Pay It Forward posted an extract from The Globe and Mail discussing the trend of helping consumers “feel good”.

“Paying it forward” is an old idea with new life lately. Many different major brands have launched promotional campaigns that blur the line between business and philanthropy.

Benjamin Franklin pioneered the idea more than 200 years ago when he lent a colleague some money on the condition that it be repaid not to Franklin but to someone else in need. Franklin wrote at the time: “This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

Maybe the idea caught fire because news of Feel Good Ripples spread due to what Wharton School professor Jonah Berger calls “social contagion,” a mechanism by which consumers and media decide what to pass along. “People like to talk about what is surprising, remarkable and unexpected,” Berger says. “They also like to talk about what makes them look good. Self-interest is a big driver.”

For more hedonistic brands, the experience has been mixed. Starbucks received some positive feedback in the mainstream press, but bloggers sniffed that the whole thing felt contrived. Starbucks customers reported feeling good about themselves when in 2006, news of a pay-it-forward phenomenon at Starbucks drive-throughs began to make the rounds. Customers pulled up to the window only to be told the driver ahead had already paid for their coffee. The cashier then asked if they would like to pay for the customer behind them. These chains of benevolent coffee purchases reportedly carried on unbroken for hours at a stretch (and still do, by some accounts). And that may be the real dividend from initiatives of this type. Berger’s assertion that acts of generosity are driven by self-interest may not be so cynical after all. In other words, if your company can make customers feel good–even in such an oblique fashion as facilitating their philanthropy–the customers are likely to transfer some of that goodwill back to your brand. That’s a “trick” of which Benjamin Franklin might have approved.

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