Love is a two-way street

trains-railroad_00389817

[this post appeared previously on the Bulldog Drummond blog]

Oh Love

Why do you love someone? Not the specific aspects of a specific person, but the broader reasons underlying love. I think it’s because of things like respect, trust, passion and reciprocity. Love is built on deep values shared by both people. This is not a wedding, so I won’t get all religious here, but suffice it to say that love is not about control, it’s about mutual admiration and devotion. If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.

So why is it that so many businesses rely on intrusion, persistence and repetition to win your love? I think it’s because businesses rarely love their customers the way they expect their customers to love their brands. They are on a power trip. Yes, there are a small number of companies who truly love their customers and provide genuine reciprocal devotion. But not many. In a loving human relationship, there are many things that partners do for each other that have practical value. Like taking out the trash (without complaining) or picking someone up at the airport (a binding social contract according to Jerry Seinfeld). Surely, products have practical value in your life. Isn’t that the whole point? Tide helps you clean your clothes and Toyota helps you get to work… for a fair price.

A practical exchange of value is on the level of paying an employee to do a job. It gets the job done, but is “strictly business.” You pay for the detergent or car, and the company delivers a product that meets your specific needs. But love is on a whole different level. You might even “love” the way your car drives, or the way your detergent smells, but that’s not being in love with the brand. Being in love with a brand requires a deeper, more meaningful relationship… one that goes beyond simply exchanging money for a product. Similarly, being fully engaged in your work requires much more than fair pay for the effort you invest (What is employee engagement?).

Any business that wants to move past a business transaction and into a loving relationship has to start giving more than a product or service. You can’t have it both ways (for long). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a transactional business relationship. This only applies when a business has decided that love is a better strategy to run their business than a series of practical transactions. But there’s a pile of evidence that love leads to good things.

Elevation

In most businesses, a series of repeated purchases are far more profitable than a revolving door of new customers coming and going after only one try. The Loyalty Effect and Customer Lifetime Value are smart ways to think about evaluating customers over the long term. And Saatchi and Saatchi established the ideal of love marks as the “future beyond brands.” According to them, a love mark “delivers beyond your expectations of great performance and reaches your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without.” So in order to win customers for life, it makes sense to elevate your aspirations and aim for love.

Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, but the stakes are high. You can’t just offer points for repeated purchases as most loyalty programs require. That’s controlling and obvious. Imagine if you only gave your partner a back massage if they take out the trash 20 times without complaining. That looks more like manipulation, and would be a red flag on the health of your relationship.

Every Day is a Winding Road

Both partners have to give fully “above and beyond” the practical value of their existence together to make a loving relationship work. Loving a brand is not all about devoted customers. It’s also about a devoted company. Brand consultants Wolff Olins recommend “thinking less about selling people, and more about enlisting them.” In a Wired interview with former Wolff Olins CEO Karl Heiselman suggests “Unlike the parent-child relationship of the past, or the top-down relationship in the past, companies and people are meeting as equals. It’s much more like a one-on-one relationship you would have with another person. It’s based on reciprocity and honesty and trust” (Check out the Wolff Olins/Flamingo full report).

So what does devotion look like for a brand? It starts with a clear set of values and a strong sense of purpose. Patagonia has stated that they want to save the planet from consumerism. An apparent contradiction for a company that makes clothes and puts out seasonal catalogs to get customers to buy more stuff. But in loving relationships, contradictions are something to embrace and explore together, not to be hidden or avoided. Clearly Patagonia is doing a lot to improve their impact on the planet, and being transparent about their intentions and owning up to their faults builds trust with customers. In an open relationship, there’s no hidden dark side or eventual “gotcha” moment where the truth comes out. There’s an honest, open dialogue about how they can be better.

Being honest and transparent is a great way for brands to demonstrate love for their customers, but there are other great ways. Instead of making every interaction a product push, brands can offer inspiration, insight, or support to their customers between and around purchases. Giving customers something they value beyond the specific product doesn’t have to cost a lot, it just has to feel right to the customer. Sometimes you can just make it easy for a customer by sharing good information or good advice instead of presenting a special offer or feature highlight. This approach to customers is nothing less than a complete re-engineering of advertising from a constant sales pitch to grab your attention, to helpful advice, aducation and inspirational content.

Fools in Love

Sometimes love requires breaking rules based on empathy for a customer’s situation. My family recently took a vacation to France, and while away my Mother-in-law became very sick. She was seriously ill when we left, but had an unexpected setback that suddenly threatened her life. My wife had to return home early, and called Air France to rearrange her flight. Of course this late notice change of plans caused a substantial fare increase of over $1500. The airline was under no business obligation to honor the original fare, so they didn’t. They offered to waive the $150 change fee if she got a letter from the hospital indicating her condition.

This is not love. This is war. We do not fly to France every week, so getting the highest fee for a one-time transaction might be good business. But, I would guess not many people love Air France, which means they’ll choose another airline if given the option. A loving brand would offer support and condolences and make sure she got home quickly with little resistance so she could be with her dying mother.

Brands can be more lovable by setting their customers free to “live their brand” in ways that align with the brand’s values. That’s more than getting people to drink a soda like Mountain Dew or wear a Van’s shoe. Mountain Dew and Vans both show that a real personality attracts a special type of customer into a deeply committed relationship, where they build the brand together into an authentic lifestyle.

