How Mystery Can Engage Your Customer

Mystery engages customers and drives them to create a strong relationship with your brand.

Humans are obsessed with the unknown.

Although our psyche fears the unknown, that fear is balanced by the innate drive of curiosity: we want to uncover the wizard behind the curtain.

This sense of mystery is present in all great storytelling: you can’t wait to hear what happens next. When you hear someone say, “I saw the ending coming,” you assume they didn’t enjoy the movie and that it’s unlikely you would either. Without mystery, our interest fades.

The same principle holds true in business. Everyone has heard the local car dealership advertisement where nothing is left untold: “No credit, no problem. Every car, every model.” You could probably figure out what they’re going to say as soon as the ad starts.

Not everything needs to be directly presented to your customer. This is counter to many modern marketing practices where companies constantly try to expose different aspects of the brand in the hope that something might stick. Enticing customers to discover positive things about your brand on their own creates a deeper relationship and increases the chances that they will talk positively about you.

The VW Beetle

Creating mystery is something great advertising has been doing for decades. But, the form was different.


In 1960, Bill Bernbach led art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig to create one of the most famous and successful ads in marketing history: a photo of a VW Beetle with the declaration “Lemon.” It’s almost impossible not to think: “Why is this car a lemon? It looks perfectly fine.”

And, you’re compelled to read the next seven paragraphs of the ad to find out why. In reading them, the consumer develops trust for the brand and ends up feeling closer to the brand—spending time (a valuable commodity) with a brand creates a stronger relationship.

The Man In The Hathaway Shirt


In 1951, David Ogilvy used the same tactic when he created the first ad in his “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt” campaign. In the photo, he placed an eyepatch over Baron George Wrangell. How can you not wonder: “Who is this man and why does he have an eyepatch?”
Rather than explain who the man was, in the longform copy he explained what type of person would wear Hathaway shirts. And, how could you not want to be that type of person, one who evokes an air of mystery?

In the first week, all of the Hathaway shirts in New York sold out and a small, unknown 116-year-old company became a major competitor.

The Most Interesting Man In The World

You may be thinking that there is no way the modern consumer would read seven paragraphs of copy in your ad. But, that’s really an irrelevant question. You have a much easier job: you have the Internet. On the Internet, consumers can easily interact with the brand in multiple dimensions.

The key isn’t the long-form copy, but rather to actively engage customers in positive ways with the brand.

In 2006, Dos Equis launched its nod to Ogilvy’s Hathaway man with its highly successful “The Most Interesting Man In The World“ campaign. Throughout a decade of commercials, Dos Equis slowly released fantastic information about the man: he lives vicariously through himself, mosquitos refuse to bite him purely out of respect, his two cents is worth thirty-seven dollars in change. Inspired by his crazy accomplishments and debonair appearance, people jumped online to learn more about him: What actor plays him? Where is he from? What other things has he done?

In exploring The Most Interesting Man in The World, you can’t help but develop positive associations with him and the brand. And, not only do you end up wanting to be like him, but he’s also like you—he doesn’t always drink beer. Even though he’s fantastic, he’s easy to identify with.

The strong relationship The Most Interesting Man In The World created with consumers resulted in strong sales: they shipped 116.6% more barrels in 2013 than 2008, making them the fastest-growing beer brand.1

Create Your Own Mystery

Mystery is a powerful marketing tool: it engages customers and drives them to create a strong relationship with your brand.

When thinking about how mystery can work for you brand, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How can I capture the imagination of my customers and compel them to learn more?
  2. What should they find when they start to dig deeper?
  3. How does what they find contribute to positive associations with the brand?
  4. How does what they find contribute to their identification with the brand?

Stay mysterious my friends.


5 Ways to Cultivate a Collaborative Organization

Each employee has knowledge and information that can serve the organization.

Management guru Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in 1959.1

He differentiated knowledge workers from manual workers, forecasting that new industries will employ mostly the former.

Late in his life, Drucker wrote, “The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of KNOWLEDGE WORK and the KNOWLEDGE WORKER.”2

Knowledge work emphasizes the need to solve an ever-changing host of problems. This non-routine, problem-solving ability requires an individual to be a creative thinker who can assimilate new information and share it with others.

