We often think of brands as the emotional connection between customers and the products or companies those brands represent.
Certainly brands elicit emotions. They spur affinity, love, revulsion, contentment. One of my associates loves her Mini (she’s owned three). Hog fans love their Harley-Davidsons (a bit confusing here in Arkansas, isn’t it?) I love my iPhone.
To love a brand, though, is to love more than the product itself. The Apple brand is not my smartphone; it’s the very idea of Apple — everything the company has made, done, said and stood for over many years.
It has always been helpful to me to think of brands as being “like people.” Brands have personalities, their own distinctive voices. They express themselves. They have what’s quaintly called “trade dress,” or a graphic identity system incorporating logo, colors and design.
So if brands are “like people” and people themselves can love brands, can brands “second the emotion?” Can brands love? Yes they can. In fact, it’s clear that the great ones do. Here’s how.
Love Your Customer
Remember being young, first dating and getting serious, all the tension developing around who would first confess, “I love you?” Remember how the dam broke with that first statement and how effortless it subsequently became to give and receive love?
Brands that love go first.
I recently met with a new client who has a rock-star online reputation and off-the-chart Net Promoter Score. His customers clearly love his company. Execs described their company as obsessively customer-focused. Their founder has zero tolerance for mad customers. After more than a decade and a half in business, he can still count every customer that left the company mad on his fingers and toes. This company loves its customers, and it loved them before it even had any.
Zappos earns a lot of love from its customers. It’s because Zappos loved you first. Tony Hsieh, the founder, created the company for the express purpose of building a company with a great employee culture that was intensely passionate about its customers. How do they show the love? Free shipping on returns, no limits on how long their reps will stay on the phone with you, and laser focus on “delivering happiness.”
Brands that love go first.
Love Your Product
Speaking of Apple, here we have a company that rather disrespects its customers. Steve Jobs was famously dismissive of them, saying: “We’re not going to ask customers what they want. People don’t know what they want until we make it for them.” (I paraphrase.) Apple makes it hard and expensive to get customer care. If you don’t buy their service package, good luck getting help on the phone.
But people love Apple products and investors clearly love the stock. Apple just makes great stuff and then makes it cool to have it. Even the Apple Watch — clearly suspect as far as utility goes — enters the market with an insanely expensive version. Few will buy it but all recognize the cool self-confidence resident in that $17,000 price tag.
Apple may not love its customers but it certainly loves its products and how they answer very specific customer needs. Apple expresses its love in a Jobsian sort of way —extreme love for innovation, function and elegance. Extreme love for making products that just damn work. So in its own perverse way, the Apple brand loves. Your brand can too.
Research shows that if you stare into another’s eyes for four minutes you will fall in love (you can read about it here). Personally I’m afraid to try this. But if such intimacy and transparency creates love, perhaps your brand can try it.
How can a company drive customer intimacy into its brand? We’ve demonstrated that it requires just a few key competencies within the organization. These include common beliefs — a set of core principles that drive brand culture; constant communications — regular internal discourse and dialog reinforcing brand principles, values and culture; compelling stories — memorable, instructive anecdotes that illustrate desired behaviors; and collective celebrations — the social reinforcement of our common cause.
These disciplines, developed thoughtfully and executed methodically, have been observed in many of the customer-intimate organizations in the world: Lego, Walgreens, Wells Fargo, Cabela’s, Zappos, Umpqua Bank, Scholastic, Allstate.
At the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, a big decal in the employee staging area proclaims: Be Huggable. This is the hotel’s brand principle, its north star for delivering its unique brand of Southern hospitality. It doesn’t mean you’ll give or get a hug when you walk in there, but it does mean the staff will exude a remarkable authenticity and warm and genuine care that’s worthy of a big hug.
Love One Another
The old saw that happy employees create happy customers might be extended: loved employees create loving customers. Can you create some employee love that transmits through your brand to customers? Southwest Airlines does it well.
Their core values of “servant’s heart” and “fun-LUVing attitude” mean employees are encouraged to treat each other with respect and light-heartedness, follow the Golden Rule and embrace the Southwest family.
Clearly their employees experience love inside the company. Watch a few employee interviews on the company’s YouTube channel. Watch their “culture committee” swoop into an airport gate area and give the flight crew a break while the committee cleans the plane. Southwest employees clearly love each other and their company.
We were interviewing senior executives of a client company that is recognized in its industry as a cut above in ethics, customer care and quality. One of these execs wanted us to know how profoundly the CEO influenced this company’s modus operandi. “You want to know how he opened his Thanksgiving Day email to the team? ‘I love you.’ And we all knew it was so.” That is raw, vulnerable and powerful stuff.
Companies and cultures that experience love create brands that love.
Love is a two-way thing. It seems to me that brands that learn how to love are the most likely to be loved in return.
This article was first published in Talk Business.