Co-founder and co-chief executive officer of online glasses business Warby Parker, Neil Blumenthal, was interviewed recently about the business’ ‘buy a pair, give a pair’ social initiative.
“While customers certainly love the fact that we give back, at the end of the day, it’s not a critical factor in deciding whether to buy a pair of glasses”, said Blumenthal, but it is “the number one reason people want to come work for Warby Parker”.
The degree to which social programs impact purchase decisions is tricky. There’s no doubt customers like to feel good about the impact they are having, but is this a primary motivation, or something that is nice to have?
The first insight from Warby Parker’s experience is if you don’t get the fundamentals right — quality, price, service — customers are unlikely to buy from you, no matter how altruistic your mission. For most customers (not all, of course, and it depends on your market), how their purchase helps humanity is a nice rationalisation, but rarely the main driver.
It’s difficult to believe this, however, because when you ask people why they might buy something, or explain why they did, moral justifications can rank high. ‘I bought this car because of its safety features’ they might tell you, failing to acknowledge the role status played in their decision to buy a Lexus instead of a Toyota.
This ‘say versus do’ gap means we can’t rely on what people tell us is their motivation because it is only what they believe to be their motivation. It’s not that they lie, it’s just we are poor witnesses to our own deep-seated, unconscious motivations. Shoes of Prey found this out the hard way.
The second insight is how Warby Parker has partitioned the role their social program plays. For customers, it’s a ‘nice to have’, but for staff, a key motivating driver.
This throws up an interesting challenge. When push comes to shove, do they have their team focus on price, quality and service, or the social program? While it sounds good on paper to have a team fuelled by creating a better world, surely that is going to rub against the realities of profitability at some point? For Warby Parker’s sake, I hope they can continue to bridge this dichotomy.
So what role should your social initiative play?
In most cases, a supporting role. A great initiative can tip people over to you, and make justifying their decision to themselves and others so much easier.
But as we can clearly see with Warby Parker (geddit?), the ‘feel good for others’ factor cannot come at the expense of ‘feel good for me’.