Today, every employee can and should be perceived as a knowledge worker—part of the creative class. Each employee has knowledge and information that can serve the organization. Everyone has ideas that can uplift the whole.

A Shift Toward Collaborative Cultures

The traditional organizational structure with clearly defined positions and a hierarchy of command-and-control, however, inhibits the free exchange of ideas. Here, some individuals are paid to think while everyone else is paid to carry out orders.

Without broad input—without the sharing of knowledge among the collective—decisions are made in a vacuum. And, as a consequence, value creation suffers.

The goal, then, is to create a collaborative culture that promotes the sharing of knowledge. Here, information flows in multiple directions simultaneously and all employees are skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge.

An organization that is successful in accomplishing this difficult feat will have an unprecedented edge over the competition.

5 Ways to Promote Learning in Your Organization

To accomplish this goal, leaders must establish and foster the conditions necessary for supporting their knowledge workers and become learning organizations.

Here are some of the necessary conditions for an environment where knowledge workers thrive:

1. Promote Employee Autonomy

Self-determination theory highlights that human beings are driven to be autonomous. This means fostering an environment where employees are self-directed and self-managed.

The responsibility for productivity must fall on the knowledge worker. As Drucker suggests, “Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.”3

2. Commit to Constant Learning and Improvement

Knowledge is perishable. “If knowledge isn’t challenged to grow,” Drucker explains, “it disappears fast.”4 Unlimited information access and full transparency are necessary but insufficient. Knowledge workers must also be empowered to leverage the free exchange of information, transforming it into higher understanding and the creation of new knowledge.  

How can your organization design an environment that promotes new knowledge creation and collaboration where employees challenge each other (in nonconfrontational ways) to build on each other’s ideas?

3. Establish Psychological Safety

A consistent theme in humanistic psychology is that positive mental health and creativity are cultivated in environments where individuals feel psychologically safe. When employees fear being cut down or marginalized for disagreeing with a colleague or a manager, learning stops. When people are afraid to ask naive questions or own up to their mistakes, they shut down.

Corporate cultures that unconsciously promote a fear of failure can not develop a learning organization. Individuals must feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings about their work. (Tools like the Six Thinking Hats Method can be helpful in this regard.)

Addressing this issue is no small task. Fear of conflict runs rampant in most organizations. The importance of building trust among employees and cultivating emotional intelligence are prerequisites that can’t be overstated.

4. Celebrate a Beginner’s Mind

This concept from Zen philosophy reminds us to adopt an attitude of openness to new ideas. Leaving preconceived notions and beliefs at the door when you enter into a dialogue or brainstorm with colleagues, helps individuals seek out new ideas and novel approaches to problems.

When employees are encouraged to adopt a beginner’s mind, they are more prone to explore the unknown and take risks.

5. Enable Time for Reflection

Learning and change can only occur when your people are given time to reflect. They need to have the time freedom to experiment and tinker around with new ideas and perspectives.

In a society that obsessively promotes “bigger, faster, better,” such reflective time is rarely valued. Instead, employees are overwhelmed or overstressed by deadlines and other pressures, which impairs both analytical and creative thinking. As a consequence, opportunities are missed, problems are misdiagnosed, and learning is compromised.

The 21st Century Learning Organization

You have an organization of knowledge workers. Taking steps to promote a learning organization will allow your company’s greatest asset—your people—to shine.

Today, it’s an imperative initiative for any business leader committed to competing and thriving in the years ahead.


The Secret to Creating Customer Loyalty

loyalty programs may support loyal customers,  but they don’t create them.

All brands want more loyal customers. The reasons are clear: more repeat business, more positive word of mouth, and greater customer lifetime value.

Customer loyalty for many national brands is in decline. Switching brands in the digital age is easier than ever before.

But, that’s not the real reason loyalty is on the decline. More likely, loyalty didn’t truly exist where many believed it did.

Many executives believe that loyalty programs (think branded credit cards or loyalty points) are a primary strategy for building loyalty. Although loyalty programs may support loyal customers, they certainly don’t create them.

THow Cult Brands Win the Loyalty War

All major brands try to get their customers to be loyal to their brands. This should be called brand loyalty.

Cult Brands focus on being loyal to their customers. This should be distinguished as customer loyalty.

Do you see the difference?

