What does it mean to be a generous brand? More importantly, why should anyone care?

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First, though, bit of background.

The word generous used to be indicative of — and exclusive to — high social status. It derives from the Latin, genus and generosus, meaning ‘a race’ and ‘noble’ respectively. By the 17th century, the definition had expanded to reference nobility of character. It came to represent gallantry, courage, strength, gentleness, and fairness. It became less about class and more about a rejection of greed and meanness.

Generosity, then, isn’t about mere largesse. It’s not about giving away t-shirts or reward points. Generous brands are generous spirited. They don’t just give — they give freely. They’re willing to do things that aren’t commercially motivated (or at least not primarily so) and provide experiences that don’t have a straight-up dollar value.

Crucially, these brands don’t demand loyalty, respect or affection in return for these experiences. Instead, they ask themselves, ‘What would we do for our consumers if money were not the objective?’ and let this ideal guide their ideation.

Generosity of experience

Given the profound benefits, it’s interesting how rarely generosity gets brought up in brainstorms. After all, isn’t generosity an instinct? Aren’t we evolutionarily predisposed towards it?

Perhaps not. Nicole Torres, writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2015, explored what generous people’s brains do differently. One part of the brain, the ventral striatum, focuses on things that benefit the individual. It’s essentially the selfish part of the brain or the survival of the fittest mindset. Another part of the brain, the temporoparietal junction, is the community-minded part associated with empathy and thinking of others. Sadly the latter is the most underused part of the brain, while the ventral striatum is the most overused.

Perhaps that’s why generosity delights us so much when we encounter it — because it’s rare. Perhaps now more than ever, in a time when we suspect the motives, honesty and sincerity of governments, institutions, brands and each other, there is real value in making someone smile just because you can.

The general aura of distrust is understandable. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a motto that promises you’ll Do The Right Thing or Give People The Power To Share; without a human, offline presence, such sentiments can seem cynical rather than reassuring.

In a retail context, this atmosphere presents an opportunity. Online-only retailers may be exponential organisations with zero cost of expansion that push technological barriers and disrupt industries. They may offer low prices and maximum convenience. But they can’t look you in the eye. They can’t raise a smile or return one.

Giving freely and stirring emotions means first identifying the specific emotions we want to evoke then defining and designing living, human experiences to suit. This in turn depends on a sound understanding of different kinds of experience, the effect each kind has on us, and how we value each one.

Whether it’s our first kiss or our earliest ice cream, we all have personal experiences in our lives that are meaningful, memorable and valuable in their own way.

Then there are those shared experiences when we’re all immersed in something together like a party, concert or festival. We’re bound to one another by witnessing something extraordinary at the same time. We value that connection.

For everything else, there’s Mastercard — bought experiences that may be personal or shared, but that come with an explicit price tag and a different kind of value.

These definitions and distinctions are important to bear in mind because when it comes to how millennials currently spend money, experiences are more important than things. A study conducted by Harris Research International found that more than 78% of millennials would prefer to spend money on an experience than a product, while 55% say they’re spending more on events and live experiences than ever before. The majority even stated they were likely to increase their spending on experiences the following year.

Experiences are currency

At FITCH, we believe that generous experiences are actually a form of currency. They have their own value. These generous experiences are the ones people share on their Twitter or Instagram like the Great Wall of Chocolate at the M&M’s World Store in Shanghai. It’s the world’s largest M&M’s candy wall, offering visitors a unique selfie moment. It’s simple but compelling, and people are moved to capture and share the moment. The brand gives freely and people give back equally freely. It’s less a transaction than a free exchange in which everyone gets a good deal.

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Quantifying generosity

But can a brand exchange this currency for another? To be blunt: Does a generous mindset or experience make any money?

According to the Experience Index, which ranks companies based on four core metrics that define breakthrough experiences, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. The 30 top-ranked brands in the index saw their share prices outperform the S&P500 average by more than 100%.

Beyond the important pursuit of commercial growth, generosity can bolster something more profound: a sense of purpose. Turning the concept over in our minds and asking what we as individuals and organisations would do for one another if money were not the object can clarify our true objectives and potentially produce something distinctive in a beige ‘buy one get one free’ world.

It can help us rethink the role of creativity and the purpose of brands today. It can change how we think about what we do and how we do it, transforming how we approach the design process and moulding the ideas we have.

Most importantly, it can define the experiences we deliver and improve the experiences we all share every day.

Tim Greenhalgh, Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, @timghalgh

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