Brands are people first. Customers are people too, so customers tend to take their relationship with a brand personally. Thus it’s not a surprise that people love their favorite smartphone brand, cringe when you mention their cable company or even hate the mention of a particular bank.
Startups, as well as every existing business, need to realize that this brand perception is becoming more and more driven by their relationships with customers, as well as feedback from other customer-brand relationships, made visible on social media and Internet websites like Yelp and Foursquare. Proving the new model today are sites like Patagonia and Zappos.
According to Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske, in their classic book “The Human Brand,” humans are very perceptive, from early survival evolution, and make quick judgments about other people’s intents toward them (warmth), and the capability of carrying out intents (competence). Thus your brand (people) needs to project both warmth and competence, for loyalty today.
But how do you know if your brand is projecting warmth and competence to your customers? Here are some key signals, outlined by Malone and Fiske, which I believe every startup founder and business leader should evaluate in their own business to see if their brand is positive:
- The loyalty test. For loyal customers, a business has to first demonstrate genuine warmth, concern, and commitment. Selling to loyal customers is 3 to 10 times cheaper than acquiring new customers. Go beyond loyalty expectations, and you can turn loyal customers into passionate advocates who actively recommend your company to others.
- The principle of worthy intentions. This principle is a relationship building strategy that involves attracting and keeping customers by consistently putting their best interests ahead of those of your company or brand. Competence alone won’t ensure loyalty. Only the emotional connections of worthy intentions have the power to change minds.
- The price of progress. Faceless commerce these days leads to a focus on discounts. Discounts are viewed as less-than-worthy intentions and do not buy loyal customers. Every website must offer more than one-way commerce and discounts. It must also offer interactive relationships, and warmth and competence, through worthy intentions.
- Take us to your leader. Customers today have a primal desire to judge brands by the people behind the brand, most notably the CEO. Customers look for transformational rather than transactional leaders, who inspire employees to exert the extra effort on customers’ behalf. Leaders need to come out from behind their curtain.
- Show your true colors. Mistakes and crises are a golden loyalty opportunity. We are apt to forgive when we feel empathy for an offending partner. Customers watch and judge whether people or profits come first. A brand spokesperson can show worthy intentions or can deflect blame and take a narrower more self-serving view.
Today’s business market exists in the renaissance of relationships. Perception is reality, and businesses can no longer hide behind their brand. Transactions move faster and mistakes happen faster, with customers able to watch for warmth and competence, or no worthy intentions. Here are key imperatives, sanctioned by Malone, Fisk, and myself, to keep you on the right track:
- Become more self-aware. On-going self-awareness is a crucial competency of every brand and every business leader. Don’t be afraid to ask customers the direct questions – do you see us as warm and trustworthy, as well as competent and capable? Then listen with an open mind and genuine interest, and be willing and able to change.
- Embrace significant change. Change is now the norm, so no change over a period of time is actually moving backward. Companies and brands must shift from a mentality of control, defensiveness, and unresponsiveness to one that is more open to understanding how they are perceived, and to adopt change as a good thing, rather than a problem.
- Fundamentally shift priorities. Lasting change requires a sincere examination and adjustment of the goals and priorities that have led companies astray in the first place. Sustained success in the future will require companies to dramatically shift their emphasis from short-term shareholder value to shared value for multiple stakeholders.
Overall, your customers now have near-instantaneous power to hold companies and brands accountable for their words and actions. That power will continue to grow in the years ahead. Is your brand ready to flourish in that environment, or highly at-risk for any slight misstep?