Brand loyalty and customer loyalty are often used interchangeably, but they truly refer to two very different orientations.

Cult Brands focus on serving their customers; they earn their customers’ loyalty by creating superior experiences for their customers. The more devoted an organization is to its customers, the more loyal its customers will likely be to the brand.

Loyalty is a result—a consequence—of better serving your customers than anyone else. You don’t need to create new loyalty initiatives. Instead, you need to align your organization with the needs of your customers.

THow to Create a Customer-Centric Organization

But how? How do you align your organization with your customers? How do you inspire your people to want to build and grow the company around your customers?

You begin by adopting the right mindset.

You can’t do it with a transactional mindset. With this mindset, your organization’s focus is exclusively on making another sale. Promotions may drive sales for the next quarterly report, but they don’t affect loyalty.

A relational mindset, in contrast, helps you appreciate the subjective state of your customers. Relationships are based on emotional connection. If you aren’t connected with your customers on an emotional level, it’s not possible to create loyalty.

A relational orientation toward your customers also helps you break free from the short-term focus on the financial markets. Loyalty doesn’t follow a quarter-over-quarter agenda. Loyalty is a play for the long haul.

TFour Strategies for Fostering Customer Loyalty

Here are four strategies that can enable you to build an organization that creates loyal customers:

1. Cultivate a Humanistic Organization

That is, focus on the human element. Your employees are people. Your customers are people too. Start there. All of a sudden, principles like respect, dignity, and core values become relevant and meaningful.

A life-supporting work environment that promotes vibrant individuals takes center stage. Freedom, humor, trust, and mindfulness spontaneously become practical management discussions that can transform an organization.

2. Get to Know Your Best Customers

They are the lifeblood of your business. They are already the most fiercely loyal customers. In their eyes, you’re already doing a lot right. You should learn about them and how they perceive you. It can clarify a great deal for you.

Talk to them, and above all, learn to listen. Customer insights about your existing Brand Lovers are perhaps the most powerful business assets that most chief executives never access.

3. Tap into Hidden Needs and Higher Values

This a secret of all world-class Cult Brands. Any business can meet a customer’s basic human needs. It takes a special enterprise to dig deeper into the unrecognized higher-level needs of their customers.

And these organizations don’t just do that for their customers, they support the higher-level needs of their employees too.

4. Find Ways to Serve Them Better Than Anyone Else

It takes a special kind of organizational culture to be able to exceed the expectation of today’s demanding consumer.

A competitive marketplace challenges us to consistently look for ways to innovate and improve our products and services, to wow and delight our customers. Only a company with a thriving culture can play for loyalty—inside and outside the organization.

TThe Fruits of Loyalty

Loyalty is attainable. You can create a partnership with a special breed of customers: your Brand Lovers

And when you succeed, your business will join the ranks of an elite few who enjoy the fruits of this worthy endeavor that transcends “business as usual.”

It is possible to create loyal customers, but not through conventional practices. It requires a different mindset and a special kind of organizational leadership.

Two Human Needs Every Cult Brand Masters

higher needs motivate and inspire humans to grow and reach their fullest potential.

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs?

Biological needs. Safety and shelter needs. The need to belong and to feel loved. Self-esteem and the need to feel good about oneself in relation to others.

These are basic human needs. Every human being has them.

Every customer is constantly looking to meet these needs. And every business—consciously or not—attempts to help their customers meet at least some of them.

Meeting customers’ basic needs is the starting point. Your company needs to constantly develop new and superior ways to meet these needs.

But, meeting customer needs and base level desires isn’t enough. Your competitors can probably meet your customers’ basic needs too.

There are two areas of Maslow’s hierarchy that differentiate Cult Brands from other businesses. And it is these two areas that hold the secret to customer loyalty and prosperity.

The Need to Belong: A Driving Force in Human Motivation

From the moment we are born, we are partly defined by the communities we belong to. Even the smallest baby is part of multiple communities: she is part of a family, an ethnic group, even a nation.

As we grow and develop, we make choices that expand our identity. One way we do this is by joining or associating with various communities or social groups.

We join communities by our actions. We join communities by sharing a common belief. Joining groups makes us feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

Cult Brands tap into this driving force by giving their customers the sense that they belong. The values and beliefs of the brand become part of their customers’ own identity.

