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8 Branding Tips: Be Your Customers' Best Friend

Renee Farris headshotWords by Renee Farris
Leadership & Transparency
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Thirty-seven percent of employees say they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why, according to Stephen Covey’s "The 8th Habit." If employees don’t know what their organization is trying to achieve, then customers sure as heck won’t know. What we have here is a branding problem.

At the recent Women in Green Forum, there was some talk about branding and communication. “Brands are really just a collection of people ... When we look at something we want it to sound like someone we know … not just a bot,” said Jenn Hirsch, founder of Marked Point.

“With more digital tools we have the expectation that we’ll be able to 'peek behind the curtain' and understand the inner workings of companies,” continued Hirsch, who specializes in helping companies tell their story. She was discussing branding with Leslie Ziegler, cofounder of Bitty Foods.

Their discussion caused the gears in my brain to turn, and I came up with a list of eight ways you can develop a kickass authentic brand.

1. Your friend, not a machine


Ziegler said she often gives a personal touch when replying to customers’ emails by including an amusing animated GIF, like a velociraptor on a bicycle.

When people talk about a company, they use the same pronouns used to describe people, such as they, them, their. That’s because the way we think about that company is in some ways the way we think about people.

People say “brands need to be humanized,” but I believe a brand should be like your ideal best friend: helpful, wise, intriguing, ethical, stylish, driven and fun to hang out with. It should be your role model, a person you look up to and want to imitate.

Typically, a company operates more like a machine. How often do you call into customer support and get a person who is obviously reading a script? Always and almost every time. How valued do you feel? As valuable as the gum stuck on my shoe. How likely is that rep to be able to solve a problem that requires any degree of flexibility? As flexible as a corpse with rigor mortis.

2. A meaningful story, not a math quiz or soap opera


Fonts, colors and logos are all part of branding, but they are peripherals and not the essence of a brand. When you strip a brand down to its core, a brand is a story. It’s a story about people: the people who work there and the people they serve. Your brand tells the world who you are, why you exist and where you’re going.

At the Women in Green Forum, Hirsch pointed out: “A brand is an ongoing story. To have a good story, you have to know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, who the antihero is. So, really then when you approach something, ask what’s going to get people involved.”

If you attached GoPros to your product designer, materials supplier, factory worker, warehouse worker, transportation driver, customer service rep, CEO, potential customer and product user and merged those videos together, then you would have a video that tells your brand’s story. Your brand is the sum of these stories combined.

Hirsch also mentioned that, in the world of sustainability, there are so many actions we’d love customers to take. If your story is meaningful, then customers will care about your company’s mission so much that they act on it. When people don’t care, they don’t act. But if they care, not only will they purchase products and services from you, but they will also become vocal advocates and self-appointed brand ambassadors.

3. Honest, even when it hurts


Your closest friends are people you trust. They’re there for you when you need them. You can count on them to do what they say they’ll do. They’ve got your back. They apologize when they’re wrong and try to make things right.

A brand should be the same way. When Honda screwed up its airbag system and recalled 5 million cars, polls showed that the public’s perception of the automaker's product quality was hardly impacted. Say whaaat? It’s because Honda built up years of trust with the public, honestly admitted its mistake, and did what it could to fix it.

4. Compassionate, like a bouquet of flowers


Brands that are compassionate and help a customer during a time of vulnerability can turn a one-time customer into a lifelong fan.

Zappos has a great history of having compassion on individual customers. Once Zappos employees even sent flowers to a lady who purchased six different pairs of shoes because her feet were damaged by brutal medical treatments.

5. Respectful of earthlings, furry critters and trees


Would you be friends with someone who was very kind to you but never tipped a restaurant waiter or regularly had road rage and flipped off drivers? I’d rather befriend a porcupine wielding a light sabre.

Similarly, a brand’s ethics go beyond how it treats customers and extends to the way it treats everyone else. Customers want to be friends with brands that are throwing kindness everywhere like confetti. When a business treats workers poorly and customers well, the inconsistency makes the brand seem inauthentic and customers become disillusioned. Gone are the days when a company could be rotten on the inside while maintaining a beautiful exterior shell. The Internet is making the world of business increasingly transparent.

6. Considerate


A good friend values your time. So does a good brand. Apple and Amazon both allow customers to enter their phone number, and they promise to call soon. This way you don’t have to spend time on hold waiting to speak with a rep.

7. An exceptional communicator


Relationships are all about listening. If you were going to take a week-long trip with your friend, you wouldn’t decree, “We’re going to XYZ!” No, unless that place is unanimously spectacular like a trip to Mars. Instead you would make plans together and go through rounds of listening to each other and planning together.

Customers are not puppy dogs. They don’t love you unconditionally or follow you wherever you want to go. So, why the heck do companies make plans without communicating with customers, listening to their dreams and concerns, and what trips they want to take in life? Customers need to be asked to join the decision-making table so everyone can listen to their ideas.

8. So fun you can’t even


If hanging out with a brand starts to feel like hanging out with your mom during high school, there’s a problem. Funny marketing material catches people’s attention, says Thomas Cline, Ph.D., a professor of marketing and statistics. About 30 to 50 percent of ads use humor. Cline says that humor improves a person’s mood, and then they associate their good feelings with the product advertised.

The bottom line


When you think about your favorite brand, would you want to invite it out to chat over coffee? Do you want to introduce it to your friends? If the brand is like a friend, the answer is yes.

Image credit: Flickr/Kayla Kandzorra

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

Read more stories by Renee Farris