People Don't Really Love Brands

Brands should be more focused on helping consumers love themselves

While it's been more than twenty-five years since Tom Cruise uttered, "you complete me," in Jerry Maguire, those words are still remarkably relevant to marketers today. We could all take a lesson about what falling in love is about—that is, when it comes to your brand.

You're likely working hard to create a plan to improve your brand communications and your customers' experience to engage them more deeply, in the hopes that they'll throw caution to the wind and fall deeply in love with your brand. But, maybe you just aren't getting the traction you want. Your customers seem to be indifferent and just bounce from brand to brand. Maybe you're not succeeding because you're chasing the wrong path. That is, getting a consumer to fall in love with your brand might be the wrong strategy. While a consumer's connection to a brand is an emotional relationship, that bond isn't about brand love. It's actually more about self-love.

As countless psychological studies have demonstrated, we humans are much more concerned with, and spend the greater part of our waking hours trying to protect our own self-esteem—or at a minimum, reinforcing our own self-image. Therefore, a consumer's real, yet subconscious, emotional connection with a brand is more likely to be based on how it helps them feel about themselves.

Almost anything we buy—diapers, clothing, electronics or even a can of tomatoes—can affect how we feel about ourselves. The brand of car we drive makes a statement about who we think we are (Chevy or Tesla?). So does the cup of coffee we pick up in the morning (Dunkin or the funky local café?). As does the phone we carry (Apple or Google?). And, while this might seem selfish, indulgent and consumer-y, it's actually not a bad commentary on us as humans, it's just how we're hard-wired. We've been this way long before we had the written word. Even then, we needed to belong, feel significant and feel secure.

Similarly, much of our attraction to other people has to do with how they make us feel about ourselves. Do they understand us? Do they meet use where we are? Do they make us feel even better about ourselves? Do they… complete us?

How can you develop a brand strategy that "completes" consumers?

Not surprisingly, it starts with consumer insight. Unfortunately though the word "insight" has been tossed around indiscriminately over the years, is usually misunderstood, and is often mistaken simply for an observation (e.g. Consumers eat healthier at home than in restaurants.) Don't get me wrong. Studying behavior is crucial, but it's not enough to know what people do. Uncovering why they behave the way they do, without directly asking them, is the key to connecting with them. A true insight explains the underlying psychological and often subconscious impulses that drive behavior. This isn't something that a group of strangers in a focus group will reveal. In fact, they often don't even recognize it themselves. And if they don't realize it, how could they tell you? These often hidden insights—I call them "unspoken truths"—can be distilled, or even interpreted, through the study of consumers' behavior, combined with in-depth interviews and exercises that allow respondents to be as comfortable, and therefore as unguarded, as possible. And while no two people are alike, it's possible to find consistent, underlying impulses that your brand can connect with—or emotional gaps that your brand can help fill.

But, even if a true insight is uncovered, a brand strategy will fail unless it is calibrated to consistently align with that insight. The most common mistake brands make is overshooting the insight, by having an inflated sense of where a brand fits in a person's psyche. We tend to think that our products or services are the best of the best, the ideal, the perfect. However, that might not be what the customer is looking for. For instance, if you uncover that your target audience doesn't seek perfection in their lives, you shouldn't position your product to provide perfection. Instead, you might want to position it more as a comfortable, approachable choice—which is often hard for the marketer to accept.

The next time you visit a Target store, take notice of how you feel. Then visit a Walmart. Notice the difference. Test drive a Kia K5, then a Chevy Malibu. Depending upon who you are, one brand likely makes you feel more comfortable than the other. You might have some difficulty explaining what part of your psyche is influencing that comfort or discomfort. If asked directly, your answers would likely be about rational attributes like features, environment, or even price. But, if you discussed other aspects of your life, like your background, your career, your family and even your friends, you'll likely reveal who you are, and why some brands feel more congruent to you, reinforcing your self-image.

All of this means that you should stop worrying about whether consumers fall in love with your brand. Instead, strive to help them fall in love with themselves—by completing them.

Then, you might even have them at "hello."

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Tom Denari
Tom Denari is president and CEO of Young & Laramore.

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