Companies find creative ways to reach out to staff, customers, even strangers.
Ikea Canada knows that, even in the cutthroat world of business, it can pay to be nice.
In 2011, seeking to connect with otherwise occupied consumers around the province's hectic July 1 moving day, the home furnishings giant distributed 15,000 free packing boxes at various Montreal locations.
"They're in the highest demand and lowest supply at that time," said company spokeswoman Madeleine Löwenborg-Frick. She noted the branded boxes, which had discount coupons attached, were "gone in a flash."
"We're always looking for ways to create a better everyday life for our customers ... and executing marketing that isn't just sale marketing, or 'Come on in' marketing, but really gathering insights about our customer, how they live their lives and what's important to them."
The initiative, which won several advertising awards, was credited with year-over-year increases of 14 per cent for in-store visits and 24.5 per cent for sales on that weekend.
While bottom-line demands and investor expectations make might make the idea of generosity in business seem counterintuitive, some companies have discovered that a little kindness can burnish their image and inspire customer and employee loyalty.
"There's very little that brands can do these days to get the attention of consumers, surprise consumers and delight consumers; one remaining is to practice a random act of kindness, to just give them something with no strings attached," said England-based David Mattin, an analyst at trendwatching.com, which highlights such acts as a way for corporations to "show their human side."
For instance, this year in the U.K., where researchers have pinpointed the third Monday in January as the year's most depressing day, The Sun posted a team along the M6 highway on Jan. 21 holding cheery signs telling drivers that the newspaper had paid their tolls.
Firms embarking on such ventures must resist the urge to "have the 'Click here. Buy now!' in the middle" of their undertakings, said digital marketing expert Jay Baer. In his new book, Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is About Help Not Hype, Baer encourages businesses to "inform rather than merely promote."
He identified Hilton Worldwide's Hilton Suggests program as an example of a business recognizing that "if we are helpful and kind to our customers and potential customers, they will give us credit for that and they will patronize us eventually."
Since 2009, the hotelier has rallied staff in over 50 cities around the globe to monitor Twitter and respond when they can offer advice, to anyone -- not just Hilton clients -- needing help with anything from transit connections to restaurant recommendations to sick pets.
"Helping someone find a vet is so outside their core mission, but eventually that dog owner is going to want to book a hotel, and presumably he's going to think of Hilton first, because they helped him when he needed help, but critically they did so without the expectation of immediate return," said Baer of the company's "strategic eavesdropping."
Hilton Suggests is a natural extension of the brand, said Orlando-based Vanessa Sain-Dieguez, the company's director of Social Media Planning & Integration.
"It's about being hospitable to the core and offering that on a daily basis to anyone," she explained. "This is a long-term play. For sure, we won't fully realize the benefits right away, but we have seen the value increase in terms of brand reputation and just word of mouth ... we certainly get bookings as a result of Hilton Suggests."
Indiana-based Baer also praises Phoenix Children's Hospital's Car Seat Helper App, which helps parents select the right seat for their children, and Charmin's SitOrSquat app, which rates restrooms across the U.S., as other examples of "massively useful info, provided for free, that creates long-term trust and kinship between your company and your customers."
Brands can also benefit from helping each other.
When Toronto-based David Leonard, president of ad agency DDB Canada, saw morning-after coverage of the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riots, he immediately rang up Rick Antonson, president of Tourism Vancouver, which was not a client.
"I just felt so badly for him and what he was going to have to deal with, in terms of the reputational scar that was put on the city ... I said 'Rick, I'm watching in horror what's happened last night, you have my entire Vancouver office at your disposal, because we need to do whatever is required to rebuild the city's reputation.' "
Within 24 hours, DDB launched "This Is Our Vancouver," a website filled with positive, crowdsourced images that celebrated the city.
Vancouver native Leonard said the pro bono work, which included PR and social media and would've cost "over $50,000," was inspired by "a sense of duty and obligation, like when you volunteer.
"In the long run, hopefully, the work served to strengthen DDB's company reputation, but that's not the reason DDB did it," he said.
Generosity, sometimes called compassionate management, can be extended to employees, as well.
Many white-collar companies that rely on a content, stable workforce have introduced incentives, anything from flexible hours to paid volunteer time to even in vitro fertilization subsidies.
"You call it kindness, we call it an employee value proposition," said Sandra McLellan, a director with human resources consulting agency Towers Watson.
"What is the culture that you're trying to create to support your business strategy? And how can you be sure that every program you have in place is supporting creating that kind of culture and environment?
"If you're trying to create a place where wellness is important, both physical and mental health, do you subsidize as an organization gym membership? If you're going to choose what you offer to employees, because of course, nothing is free, start with what supports your culture and attitudes about wellness."
At Mars Canada's Bolton headquarters, the company established an outdoor "doggie courtyard" three years ago to encourage employees to bring their pets to work.
"In a lot of research that we've done, we know that the relationship between pet and owner is really important and we're really focused as a business on wellbeing," said company spokeswoman Leslie Brams-Baker, whose poodle and Shih Tzu often accompany her to work.
Free dog treats abound, courtesy of the chocolate manufacturer, which also makes pet food; and staff can use collapsible gates to fence off their cubicles so dogs can roam a little without disturbing others.
"At any given time there's probably about four dogs in the office," said Brams-Baker. "For the associate that's bringing the dog in, it can be a stress reducer if it's a day where it was going to be a really long day for their dog to be home all day.
"But it also creates a really fun work environment. You find that you end up connecting with people you wouldn't normally connect with in the office."