As Random Acts of Kindness week was earlier this month, it got me thinking: is this culture of kindness something that could cross over to how brands behave?

Are they already doing business by doing good? Social media makes it possible for brands to do ‘random’ nice things for customers (or fans or followers).

Is this self-serving? Or is it genuinely the start of something great?  

How it started

Interflora

In 2010, Interflora launched a Twitter campaign to cheer people up who were having a bad day, by sending them a surprise bunch of flowers

KLM

Then airline KLM started surprising customers at check-in with personalised gifts back in 2011 (something it still does today).

The brand uses Twitter and Foursquare to find people who are flying with KLM, and checks their social profiles to get an idea about what they might like. A great example was a passenger going on a hiking trip to Rome who was given a watch that tracked walking speed and distance covered.

Coca-Cola

The soft drinks giant has promoted ‘happiness’ as a brand value for a few years, and is finding creative ways to associate the brand with happiness.

In 2011, as part of a Happiness is Home Project, the brand selected several overseas Filipino workers who hadn’t been home for years, and gave them a free trip home for Christmas.

Of course, this was part of a marketing campaign: those selected were picked up by branded vans, filmed on their journeys and during the emotional reunion, and finally pictured enjoying a large welcome home family meal, with (naturally) bottles of Coke being poured for all.

This makes it less of a ‘random’ act of kindness, as the planning must have been phenomenal, but it’s still a lovely idea. 

Spanair

Spanish airline Spanair did something similar in 2010 when it surprised a plane full of Christmas Eve late night passengers with presents on the baggage carousel.

It then performed a similar feat in 2011, when the flight crew announced that they had just flown past Santa, and proceeded to read out personalised messages from him to the children on the plane before giving out presents. 

Virgin Atlantic USA

In December 2012 the airline gave away a gift a day to a randomly selected follower. But this was more staged (though not necessarily less valued because of that): followers tweeted the reason they deserved a treat and used the hashtag #VAAGiftaway. 

So does this work? The pros and cons

It occurred to me that there could be some pitfalls with campaigns like these, and some things brands should probably consider: 

Nice gesture or intrusion?

There’s a difference between spotting something on someone’s Twitter feed and doing something nice to brighten their day, and being a bit, well, stalky. Be lovely, not creepy.  

Is it authentic?

If you expect something in return, this is more of a transaction than a good deed. If it’s a marketing stunt to get more followers, it’ll show.

If it’s genuinely a brand value to do business by doing good, it’ll also show. And that value should run through everything else the brand does, not just social media. Just look at what LEGO did in September 2012.

A 10 year old LEGO fan had saved for two years to afford the Emerald Night train set, only to discover that the brand had stopped selling it, and he could only get it from collectors at more than twice the price.

After writing to LEGO to tell them how sad this made him, and to ask if they had a spare one at head office, the brand had to let him know that they couldn’t help. It then surprised him with the train set he had been dreaming of owning.

His father was so touched by the gesture that he filmed his son opening the gift and uploaded it to YouTube, where it became a hit, and now has more than 1.6 million views.

LEGO did this with no thought of what it would get in return (apart from a loyal customer). It was a genuine random act of kindness, and the perfect example of how brands can perform acts of kindness without looking crass and gimmicky. 

The brand performed a similar act of kindness when it replaced a boy’s lost Christmas toy. The father (who just happened to work in PR) was so impressed with LEGO’s letter and gift, that he gave the brand and employee a shout out on Twitter, which ITV picked up and reported.

Can you overdo it?

There’s a risk that, done too often, a brand’s customers and social media fans will come to expect these acts of kindness, or resent it when they’re not selected for a ‘surprise’ treat. The best intentions could lead to some fans becoming disenchanted with the brand.

And the truth is, there are some benefits to be had. Being nice to people reaps its own rewards. It’s a great way to find new brand advocates, increase customer loyalty and generally create a warm fuzzy feeling around the brand. Eventually, those things will translate to sales. But this isn’t a quick numbers game. It’s about demonstrating your core values. 

Acts of kindness should be done with the expectation that you will receive nothing in return. 

And they don’t work in isolation. If you genuinely care about your customers enough to surprise them with something thoughtful, you’ll also be nurturing your communities and offering excellent customer service, for example

Is this the beginning of a movement, or a shift in the way companies do business? Can you use social media to surprise and delight customers without expecting anything back? Speaking on Radio4’s In Business recently, a spokesperson for KLM said that consumers will know if this is a cynical marketing ploy or a genuine value that’s embedded in the company. 

And perhaps that’s the key. If Ryanair starting dishing out gifts, we’d probably think it was too good to be true. But getting a bunch of flowers from Interflora on a bad day, or a really thoughtful gift from KLM? That’s a different matter.