The need to identify with a group and feel a sense of belonging is so strong that some customers go so far as to “brand” themselves with the logo of the company they identify with. Brand tattoos, then, provide membership into a social group.

After interviewing Brand Lovers of many of the world’s quintessential Cult Brands—like Apple, Linux, Vans, Harley, Life is good, Star Trek, Oprah, and IKEA—a common theme we hear is the feeling of family.

Cult customers feel like they are part of the collective. Cult Brands make their Brand Lovers feel included, important, special.

Higher Needs: The Key to Everlasting Loyalty

Now we jump to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Above, we listed all of the basic human needs. But Maslow’s real brilliance was in how he articulated that humans have needs beyond the basics.

We have higher needs, or spiritual needs.

Higher needs include:

  • Cognitive (meaning, knowledge, and self-awareness)
  • Aesthetic (beauty, form, balance)
  • Self-actualization (personal growth and development)
  • Transcendence (spiritual values)

All of these needs are human too. Everyone has them, but only a small minority of companies seek to help their customers meet them. Those that do tend to create legendary businesses.

These higher needs motivate and inspire humans to grow and reach their fullest potential. The more time we invest meeting these needs, the happier, mentally healthy, and creative we become.

Want to link positive emotions and associations between your customers and your brand? Help them reach their higher needs.

There are many ways to do this:

  • You can help them express themselves like Apple does.
  • You can help them achieve their most important goals as Google does.
  • You can help them celebrate a sense of aliveness and playfulness like Jimmy Buffett and Star Trek do.
  • You can inspire them with the call for freedom like Harley-Davidson and Oprah do.  

How can you elevate your customers? How can you help them become greater versions of themselves? How can you help them reach their highest goals?

This is the gift you can offer your customers. Loyalty and higher profitability is what they give you in return.

Embrace the Hero’s (Customer’s) Journey

When we know what stories are near and dear to our Brand Lovers, we can build stronger relationships with them.

The hero starts out in an ordinary world before venturing into a special world.

He meets friend and foe. He undertakes quests. He faces challenges.

Winning a decisive victory—realizing his final goal—the hero returns from the adventure, transformed, bearing wisdom and new powers from his journey.

This hero’s quest is ancient. It can be observed in many religions including the stories of Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Jesus Christ. It’s also the formula for every modern epic adventure including Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit.

Why the Hero’s Journey Won’t Go Away

Why is the Hero’s Journey so powerful and pervasive in every culture? Why is this structure so effective in storytelling? And most importantly, how can it help you grow a stronger business?

When we engage in the story, our brains make us participants, not spectators.

The hero’s journey is ultimately about us. And we are fascinated with ourselves.

We identify with the hero, the protagonist, in the story.

The hero is a universal archetype that represents the ideal of child psychology. The hero’s journey is, ultimately, a journey of personal transformation of the adolescent psyche into mature adulthood. (Many modern films, however, don’t portray the completion of a hero’s quest. James Bond and Indiana Jones, for example, don’t ever change through the course of the story; they stay in child psychology from beginning to end.)

Each person, in fact, performs the lead role in a production of their own life story. And that includes both your customers and your employees (and you too).

The Primary Ingredient Behind Every Hero’s Journey

Your brand’s mission is to support your customers’ quests, to provide aid when needed.

To do this effectively, you need to know what fuels their story.

Compelling stories come down to one thing: problems.

The protagonist faces a problem and tries to overcome it. This is the essence of drama and the key to good storytelling.

Without problems, without troubles and tensions, there’s no story. There’s nothing to engage us.

The hero must face his problem, surmount his fear, resolve his tension. In so doing, he advances forward in his development toward greater competence and maturity.

Two Ways to Use Stories in Your Business

Brand messaging is the most common way to use stories in business. Advertisers use stories to communicate to customers on the subconscious level through emotions, images, and symbols.

The other use of story is far less known, but even more valuable when used appropriately. Instead of telling your customers your stories, try listening to theirs.

You’ll be amazed at what you can learn and discover.

Our personal stories are individual expressions of cultural narratives and universal themes of the collective unconscious of mankind. Our stories are part of what bind us together in the human family.

We each have our own stories to live and tell, some personal, others cultural.

These personal and cultural narratives are gateways into your customers’ psyches. When interpreted correctly, stories can be a powerful source of customer insights.

Your Hero-Customers Are Counting On You

The archetypal hero’s journey is hard-wired into your customers’ psyches. Learning how that story expresses itself in your customers’ lives provides powerful insights for better serving them.

All of your customers have stories. They are all in the process of becoming—starting at one point in space and time, looking to go to another, better place in the future.

You might be able to help them get there, but first you have to know where they are and what’s standing in the way of their transformation.

Businesses that help elevate their customers—that find ways to support their personal transformations in even a small way—hold a special place in the hearts and mind of their customers.

When we know what stories are near and dear to our Brand Lovers’—our best customers’—hearts and minds, we know what’s driving them. Then, we are better equipped to connect and build stronger relationships with them.

What are the stories that most influence your best customers?

Effective Advertising: The Three Acts of Your Customers’ Journey

Effective Advertising: Understand The tension. Agitate the tension. Solve the tension.

Brian is a 40-year-old executive at a software company. He’s married with two kids. Between work and family life, Brian hasn’t had much free time. But, Brian has a warrior in him screaming for actualization. He wants to train and complete a triathlon.

Brian is married to Laura. Laura has been a stay-at-home mom for the last fifteen years. It was a rewarding experience but Laura studied entrepreneurship in college. Now that both her kids are in high school, her inner entrepreneur is commanding her to start a business.

Both Brian and Laura are aligned with the archetype of the hero. They are both at the beginning of a hero’s journey.

The Significance of the Hero’s Journey

The hero is a powerful and pervasive archetype in our culture.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell takes this single archetype of a hero and illustrates the universal adventure that all heroic figures share.

While the stories or faces of the hero may vary—depending on the particular culture, society, or era—the fundamental archetype remains the same.

Campbell held heroes with significance because they communicate universal truths about self-discovery and the individual’s role in society.

He believed that understanding the hero’s journey provides meaning for contemporary people by revealing the unifying nature of the human spirit in its aspirations, abilities, vicissitudes, and wisdom.

Customer Tensions and the Call to Adventure

Brian and Laura are about to leave their comfortable and familiar world and enter an unknown, special world.

This is often scary. As humans, we tend to seek the known and familiar. We like to feel comfortable. And, the unknown is uncomfortable.

For Brian, the unknown might be the state of his physical condition. Will he be able to condition his 40-year-old body with the stamina and endurance needed to complete a triathlon?

For Laura, the unknown might be her passion, creativity, and perseverance. Will she have what it takes to conceive of an idea and follow through in execution to profitability?

Because of the fear of the unknown, many heroes refuse the call to adventure. We delay. We set aside. We procrastinate. We make excuses.

But something brews inside of us. A tension builds. It’s small at first, but it grows strength in the darkness.

Tensions are those opposing forces at play within the individual. This internal conflict creates disharmony.

Humans don’t like disharmony, and so tensions catapult us out of the familiar. The feeling of disharmony leads to action and ultimately, a resolution.

The 3 Stages of the Hero’s Journey

Brian and Laura are at the initial stage of the hero’s journey. Campbell called this stage Departure. The hero departs from the world he knows. He then faces trials and tribulations in stage 2, called Initiation, before coming home in stage 3, the Return.

All of your customers are somewhere in this three-stage cycle, although the majority are in the Departure stage. Your job is to understand customer’s journey and the great tensions they are experiencing. Then, you can determine how to best serve them in completing their adventure.

Famed playwright David Mamet suggests a similar 3-act structure for plays and dramas in Three Uses of the Knife: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Act 1 of the drama presents life as it is for the protagonist (the hero). In act 2, the character is faced with an opposing force that sends the hero into an upheaval (disharmony). The protagonist attempts to integrate the old life with the new in act 3.

The Hero’s Journey for Marketers

Your customers are heroes on their own unique journeys. Your job is to understand what tensions and obstacles they face on their quest and to determine how best to support them in completing a successful adventure.

Marketers can use a formula that mirrors this 3-act structure: problem, agitation, solution.

Understand the customer’s problem. Agitate it, readying them for action. Offer them your solution.

This formula works.

When you have penetrating customer insights into the tensions of your customers, this formula gives you the means to move them to action.

Do you know your customers’ tensions? Are you helping them resolve these tensions better than anyone else in your market?

The Power of the Image

Your marks, logos, and images have to be associated with a deep aspect of your customers’ hearts.

Few business leaders appreciate exactly how important imagery is in connecting to the hearts of their customers. Most marketers want to create imagery that will attract everyone. That’s impossible: when you try to be all things to all people, you become nothing meaningful to anyone.

Imagery will attract certain people and repel others. Cult Brands not only realize this, they capitalize on it.

Think about the blazing eagle tattoo of your typical HOG (Harley Owner Group) rally attendee. Does seeing that image excite you? Or do you think to yourself, “No thanks.” The point is that you’re either a lover of the Harley-Davidson brand, or you’re not.

Every image signals to consumers whether or not your brand is especially for them.

Symbols, Archetypes, and Your Brand

Why do images have so much power? Our logos and marks are symbols.

Symbols are triggers of archetypal images—energy patterns that rest in our subconscious mind. These primordial images are not personal to each individual, but are aspects of the “collective” of all of us. Eminent Swiss psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung highlighted that these archetypal images are the building blocks of thought.

These subconscious, archetypal images lay the foundation for the experience customers are going to have with your brand. The images you create in your logos and marks—the symbols—are a signal to the customer of what the brand represents.

In Man and His Symbols, Dr. Jung included an old Volkswagen advertisement with an aerial view of Beetle toy cars forming the shape of the Volkswagen logo. He noted that the advertisement “may have a ‘trigger’ effect on a reader’s mind, stirring unconscious memories of childhood. If these memories are pleasant, the pleasure may be associated (unconsciously) with the product and brand name.”

Archetypes: Connecting to Your Customers’ Hearts

Indeed, there is a science to connecting to the hearts of our customers. Marketers must find ways to positively influence customers through the use of powerful imagery. Only by understanding the images in our customers’ hearts can we create images that will connect with their minds and drive them to choose us more often than our competitors.

Business leaders must come better understand the meaning behind the energy patterns that give meaning to the forms we represent through our imagery. And they understand them, our communications must constantly support the meanings our customers find.

If you betray the image that’s connected to the customers’ hearts, you’ll quickly repel the cherished customers you’re trying to build long–lasting relationships with.

A critical power of branding lies in your ability to creatively associate your brand in highly relevant ways to your customers. Your marks, logos, and images have to be associated with a deep aspect of your customers’ hearts.

Take time to understand what’s meaningful to your customers—to comprehend what’s in their hearts. Only then can you hope to connect with your customers on a deeper, more meaningful level and create a powerful brand that’s irreplaceable in the hearts and minds of your customers.

The Most Important Key to an Effective Retail Marketing Strategy

How can you do a better job resolving your customers' tensions?

The key to any successful retail marketing strategy comes down to understanding the end customers. Only after you understand your target customers can you formulate effective strategies for attracting them.

Learn What’s Important to Your Customers

Here are some of the questions you can explore to better understand your customers:

  1. What are the primary needs and wants that your customers have which you hope to fulfill?
  2. What are the problems or tensions your customers have that your products or services can resolve? (What problems can they resolve now? What could they resolve in the future?)
  3. At present, how do your customers currently resolve these problems or tensions? Where do they go? Who do they go to? What do they do to solve these problems?
  4. How can you do a better job resolving these problems or tensions for your customers?
  5. Where do your target customers spend their time? How can you reach them? Are they online? Do they commute to work? Do they read magazines or e-zines? Can you engage them on social media?

The fundamental idea behind this line of questioning is to get to the hearts and minds of your customers. The goal is to learn what’s important to your customers. You want to understand their motivations and to better appreciate the role your business can and does play in their lives.

The Value of Customer Psychology

Perhaps it isn’t abundantly clear why this line of questioning is so important for effective retail marketing. After all, you’re just trying to sell people stuff, right?

Well, it turns out that if you want to sell people stuff in a competitive marketplace you need to understand why people buy your stuff in the first place. If your competitors have this knowledge, they will outpace you. If you possess this knowledge, you can effectively compete. It’s that simple.

Businesses that just focus on generating the next transaction shy away from mining too deeply into customer psychology; they are mainly interested in converting the next sale.

In contrast, brands that take a relational mindset to their customers and value cultivating long-term customer loyalty tend to appreciate customer behavior and seek to better understand it.

And perhaps it goes without saying, but brands with customer loyalty have a better chance of being in business a year from now or twenty years from now. Understanding consumer psychology is important for any long-term effective retail marketing strategy.

The New Rule of Positioning

Positioning statements aren't taglines: that's just one expression of a positioning statement that customers can easily understand.

A positioning strategy is a way of positioning your retail products and services in the mind of your customers.

As marketers, we aspire to build stronger positions—to create a place in the mind of our prospects and customers where our products are positively recalled.  We hope to trump our competitors by finding the right words and the perfect tagline to complement our strengths while highlighting our competitors’ weaknesses. A classic example from Avis: “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder.”

The Death of Positioning

The idea of positioning a brand has ruled marketing for over 30 years. We put our hopes into positioning because it offers a formula for building a bridge from our corporate meetings to the sale of our product. What we generally end up with, however, is a string of words that is irrelevant to customers.

Here’s why: What a person perceives is that person’s reality and perception is unique for each individual. We each hold different perceptual filters based on factors like our beliefs, values, behaviors, experiences, and senses. Two potential customers can see the same billboard ad of a woman holding a beer bottle and have completely different responses. One person becomes stimulated; another becomes enraged.

The unfortunate reality is that no marketer has the power to position anything in the customer’s mind, which is the core promise of all positioning strategies. The notion that positions are created by marketers has to die. Each customer has their own idea of what you are.

Positioning is not something you do, but rather, is the result of your customer’s perception. Positioning is not something we can create—the act of positioning belongs to the customers.

A New Approach to Positioning Strategies

Behind your positioning statement is your intention—how you desire your business to be represented to customers. Once the real role of positioning is understood, having a positioning statement can be useful by clarifying your brand’s essence within your organization.

By examining the essence of what you are and comparing it with what your customers want, the doors open to building a business with a strong positioning in the mind of the customer. Why? Great brands merge their passion with their positioning into a tagline that captures the essence of both.


Famous Taglines From Major Retail Brands

A few famous examples:

  • Walmart: “Always low prices. Always.” This was not just a tagline; it was Walmart’s battle cry for all their buyers, merchants, and everyone who touches the customer.
  • Apple: “Think different.” Apple communicated to the world that you can think different with every single one of their products.
  • Nike: “Just do it.”

Strong positions can last many years. Nike has waved the just do it banner for over 30 years. They continue to find new and amazing ways to say it repetitively without boring their audience. Their position gives them permission to express something that is powerful. “Just do it” belongs to the customer—people love that. To be able to “just do it” makes you want to jump hurdles or sprint a marathon.

But, positions can also change. Walmart retired “Always low prices, always” after 13 years in 2007 and replaced it with “Save money. Live better.” The new positioning reflected the changing desires of their customer base: they were starting to think not just in terms of deals but what else that deal enabled them to do in their lives.

How to Effectively Use a Positioning Strategy

Positioning statements aren’t just about taglines: that’s just one expression of it that’s easily able to be understood by your customers.

Positions should penetrate everything your company does.

To fully integrate your positioning statement within the customers’ minds, you must start from within your business. Every member of your organization that touches the customer has to be the perfect expression of your position. And since everyone touches the customer in some way, everyone should be the best expression of your position.

Now comes the hard part: Put up everything that represents your brand on a wall. List all your brand’s touchpoints—every point of interaction with your customer. With a critical, yet intuitive eye, ask:

  • How can I more fluidly communicate my brand’s desired position?
  • Does every touchpoint look, say, and feel like the brand I want my customers to perceive?

Most marketers don’t have the clarity and conviction of following through on their words. Without certainty, they default to the status quo.

Turn everything you do into an expression of your desired positioning and you can create something special. This takes courage: to actively position your brand means you have to stand for something. Only then are you truly on your way to owning your very own position in the minds of your customers.

Can You Listen to Your Customer?

Gathering information about your customer is not the same thing as listening to them.

If you were to conduct an immediate survey right now, this very instant, of all of the leadership of all of the companies you interact with, in one form or another, over the course of any given 24 hour period, I can say, with a pretty high degree of confidence, that they’ll all tell you they listen to their customers.

