Philosophy defines altruism in different ways, however most definitions will generally revolve around describing altruistic behaviours as those that benefit others rather than oneself.
The term altruism (French, altruisme) was coined by the 19th century philosopher - incidentally, also the founder of the discipline we now know as sociology - Auguste Comte.
He described altruism as our ‘moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others’
Aside from ethics, altruism in biology similarly describes a range of behaviors that may be performed by animals, which benefit others while seemingly to their own disadvantage.
We say ‘seemingly’ as there is no moral lens that can be applied.
For instance, by behaving altruistically, an organism may reduce it’s own chances of survival, or the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but give a boost to the likelihood that other organisms that share its genes may survive and produce offspring.
It doesn’t make sense to share food with just anybody, it is more sensible to share with your relatives – they are genetically similar.
The costs and benefits of animal altruism in the biological sphere are measured in terms of the resulting reproductive fitness, or expected number of genetic descendants.
It appears then, that the biological notion of altruism is somewhat different to the ethical concept.
For humans, an act would only be called 'altruistic' if it was done with the conscious moral intention of helping another, but in the biological sense there is no such requirement.
So, which definition is appropriate when talking of brand altruism?
In 1973 the Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote ‘Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution’.
It could also be noted that nothing in brand behaviour makes sense except in the light of evolution.
Brands, like organisms, have two principle concerns.
Survival and reproductive fitness.
Survival should be a self-evident notion. In terms of reproduction we would look at salience and distribution as measures of fitness.
So-called brand altruism then, is perhaps better understood through the lens of Biological Market Theory.
Animals (including humans) can be observed exchanging benefits through reciprocity mechanisms. This happens in a variety of ways and in a variety of scenarios, however the common thread is that benefits in kind almost always find their way back to the original giver.
The theory of reciprocal altruism was originally developed and published in 1971 by the evolutionary biologist Bob Trivers in order to explain to explain instances of (apparent) altruism among unrelated organisms, including members of different species.
Trivers' basic idea was pretty straightforward: it may payback to help another, if there is an expectation of the favour being returned in the future.
Equivalent to the heuristic ‘You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours’.
The cost of helping is offset by the likelihood of the return benefit, allowing the behaviour to evolve by natural selection.
However, even reciprocal altruists are vulnerable to exploitation by rogue non-altruists.
Suppose we have a group – or category, let’s say supermarkets – made up exclusively of altruists, all playing nicely together, and placing the benefit of their suppliers and customers above their own needs. It only takes a single mutant to enter the category, adopt some selfish policies to gain relative fitness advantages then the altruistic system starts to collapse and eventually become overtaken.
Altruism, by definition, incurs a fitness cost.
So why would a brand perform a costly act?
As an aside, it’s probably no accident that the current popularity of the brand altruism idea corresponds with the development on another on the consumer side – virtue signaling.
Much has been written on virtue signalling so there is no need to unpack the term fully here, but suffice to say that – and depending on which report one reads - apparently upwards of 70% of millennials declare that the social responsibility record and ‘altruism’ of a brand is a major factor in their propensity to buy or use that brand.
It is also claimed that this next generation of consumers will be willing to PAY MORE for altruistic brands! What cannot be disputed is the propensity the connected generation to perform actions (mostly online) that signal to others that ‘I’m a good person’.
It’s worth noting that the message need not be actually accompanied by doing anything good. This opens the window for brand altruism as a virtue-outsourcing vehicle.
The ‘feelings’ of self-righteousness are so good so it’s no wonder that we are inclined to seek them - and will happily take a shortcut to acquire them.
So is brand altruism something of a misnomer, and simply a contemporary biological market tactic pandering to the current cultural mode for virtue signalling?
If this were the case then that may cause some significant cognitive dissonance for the authenticity seeking future consumers.
(Not all is lost however. Lack of millennial buying power notwithstanding, there is still much fun to be had given that the only thing people seem to like more than virtue signaling is judging other people.)
Perhaps another idea to consider is this.
Brand altruism may simply be interpreted as signal.
A costly and strategic signal, that provides an honest indicator of quality.
A brand might make a strategic investment in altruism that acts simply as a signal of its ability to be altruistic - the brand signals that it has the assets to do so.
In this sense, brand altruism is simply another form of costly signalling the same as investing in high quality advertising and equivalent to the ‘handicap’ for which the peacock's tail has become a metaphor.
It’s altruism, but it’s competitive.
To paraphrase Ambler and Hollier’s much cited work (and one this writer returns to frequently) ‘The Waste in Advertising Is the Part That Works’.
‘The perceived extravagance of [a brand’s altruistic acts] contributes to advertising effectiveness by increasing credibility. It draws especially on the Handicap Principle in biology: animals use wasteful characteristics to signal their exceptional biological fitness. It hypothesizes that excesses in [altruism] work in a similar way by signalling brand fitness…’
In summary, we should probably understand this emerging idea of brand altruism as a part of the brand marketing process through which brands compete with each other in terms of conspicuous generosity (or if you prefer, observable competitive altruism) in order to enhance the status, reputation and perceived quality of the brand.
If some good is worth doing, it’s worth doing in public.
And, of course, the more salient the ‘altruistic’ acts of the brand are then the associated ‘generosity’ traits transfer to buyers and users of the brand, more grist to our virtue signalling.
For sure, it is good that brands may wish to contribute to a greater good, or to society as a whole. Let’s hope that the brands that are successful enough and profitable enough continue to do so. But let’s not get too caught up with esoteric notions of ‘pure’ altruism.
Rest easy advertisers and marketers. We can make the world better and still be our selfish, insecure and status-seeking selves.