The Power Of Love

It’s up to each business to decide if they want to pursue a loving relationship with their customers, or stick to a more businesslike, transactional approach. For some it may be too expensive (or maybe they’re just not ready yet). But there is plenty of research to show that customers actually want to love brands.

A long-term study by The Spending Group found that 48% of American consumers fall into a group they call the New Economic Order (NEO). The research shows that these “NEOs” value factors like design, authenticity, and experience higher than cost. The other 52% fit into a group they call “Traditionals,” who make buying decisions based mostly on the short-term value of a transaction. Both groups are substantial and should be met in an appropriate manner by businesses. But the kicker of the research is that NEO’s account for 77% of consumer spending, which is especially important during difficult economic conditions.

NEOs see products and services as an extension of themselves and seek authentic relationships and meaningful experiences. To win their affections, brands must work hard and offer more than a simple transaction. In the service industry, this is talked about as “surprising and delighting” customers at every turn. Just as you would bring flowers to a friend for no reason at all, brands must provide authentic, non-paying opportunities to connect with their customers if they want to earn loving status. There’s no way these efforts can be a disguised ploy to push product, or it will feel fake or forced to customers. It has to be no-strings-attached, genuine giving.

It’s not easy, but it is possible to establish long-term, committed relationships between companies and customers. And these types of relationships are great for the business and great for the customer.

All You Need Is Love.

Discography:

Oh Love (Green Day, 2012)
If You Love Somebody Set Them Free (Sting, 1985)
Elevation (U2, 2000)
Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (The Four Aces, 1955)
Everyday Is A Winding Road (Sheryl Crow, 1996)
Fools In Love (Joe Jackson, 1979)
The Power Of Love (Huey Lewis & The News, 1985)
All You Need Is Love (Beatles, 1967)

 

 

 

Culture is a capability

A culture defines the normal way people behave in a particular group. It provides the cues, boundaries, guidelines and encouragement that help individual members of a group know what is right and what is wrong. Culture guides decisions that result in actions. The best way to understand a culture is to pay attention to actual behavior and study evidence created by the people of a particular group. It’s also great to compare groups in order to discover similarities and differences in their cultures, which is what the field of Anthropology is all about.

Image by David Rowan

Image by David Rowan

Get Specific

In the context of a company, I often hear people say things like, “We have a winning culture here,” or “We’re building a culture of innovation,” or “Our culture is defined by our values,” etc. These could all be true statements, but they are not very useful as descriptions of their particular cultures.

To describe a culture you need to identify specific, notable ways that people interact and find evidence that these ways are useful by the members of that particular group. If a company has a culture of innovation, we should be able to observe characteristics and behaviors by the people there that result in innovative outcomes. We should find artifacts of that behavior that are cherished and celebrated as the great examples of what the call innovation.

If the culture is strong there should be stories about how a certain leader did something unusual or even strange to other companies that resulted in a great outcome. This is why “founder stories” are so important to young companies. They describe the key insight or heroic behavior of the people who start a company and allow others to act in similar ways to get similar outcomes… resulting in a consistent pattern of behavior (culture!).

There is no “best” culture

I’ve had the great privilege of working in some of the world’s most innovative companies (as defined by Fast Company magazine) including IDEO, Charles Schwab, Levi Strauss, and Hulu. One thing I can say about all of them is that leaders there believe their cultures are a significant reason for their success. Another thing I can say, having been up close and personal in all of them, is that they are each distinctly different from the others. So while they may all have “winning” or “innovative” cultures, there is not a common culture across them. Behaving one way at Levi Strauss could actually get you fired at Hulu and vice-versa.

To understand what is innovative at IDEO, you just have to listen to the stories they tell each other about great moments in the company’s history. In fact, so many people ask IDEO about their culture, nearly any person who works there can point to examples of their innovative behavior that resulted in breakthrough product designs like the first Apple mouse or the Crest Neat Squeeze toothpaste tube.

What every leader should know about culture is that it has to be defined, built and actively managed if you want it to help your business succeed. In most cases, culture should be defined in response to a business problem, not in advance of one. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “the best” culture that could be built first and then applied to any business problem. So just like a supply chain for making shoes would be different than a supply chain for making cars, each culture should be constructed to address the unique challenges of the business at hand.

Culture is not a statement of ideals

Culture should not necessarily be a reflection of the founder, CEO or executive team—although leaders must behave in accordance with the culture or it is unlikely that others will follow. Lip service to a value like customer service, followed by actions that don’t treat customers well will not build a customer-centered culture. All of the advertising dollars in the world will not make airline customers feel treated with respect if they are dumped from flights for unexplained reasons even if there’s a video of the CEO pronouncing that he personally cares for every customer who flies with them. A founder is often an architect of the cultural blueprint, but cultures are dynamic and change over time. What worked for the original 20 team members may not scale and should be adjusted to the demands of the business over time. Retain the essence but refine the whole.

Culture is not simply a values statement or a manifesto. Culture is a capability that provides direction and support to every member of an organization in order to achieve a strategic objective. Great leaders understand that culture  should be carefully managed to achieve their organization’s full potential.

[This post also appears in the Bulldog Drummond blog Uncommon Sense]