning systems. The most striking example is in Spain, where thousands of farmers have been managing their access to water through self-regulated irrigation districts for more than five centuries. To take another example, 75% of U.S. cities with populations of more than 50,000 have successfully adopted some version of community policing, which reduces crime not by imposing harsher penalties but by humanizing the interactions of the police with local communities.

He goes on to describe other technology examples of fairly low-assisted human collaboration which are reliable and sustainable: From Wikipedia, the user-generated reviews of Yelp to TripAdvisor, he contrasts these as triumphant over the more traditional command-and-control architectures managed by appointed editors. eg. Encyclopedia Britannia, Zagat's and Fodor's.

The crux of his case though seems to rest on more recent cooperative behavior studies which suggest that only 30% of people act selfishly in experiments whereas 50%-70% behave cooperatively (more or less, depending on the context).

Benkler concludes that "Anyone designing a cooperative system - be it an organization process, a legal regime or a technical platform - optimising it for only 30% of the of the population - leaves on the table a massive amount of human potential".

In a sense, Ms. Martin and Mr. Belcher are discussing the same phenomenon:  There's wasted motivation, unleveraged human (and brand value) potential in the traditional corporate assumption that employees cannot productively and sustainably engage, online or offlline, with other humans.

The Power of Saying Something Nice

So we see, from a variety of different angles, brand savants, design creatives and organizational experts are coming to the conclusion that traditional corporate settings and processes restrict the natural human creative ability to perform their best.

If only there were a palpable, very concrete means to demonstrate to corporations the power of humans as a collective brand?  After all, we see this daily when someone steps out of their way to tell a stranger a kind word, offers a helping hand. We see it in grand gestures such as "Jonathan's Card", where Jonathan Stark offered his Starbucks Card online to whoever wanted a free coffee. The act enthralled many, especially when we saw others pay it forward, adding to the balance of the card, allowing still others to join in. (Yes, even though the venture was "hacked", note this was done by someone intending a different form of good purpose.)

One direct experiential proof of the inherent virality of doing good is captured by last week's YouTube video  created by Improv Anywhere. The agency simply put a wooden lectern in the middle of a busy New York City intersection with a small sign indicating, "Say Something Nice". Then they let the cameras roll. Take a look at it.


To me, perhaps the most startling moment in the video is when a small toddler, held up by his mother and with a Buzz Lightyear doll in tow, comes up to the megaphone and shouts, " To Infinity and Beyond!"  Why that three year old boy gets it better than most management consultant trained corporations. And the purity of the message is amplified as we know its unplanned, without contrivance and free of corporate governance. It's said simply because people, with the little nudge of a "Say something nice" sign  and a megaphone, want to share. It's a pure human-to-human communication. And we rejoice in hearing it.

Improv Everywhere's social-inducing street props and the distinctively  human behavior which ensued -  voluntary and spontaneous as it was  -  clearly had a positive effect on the onlooking passersby. The 1.6 million viewings of the YouTube video tell us viral distribution occurs through emotional connections sparked - from individual to individual.


Humanizing a Brand: The Human Formerly Known as Employees


Strangely, most companies do not realise that this collective human force can be extended to their own brands. They are too impatient for Subservient Chicken to be served.

Yet the power of the legendary @ComcastCares twitter account was not any single viral ad campaign or PR stunt, but rather the persistent and diligent customer service efforts of one employee, Frank Eliason, in serving hundreds of customers online. So too with Zappos: There never was any singular PR stunt, any grand gesture, that humanized the brand. Rather Zappo's reputation for being human evolved from the thousands of tweets from hundreds of individual employees interacting with enthusiastic customers.

Fortunately, as Francois Gossieaux points out in his insightful post, Three Ways Brands Can Be More Human,  we see some companies stepping up to the For-Humans-By-Humans plate. He writes,

At IBM, every employee can create a community about whatever they want, with whomever they want, and using whichever tool they want. What is the company trying to do? It's trying to get 300,000 human seats at the tables where buying recommendations are being made.

At Xerox and Humana, they identified all internal active bloggers and social networkers, 80 percent of whom talk about things that have nothing to do with work. The companies pre-brief them about major company announcements as if they were press. What are they trying to do? Get more human seats at those tables where buying decisions are being made.


As much as some managers may blanch pale at the thought of unencumbering employees, it's clear at least some companies are allowing their employees to share their humanity (and indirectly and directly the company brand) on company time.

The irony is that, despite the fact that public trust in government, institutions and large business is low, and that PR and advertising are viewed as among some of the most highly suspect industries, most companies are quite resistant to leveraging  "Brand Force Human", a brand that hasn't been tarnished. It's as though realizing  that word of mouth and product reviews are out of their control and now rampant on the social networks, these companies hold tighter still, controlling their remaining precious cargo.

Perhaps enterprises can learn from recent upheavals in the journalism and news world. There, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, coined the phrase "The People Formerly Known as the Audience"  , used to describe the closing gap between the professional media world and readers/watchers wrought by New Media and its newly engaged participants. Rosen was referring to the fact that today's "news readers" are active participants: They can pick up a camera, tweet a nearby event, provide thought pieces on a blog. In short, the traditional tools of professional journalism were now firmly in the hands of the people. Indeed, even as the news democratized, many resisted unleashing their own staff to have the same level of autonomy and access to social tools. For many, it took their news organizations down.

Enterprise business needs to confront the fact that the forces that broke down the barriers between the publishers and end users in traditional media are also at work between corporate brand makers and their audience. More corporations need to realise that  "the humans formerly known as employees" can play an active, constructive role in humanizing their branding, and, as Ms. Martin points out, use inexpensive social networks to do so. 

Until they do realise this, the new social entrepreneurs will lead the way. 

Photo credits:

Women's World Cup: AP Photo/Koji Sasahara
Stanford's d.school whiteboard: Fast Company


Reader Comments (1)

Nice post. Here you provide some valuable points about company it's really nice. I like your post. Thank you for sharing................

Interactive Whiteboard

October 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterInteractive Whiteboard

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>