Some of these companies are telling you the truth.

Others, not so much. It’s not an intentional deception, mind you. These organizations think they’re tuned right into their customers.  They point to tall, towering, extremely expensive piles of market research and demographic data with pride. All of this accumulated information must prove they’re listening to their customer.

Then we watch these companies in action. Inevitably, a point arises where it becomes clear to the uninterested observer that there’s a significant disconnect between the company and the customer. When that disconnect reaches a critical point, the brand suffers serious damage.

Although they’ll apologize out of necessity, internally they’ll blame it on a changing consumer environment that’s produced uber-senstive consumers. After all, how could all of their research have led them astray?

Yet, this phenomenon of misreading customers isn’t anything new: there’s just more eyes out there to catch companies when they’ve misread what the customers want.

All of these companies thought they’d been listening to their customers. Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of “Do you listen to your customers?” we should be asking, “Can you listen to your customer?”

Customers First: What Do You Need to Listen to Your Customer?

Gathering information about your customer is not the same thing as listening to them. You can accumulate data all day long, only to discover that you’re not protected from making the mistakes that you saw other companies make but never believed you could.

You have to be able to listen not only to what your customers say, but what they mean.

One of our favorite stories comes in the early days of social media: before anyone changed their outfits on TikTok, before anyone filtered a selfie on Instagram, and just two years after Twitter launched and Facebook expanded beyond the college market.

The year was 2008 and epic fails just started becoming a thing. Motrin took an iron-heavy approach to babywearing that proved that if Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.

It’s safe to assume that at some point, via market research or focus groups, Motrin figured out that being a good mom was important to a good portion of their market. So far, so good. The need to nurture is what we call a universal driver.  The compulsion to care for the next generation is a pretty significant asset for the species that wants to stick around for a while. There’s a caregiver instinct hardwired into our psyche.

Motrin, of course, is also very interested in talking to people with backaches.

When you put those pieces together, you get this ad:

There’s even an explicit call-out to the “be a good mom” message. It blew up in their faces in a magnificent way because they didn’t know how to listen to their customer, completely and in a meaningful way.

It’s important to the customer to be a good mom. What, then, does being a good mom mean?

It sounds like a simple question. It doesn’t, however, have a simple answer.  We all have our own personal definition of what it means to be a good mom, based on our own experiences, but that’s not where the story should end. We need to understand what being a good mom means for the customer. The definition varies by community and culture. Within each group, you’ll find that being a good mom comes with its own set of expectations and norms—a set of rules to be followed by anyone wanting to be seen and acknowledged as a good mom within the group.

Some of these rules are overtly articulated, while others are conveyed via subtle social pressures. The customers begin internalizing these rules from the moment they’re born and continue to do so throughout their lives. Becoming a parent and having small children pushes these rules very prominently into consciousness; this is all information that is highly useful and relevant to have as they navigate a new experience.

As an organization, you really need to know what those rules are. You need to respect and honor the importance of these core beliefs in your customers’ lives. Motrin went wrong because the ad campaign violated two major, if unwritten, laws of American motherhood:

  • All parenting choices are made in the best interest of the child.
  • Mothers do not experience physical pain or exhaustion.

By suggesting that some mothers chose babywearing in order to follow the whims of fashion and that this could cause backaches, Motrin introduced a tension into their customers’ lives.  It may be entirely true that a customer chose to wear their baby in a sling because they thought it was a cool, trendy way to carry the baby, and that it was that exact choice that contributed to their back pain—but it is equally true that to admit to these sentiments go directly against powerful cultural norms. This tension can be experienced wholly on the unconscious level, but it is powerful enough to make the customer uncomfortable.

It is human nature to avoid the uncomfortable. Rather than confront the validity of cultural norms, especially in relation to our own personal experience, it’s easier to avoid the brand that introduced the tension into our lives.  Anger and hostility are common responses to the tension as well, as evidenced by the heated response to the Motrin babywearing campaign.

Had Motrin known what their customers meant when they said they wanted to be a good mom, they could have easily avoided violating these rules.

Delving deeper into your customer’s behavior and experiences makes it easier to develop a more comprehensive understanding you can use to connect effectively and efficiently with them—without any of the headaches Motrin experienced.  That’s the value of really listening to your customers and putting your customers first.