Rules for the perfect gift

‘Gifting’ is not a new concept in Marketing, but continues to be an important one. Whenever anyone gives a gift, they are expecting something in return - an appreciation perhaps, or a shared bonding moment. This is the principle of reciprocity

Rules for the perfect gift

The author(s)

  • Oliver Sweet Head of Ethnography
Get in touch

I’m not prone to anxiety, but buying ‘informal’ gifts for other people paralyses me with social fear. I’ve been to a series of 40th birthdays recently where I’ve had to ask myself some searching questions, like ‘how much do I like this person?’, and ‘what do I think they would buy for me?’. Now, 40th birthdays have the potential to be built up as unnecessarily momentous occasions, like engagement parties and stag dos, but the pressure is indicative of what a gift represents.

‘Gifting’ is not a new concept in Marketing, but continues to be an important one. The level of importance placed on duty free sales in the spirits industry (which is for when you go to stay with friends abroad), and the opportunistic placing of box chocolates in the supermarket (for coming home late from work) show that this is big business. But what I find fascinating, is where giving a gift is combined with a level of ambiguity about what is normal for that occasion. There is no obvious gift for a 40th birthday bash in a restaurant for a friend.

And herein lies the insight; whenever anyone gives a gift, they are expecting something in return. Not another gift (normally), but they are expecting a reciprocal moment where appreciation, or a shared bonding moment elevates the gift giver’s status. The more you like the person, the more you would like to go up their social pecking order. You are also second guessing what they might appreciate and the level of gratitude they are likely to display when presented with it.

While the gift isn’t new to marketers, it is even older to anthropologists. Here, it is referred to as the principle of reciprocity, and was expertly developed in the book titled ‘The Gift’ by Marcel Mauss. Gifting sits at the heart of anthropological thought and is just as relevant to today’s marketing strategies as it was when the principle was first developed. It is argued that even evolutionary forces may have favoured gift giving. Men who were most generous may have had the most reproductive success, and women who were more skilled at giving were better at sustaining families with food and basic care. Based on the experience of exchange, reciprocity brings the material and emotional worlds together, and places objects (or gifts) at the core of our relationships, as symbols of their ability to develop, thrive, or whither. When a gift is given it becomes a symbol of that relationship.

Our research for NHS England found that patients often feel indebted and even at loss after the care they receive, regardless of how positive the improvement to their life becomes after treatment. Their gratitude to staff, which often represents a gift in the form of lack of pain, or increased mobility is significant. However, their lack of power to reciprocate the gift, means they are unable to elevate their relationship with the gift giver.  Usually, the failure to make a return may affect or even end a relationship. Of course, in this instance, this wouldn’t happen, but the impact on patients demonstrates the sheer power reciprocity has in our everyday life.

‘Gifting’ has influenced our work on numerous research projects, from home furnishings, to financial services, to health care. We see the principle of reciprocity everywhere. As we discover it, we begin to uncover some basic rules marketeers should follow:

  1. The receiver needs to instantly recognise the symbol of the gift. Your product represents something to the gift giver, be that influence, love, connection or kindness, and the receiver should be acknowledging that as it is given. Understanding the symbolism of the gift is the primary purpose of the gift and is key.  In China, people give whisky as a gift, and the receiver puts it on a shelf in the living room to show off. The bottle must look good to save embarrassment for the giver and the receiver.
  2. Freebies are gifts too.  Allow people to thank you for the gifts that you give them, even if they are free, and then have a way that customers can show gratitude to the brand.  Social media can be quite effective.  KitKat applied the principle very so successfully in Japan, when they turned their product (the actual chocolate bar) into a thank you card that could be sent through the post.
  3. Services such as credit agencies need to harness reciprocity too.  For example, we know that when people are in debt, they are less likely to prioritise repayment when the lender is a faceless organisation.  However, when the lender is friend, family, or an agent they know by name and have had previous conversations with, they are more likely to feel a sense of reciprocity and therefore repayment moves higher up on the priority list.  

Knowing these rules gives us some guidance on what people are expecting from our interactions with them, and helps marketers think about the intrinsic purpose of gifting.  And what I’ve (belatedly) found when it comes to buying a 40th birthday present, is that it needs to be something personal that the two of you share that no one else can – such as a book of memories, or a picture that you both saw and loved when you were on holiday together – because the gift should demonstrate the power, strength and variety of your relationship over 40 glorious years.

No pressure there, then.

The author(s)

  • Oliver Sweet Head of Ethnography

More insights about Culture