(credit: Crishna Simmons)

A token of appreciation

About the remarkably behavioural approach supermarkets have taken to buff up their image and engage their customers in the process

Companies are learning that being seen to ‘do the right thing’ is good for their brand image — corporate social responsibility and all that. (Behavioural scientists call this virtue signalling.) Supporting good causes is one way of doing this, but it is hard to develop a strategy that really gains traction among the general public. There are just too many charities to choose from, and what engages one customer completely puts off another one.

But retail chains have an opportunity to engage entire communities. Each one of their numerous stores can support local causes in the towns where their customers are. Doing so has the extra advantage that it reinforces their local character. Sure, they may be part of a national (or even international) chain, but that is no longer so important if the local store funds a playground, pays for the cub scouts’ or the brownies’ camping materials, or supports a homeless charity in town.

If that was all they did, however, it would be a rather passive kind of engagement. What if the local community was given a say in deciding which good causes would get support, and how much?

The charity token scheme that four large supermarkets in the UK operate is a striking example of how to pull their customers in by giving them a visible stake in the decision making. The idea’s simplicity conceals several behavioural influences, which maximize engagement and minimize any burden.

Thinking inside the box (photo: me)

Imagine a conventional consultation. As you paid for your groceries the till operator would hand you a form, together with your receipt, on which you could indicate your preferred good cause. You’d need to step aside, read the form, find a pen, locate a suitable surface on which to place the form to indicate your preference, fold the form, and then squeeze it into the slot of the box at the exit. For anyone but the most conscientious shopper, there is plenty of opportunity to postpone and forget, or simply not to bother.

But here, when you pay at the till, you receive some plastic tokens (which, of course, have the corporate colour of the store). The number of tokens you get depends on how much you have just spent. This signals you that you have real influence in the process (much like the Lotto allows you to choose your own numbers, rather than picking a ticket with numbers printed on it already). It also makes the tokens you receive feel like a valuable reward.

So there you are, feeling pretty pleased with your booty. You could, in principle, still decide to put the tokens in your pocket and walk off. When we receive something, however, even if its value is only symbolic, we become more inclined to reciprocate. So when the till operator asks you to place the tokens in the container to help determine who will get what support, you’re much more likely to respond positively.

There is more, though. A form would merely ask you for your opinion. But you are now the bearer of actual carriers of material benefit to one of several good causes, and you have the power to decide. So the moral obligation to actually go to the plastic container (which is of course conveniently placed on your way to the exit) and exert that power is hard to resist.

That container itself is a thing of behavioural beauty, too. A shiny, transparent contraption, with the colourful tokens your predecessors have dutifully inserted in full view. No better way to visualize the social norm *: decent people don’t walk off with their tokens. They place them in this plastic box.

Above each of the three slots, more information about the good causes between which you can choose is displayed. Will you read it? Hell yes — by now you are persuaded that you are carrying out a sacred duty. Are these initiatives you would have personally supported otherwise? Probably not — you may never have heard of them. But they’re clearly local, and you can’t deny they’re really worthy. The images speak for themselves: happy kiddies in a playground, a homeless guy with a mug of hot soup, a bunch of old people doing gymnastics. Such concrete depictions are a powerful source of persuasion (known as the identifiable victim effect).

And in all likelihood, one of them will tug at your heartstrings a bit more than the others. Then the transparent box does its thing again: it shows how your preferred good cause is doing in relation to the others. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition. So without further ado, you drop all your tokens go down the slot corresponding with your favoured cause, a final gesture of benevolence before you trundle off home with your shopping.

What the retailers are engaging in is a form of participatory decision making. Simply asking their customers would be one of the most primitive ways of doing so. But the token-based approach acts as a more sophisticated set of nudges that affect behaviour, and ultimately emotions.

A token of appreciation, but for whom? (photo: Alan Parkinson/Flickr)

Thanks to the tangible stake they receive at the beginning of the process, customers are more likely to complete it than with a conventional consultation. The acceptance of the tokens commits customers much more deeply than a form would, and nudges them towards the next steps: taking an interest in the good causes on offer, and eventually actually indicating their preferences. The symbolic allocation of resources by inserting the tokens into the container gives a much stronger sense of the significance of their action than a tick in a box would.

This in turn plays to the customers’ emotions. While a voting form might produce mostly annoyance, this whole process means they feel extra good as they leave the supermarket… and that is of course a very good result for the retailer. Everybody wins: the good causes get some money, the customers feel happy they have unequivocally participated in deciding which one gets how much, and the retailer has customers who appreciate them just that little bit more. The token of appreciation plays a neat double role.

If a company decides to do the right thing, they might as well do it right.

(This article was inspired by a post on participatory decision making by Chris Bolton at Whatsthepont)

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on September 22, 2017.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius