How To Push Your Brand In Positive And Productive Ways

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.Mark Twain1

Growing your brand can be challenging, but we don’t experience the growth we ultimately expect if we don’t take on new challenges. So here are three dimensions and three sets of questions to help you and your teams discover new ways to build a stronger brand.

Three questions to discover your customers’ motivation:

  1. Why did you choose to purchase from us?
  2. How delighted are you with our product or services?
  3. What is your perception of our brand?

Three questions to find your brand’s style:

  1. Why do your customers trust you?
  2. How are you different?
  3. What tensions (pain points) do you solve?

Three questions to improve your brand strategy

  1. Who is your dream customer, and how do you speak to them?
  2. What brands do you admire?
  3. What is the purpose of your brand in today’s society?

Cult Brands outperform their competitors because they have a deep understanding of these dynamics. For best results, answer these questions continuously, and your brand will gain an edge that you can take to the bottom line each day. 

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What Are Cult Brands?: The New Episode of Our Podcast Make Business Matter

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Today, we release the fourth episode of our podcast Make Business Matter.

On this episode, I revisit some of our foundational material on Cult Branding and reinterpret it for the current times, giving principles that any business can draw upon to build a loyal following (even if they don’t want to develop a full-on Cult Brand).

You can listen to the episode on the player at the bottom of this blog post or you can listen and subscribe on the Make Business Matter Website or on your favorite podcast app.

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What Businesses Can Learn from Conspiracy Theories

customers need something to believe in. They need a group to belong to.

“America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” John Updike once said, and it was with this in mind that I took in an old debate between journalist Johnathan Kay and conspiracy theorist Webster Tarpley on the 9/11 attacks.

I’m not particularly interested in the substance of conspiracy theories really, beyond a rock-solid conviction that Han shot first. However, this conversation went in a particularly interesting direction, examining in some depth why people are drawn to and choose to believe in conspiracy theories.

Johnathan Kay came to the question when he began researching conspiracy theories in general.  He started by asking people what they believed and found himself overwhelmed with stories. Really long stories. So he shifted his question and began asking people when they started believing in their favored conspiracy theory.

This was a significant paradigm shift. 

Instead of an infinite number of individual narratives, Kay was now hearing one tale. People were sharing the moment that they lost faith in the government, in media, in traditional social structures. 

This was a pivotal point for people: from the moment they began to believe whatever they chose to believe (that 9/11 was an inside job, that JFK was killed by the mob, etc) they no longer perceived themselves as a member of the society they once belonged to. They’d joined another group entirely; the society of people who ‘knew’ the true facts about any given society—and by extension, according to Kay, a larger society of individuals defined by their skepticism, unable or unwilling to trust without independent verification.

Webster Tarpley was right there with his own thoughts on the subject. “Why are hegemonic institutions no longer hegemonic?” he asked. His answers include the fact that many people are experiencing a significant decline in their standard of living at the same time that these behemoth cultural institutions are being discredited directly as a result of their own behavior.

When you have documented systemic failures, it’s not hard to understand people’s reluctance to believe.

People Want to Belong

We’ve seen the same thing ourselves.

The loss of faith in institutions changes people’s self-perception, whether they’re consciously aware of this or not. We’re all hard-wired to belong to a group; it’s a fundamental biological driver that’s part of every human’s experience. 

When we no longer believe as our peers believe, we no longer fit into the group in quite the same way as we used to.

This creates an internal tension that we can not abide by. It’s too uncomfortable psychologically and emotionally. To remedy this tension, we gravitate toward other groups where we feel that we can belong—especially those groups that overtly, openly welcome us and value our participation. 

Kay and Tarpley see this manifesting through participation in the conspiracy theory culture, which is valid but only accounts for a relatively small segment of the population. More pervasive and prevalent is the public’s tendency to elevate other organizations, namely commercial brands, into that position.

It’s important to note that it has been bad behavior and the failure to perform as expected on the part of these larger cultural organizations that have created this paradigm. 

As business leaders, we must be aware of the many nuanced levels of customer expectations and understand, in depth, what our customers are turning to us for.

It’s more than our products or services or even the experience we provide.  Customers want—customers need—something to believe in. They need a group to belong to.  Companies that provide that well are rewarded with fanatical customer loyalty.

It’s as simple as that.  No conspiracy theory required!

The Cult Branding Crash Course in Brand Loyalty

It's one thing to create a loyal customer; it's another to foster brand communities where groups of people band together around your brand's message.

Loyal customers consistently do business with their preferred brands, often without evaluating convenience or pricing factors. These loyal customers are also more likely to tell their friends and family about the brand (called word of mouth), creating a low-cost stream of new customers.

Given these valuable attributes, it’s easy to understand why loyalty is considered the holy grail of marketing.

Loyalty Isn’t An Accident

Companies that foster brand loyalty go to great lengths to understand their customers’ needs and meet those needs better than anyone else.

These companies seek to create loyal customer evangelists, or what we call Brand Lovers. Creating Brand Lovers requires diligent effort on the part of executives to adopt a highly customer-centric approach to marketing, product development, and operations.

Cult Brands are those businesses that foster an unusual level of brand loyalty among their patrons. Apple Brand Lovers, for example, don’t consider a PC as a viable alternative.

Five Factors that Influence Loyalty to a Brand

Numerous factors and psychological processes are involved in influencing customers’ relationship with your brand:

  1. Repeat Purchasing Behavior: How often does a customer buy from you?
  2. Commitment: How long has a customer been committed to doing business with you?
  3. Perceived Value: How much value does a customer perceive in your offering?
  4. Brand Trust: How much trust does a customer have in your brand?
  5. Customer Satisfaction: How satisfied is a customer with the overall brand experience?

Four Types of Loyalty

Marketing professor Philip Kotler suggest four groups of customer types that demonstrate similar behavioral patterns in respect to brand loyalty:

  1. Hard-core Loyals: Customers who buy exclusively from a brand.
  2. Split Loyals: Customers loyal to two or three brands in a particular category.
  3. Shifting Loyals: Customers who move from one brand to another.
  4. Switchers: Customers with no sense of loyalty to any brand.1 2

Three Customer Mindsets

There are three primary customer mindsets important to understanding the factors behind brand loyalty. Every customer engages in all of these behaviors at different points throughout their lives.

  1. Transactional Mindset: Logic-driven thinking that weighs the options and makes the optimal decision in the moment.
  2. Relational Mindset: Although logic still plays a role, feelings primarily drive purchasing decisions.
  3. Loyal Mindset: Decisions are based on deeply-held values and ideals.

The Cult Branding Loyalty Continuum

Over nearly two decades at The Cult Branding Company, we have identified three primary patterns of behavior among customers:

  1. Brand Lovers: Customers a brand is especially for; those customers who love the brand the most and who may not perceive any alternative to the brand’s offering. Brand Lovers have an emotional investment in the brand. They feel their values align with the brand’s.
  2. Brand Enthusiasts: Customers who have a favorable impression of a brand but don’t necessarily have any investment or a deeper connection to the brand.
  3. Brand Nomads: Customers with a transactional mindset (see above) who shift from brand to brand without forming any brand allegiances.

The Key to Building Brand Loyalty

The truth is that most businesses struggle to build brand loyalty.

In fact, many executives at large corporations don’t even believe that building brand loyalty is possible, opting instead to exclusively focus on driving the next transaction. In our experience working with major national brands as well as independent retailers, building brand loyalty is most certainly possible.

Of course, we have a lot of evidence for this claim. A quick look at Cult Brands highlights the extraordinary level of brand loyalty some businesses have achieved with their customers.

While not every business may want to go to the lengths it takes to transform into a Cult Brand, every business can cultivate a core group of loyal customers—their Brand Lovers.

Focusing on your Brand Lovers is the key to building brand loyalty.

The Psychology of Mass Movements

Brand loyalty becomes less elusive when you understand the various drivers of human behavior. You don’t need to be a psychologist to appreciate that we, as humans, aren’t always aware of why we do what we do.

It’s one thing to create a loyal customer; it’s another to foster brand communities where groups of people band together around your brand’s message.

When you see groups of people joining a brand’s mission, you see a Cult Brand in action. How does it happen? And what can you do to help your brand build a following of loyal customers?

Using Apple as an ideal example, take a look at how you can create a mass movement:

Onward

If you’re looking to further your knowledge on brand loyalty and how to cultivate it for your business, here’s a hand-picked selection of related articles:

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Make Business Matter: How Are Brands Constructed?

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Today, we release the third episode of our podcast Make Business Matter.

On this episode, I answer the question: how are brands constructed?

This episode builds on the content in one of our most popular blog posts: Authentic Branding. I explore brands from the perspective of a co-authored experience: brands aren’t just what a company says, but what a customer hears and experiences. And, I look at the three dimensions of how we at The Cult Branding Company conceive of a brand: vision, customer, and culture.

Leadership creates a vision that inspires employees whose behaviors—through direct interaction and marketing— translate your brand to your customers. These elements influence each other and collectively create a perception about the company. That perception is the brand.

You can listen and subscribe on the Make Business Matter Website or on your favorite podcast app.

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The Neuroscientist, The Storyteller, and The Power of Brand Imagery

Understanding the human customer means respecting the body and the mind, addressing your messaging to both.

What makes art art? Why is art so important to humanity?

These are big questions and not ones that come up often in the context of connecting more effectively with your customers. That’s a shame. Understanding what art is and why recorded imagery has such a powerful impact on human behavior is a fundamental aspect of successful brand building.

Through the Eyes of the Neuroscientist

To answer these questions, we need to take a two-pronged approach.  The first investigation considers our customers simply as the human-animal: we’re biological organisms, influenced by the way our nervous system and brain respond to external stimuli. 

Here we see research that measures brain activity when viewers are exposed to different types of art. It’s clear that certain patterns evoke more brain activity and stronger positive emotional responses than others. For example, the two eyes and a smile of a human face pattern is so appealing that we try to find it everywhere—in the clouds or in the dappled colors of an Impressionist painting.

Being able to recognize this pattern pre-disposes one toward survival suggests neurologist V.S. Ramachandran.1 That may be why we find the experience of viewing this pattern in artwork an enjoyable experience. Experiences we enjoy are experiences we repeat, and thus the best imagery—artwork—comes to occupy an important place in our culture.

This type of information is good to have. It helps us understand the mechanics of the human experience. However, just as a car is far more than the motor that propels it, we are far, far more than our biological responses to external stimuli.

Nurture, it turns out, is just as important as nature. Our education and experience lead us to prefer particular patterns over others. Cultural influences play a powerful role in shaping our opinion of what is attractive and what is not.

The impact of artwork on human beings can be divided into two parts: the way the image affects the human bio-mechanically, and the way the image resonates and is received within the individual viewer’s personal frame of reference, generally measured in terms of an emotional response. We’re happy to know the car works, in other words, but what we really want to know is: Is it fun to drive?

For that, we need less of the neuroscientist and more of the storyteller.

Through the Eyes of the Storyteller

Every image tells a story. Sometimes this story is told overtly. Sometimes the tale-telling is more subtle. 

Look at the image above. This painting is The Letter by Gerard ter Boch. We can see two layers of storytelling here. At first glance, it seems simple enough: a messenger is delivering a missive to two young ladies. Delving deeper, we examine the expression upon each of the two ladies. They are quite distinct, and we wonder what might have provoked them.

It is that sense of wonder that interests us. When something makes us wonder, we’re curious. We want to learn more. A spirit of inquiry arises.

The search for wonder is always with humanity: we scan imagery constantly, incessantly, and almost completely unconsciously in the search for the visuals that speak completely and concisely to us. We are seeking our own experience, our own emotions, our own worldview, delivered via someone else’s vision.

When many people find that wonder in one image, that image is shared. It becomes part of the collective experiential framework.

When an image is shared, it is transformed. Individual appreciation of art takes on a new dimension when others enter the conversation.  Having one’s opinion validated or repudiated, explicitly and enthusiastically embraced or violently rejected, shapes the perspective one has in relationship to the artwork. Maybe the painting you adored really isn’t all that awesome if everyone you know hates it.

How tenaciously we hold on to our opinion of individual images as we become aware of other people’s opinions is a way we demonstrate our comfort with our position in that group of people.

Imagery has become a tool of the culture, a way for individuals to express themselves (both through the production of artwork and the consumption of it!)

Imagery builds bonds between individuals, and connections between cultures.

Choosing the Right Imagery for Your Brand

What does all of this mean for the brand manager? We can use the understanding of what makes artwork and imagery more appealing to humanity in general to connect more concretely with our customers. But we have to be smart about it.

The emerging science that is slowly accumulating into the discipline of neuro-aesthetics (and already packaged as neuro-marketing at an agency near you!) has definite value. Knowing definitively what shapes, colors, and patterns provoke the strongest biological responses in the viewer is good information to have.

This good information becomes better when it is coupled with an understanding of the experiential framework most common to your customers.

It’s safe to say your customers are all human, but what type of human are they? The stronger your ability to answer that question accurately, the easier it becomes for you to select imagery that will resonate strongly within your customer’s experiential framework.

In other words, you’ll be able to build a car that’s mechanically superior and a lot more fun to drive.

Understanding the human customer means respecting the body and the mind, addressing your messaging to both.

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Tap into the power of loyalty by serving your Brand Lovers better than anyone else …

Don’t try to be all things to all people.

Marketing used to be fairly straightforward: Throw money at advertising in order to influence people to buy your products and services. If your advertising campaign was decent, the resulting sales outweighed the cost of advertising. If your campaign was excellent, your business grew like a wildflower.

Fast forward to today: The customer is now in control. Media fragmentation from hundreds of cable networks, millions of Web sites. mobile devices in every hand, and social media make it more difficult to reach the general market. And even if you do reach your potential customers, they don’t have to listen, and probably won’t. What’s an intelligent marketer to do?

Five ways to tap into your most profitable customers

1) Understand what branding is really all about.

Management guru Peter Drucker explained that the purpose of business is to create a customer.1 In contemporary marketing, your job is to create a repeat customer who is likely to build a relationship with you and buy from you year after year. In order to accomplish this magnificent feat, you must develop what’s called a brand. A brand is an association that a customer has with certain feelings and images represented by a company, not simply a company name or a logo. You cannot create a brand by yourself because branding is a co-authored experience between you and your customers.

When a group of customers has strong associations between your brand and a desired feeling, the brand has “equity” it can leverage in order to grow.

2) Focus on your best customers.

The secret ingredient to a sustainable enterprise is called Brand Lovers: The customers who love you the most. Brand Lovers emotionally connect with what you do and they want to celebrate who you are. Their connection with your brand is so strong that they often don’t consider doing business with anyone else. Apple’s Mac users, for example, don’t consider purchasing a PC. To them, there is no alternative.

At the very least, your Brand Lovers choose you more often than your competitors. For many companies, the best customers drive a significant part of their profitability—both through purchasing and by acting as evangelists to convert other people into customers—and yet the business generally knows very little about them. Basic market research does not offer you insights into your best customers. The true drivers of choice for your best customers are emotional connections to your brand.

Certain brands have a legion of Brand Lovers – we call them Cult Brands. In a Cult Brand like Apple, CEO Steve Jobs knew he was selling a unique way of life that’s intelligent, creative, and special—he wasn’t just selling computers, digital music players, and mobile phones. Oprah turned herself into a Cult Brand by being is far more than just another talk show host: real, honest and loving, Oprah radiates hope and the promise of a better tomorrow.

3) Identify your Brand Lovers.

Perhaps your enterprise doesn’t have Brand Lovers like Apple or Oprah, but you do have your best customers – customers who give you repeat business and who may tell their friends and colleagues about your brand.

So how do you find your best customers? Actually, they often find you. They congregate at your stores. They send you e-mails and call you from time to time to tell you how great you’re doing. Some customers might even blog about your products or services or create videos and post them on social media.

On the financial side, if you maintain a customer database, you can sift through and determine who purchases from you with the greatest frequency – and for the longest time span.

What if none of the above helps you locate them? Then get creative. Carefully crafted surveys might point you in the right direction or you may need to hire a firm to help you identify who your best customers are.

4) Get to know your Brand Lovers.

Talk to them. Find out why they keep doing business with you. Don’t be afraid to ask. But listen carefully.

Look for the intangible clues that make you unique in your customers’ eyes. Uncover the emotional effect you have on them.

5) Serve your Brand Lovers better than anyone else.

There are always ways to grow your business by embracing your best customers. The answers don’t have to be complex. For World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), offering free meatball subs before the show increased the love among participants. Skaters were ostracized by most businesses, but Vans listened to its customers and gave them what they wanted. Harley-Davidson developed leather jackets for its riders.

The role of marketing is to create the future today, which requires you to know what your customers will want tomorrow. The only way to anticipate the future needs of your customers is to understand who they are, talk to them and listen. Then, you can create the future together.

Onward

A final word of advice: Don’t try to be all things to all people. You don’t need everyone to like you. You only need your Brand Lovers who already love you. Remember, your best customers are the lifeblood for growing a sustainable business. By learning to understand their needs and serving them better than anyone else, you can build a legion of brand loyalists that catapult your business growth without throwing more money at directionless advertising campaigns.

Welcome to the New World of Marketing!

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Stop Trying to Put the Square Peg into the Round Hole: What It Means To Understand Your Customers

psychological and social forces are at play every single moment of every single day of our lives. These forces shape our customers' worldviews.

In our book Customers First, we looked at some of the world’s biggest brands—companies like Apple and Nike—to discover how they connect so effectively with their customers. To build powerful, profitable connections, it helps to understand that customer behavior is driven largely by a combination of psychological and social forces that are at play every single moment of every single day of our lives. These forces shape our customers’ worldviews. 

Once you understand what those forces are, it becomes much, much easier to craft messaging that resonates effectively with the customer.

That sounds easy enough, right? There’s only one little problem: these forces that are so pivotal and compelling are also largely unconscious. The customer is often wholly unaware of them.

Customers don’t understand the real reason they started shopping at Nordstrom’s more and Bloomingdales less. They don’t know why a burger and fries at Wendy’s seems more appealing than a burger and fries at Burger King.

If you ask customers directly about their purchasing decisions, they’ll likely have an explanation to share with you.  Maybe they’ll show you a 20% off coupon or cite a location’s convenient, pleasant atmosphere as the reason they opted for one business over another.

Listening to those explanations and hearing the reasons consumers give about their shopping preferences is important.  It’s a practice that every good business should engage in. Companies that are interested in transitioning from good to great need to take the process one step further. They need to dig a little deeper and understand why those reasons matter to the customer.

Let’s look at that coupon for a moment: On the surface, the appeal of a coupon is easy to understand. The customer enjoys getting a discount. They like the fact that they save money when they make a purchase.  It’s kind of a no-brainer. Everyone likes to save money.

Yet, not all discounts have universal appeal.

What It Means To Listen To Your Customers

In 2012, JCPenney made headlines with a new marketing strategy that included eliminating both coupons and sales events while slashing merchandise prices significantly—in some cases, up to 40%. Forbes called the Fair and Square approach refreshing and daring. They said that J.C. Penney would be “the most interesting retailer of 2012.”1

If by interesting, you mean a 20% sales drop in the first quarter (and a 19% drop in same-store sales—ouch!) then Forbes was right on the money.

If those aren’t the types of results you’re interested in for your brand, it might be worth considering why the Fair and Square approach wasn’t a good fit with Penney’s customers.  That involves examining discounting, and especially coupons, with an understanding of how these retail tools are perceived by the customer’s unconscious.

One type of unconscious psychological force is known as a biological driver. Biological drivers have played a critical role in humanity’s survival as a species. When we think about early humans, it’s easy to imagine them working hard, scouring their environment for nourishing food and natural resources they could capitalize on to make their lives easier. 

The person who did the best job at identifying and acquiring resources generally turned out to be the healthiest, wealthiest, and strongest in their society. That means those people were more likely to wind up in a position where they could safely and effectively raise families.  When this cycle plays out over hundreds of thousands of generations, we wind up with a competitive drive hard-wired into our collective psyche.

Today, not many of our customers are worried about where they’ll find their next meal or some shelter from the elements. Ye,t the compelling drive to seek out needed resources—more efficiently and effectively than anyone else—remains.

When a customer uses a coupon, they’re doing more than saving money: they’re using their skills and savvy to fulfill a deep abiding need to search, gather, and acquire in the most effective and efficient way possible. They gain social capital from this process as well. 

The woman who brags about getting a great outfit for $89 because she has shopping smarts (and a great coupon!) is the sister of the woman who countless generations ago knew that if she stood in stream-side shadows she could spear more fish than anybody else.

Just saving money isn’t enough.

When JCPenney focused on the Fair and Square approach, they ignored the why behind their customers’ decisions and failed to support their psychological needs to feel like they’ve made the effort to provide and to feel like they’re gaining social capital by being savvy.

Good companies succeed because they give their customers ways to fill deep, compelling, unconscious needs. Great companies take market leadership positions because they understand why it works.

Great companies don’t waste any time, money, or resources trying to pound square pegs into round holes. They just get a round peg—the combination of messaging and operations that customers find both relevant and compelling—and then they win.

Watch out tomorrow morning for a special announcement from The Cult Branding Company.

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How Gratitude Can Turbocharge Your Culture

you can’t express genuine gratitude and appreciation to another if you don’t feel grateful within yourself.

How grateful do you feel each day?

To what degree do you express your gratitude and appreciation to others around the office?

If the answer is “not a lot,” you’re not alone.

The Blessings of Gratitude

We’ve previously discussed negativity bias—the brain’s predisposition to favor negative experiences, thoughts, and emotions over positive ones (we’re wired to survive, so anything that can potentially harm us commands more attention than things that don’t pose a threat).

One of the biggest challenges with negativity is that it constantly pulls our attention out of the present moment. When this occurs, we lose focus. Our energy gets directed in unproductive ways. And we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Gratitude is an antidote to negativity. It can increase our sense of well-being. It can charge us with energy and heighten our level of optimism. Gratitude can also bring us closer together.

Gratitude in the Workplace

Gratitude can be contagious just like smiling.

A genuine “thank you” is an inner acknowledgment to another human being that they matter. It’s a small act with a big ripple effect that confirms a basic truth: we all depend on each other; we’re all interconnected.

When you give thanks to someone in the office, you open the door to receiving their thanks in turn. Small acts of gratitude—taking brief moments to express genuine appreciation to another human being—can set a new tone in your organization. Each small act moves you closer to fostering a more human and collaborative culture.

The challenge is that you can’t express genuine gratitude and appreciation to another if you don’t feel grateful within yourself.

When we’re experiencing negative emotional states, it’s virtually impossible to feel grateful or appreciative.

The good news is that being grateful is a skill. And all skills can be cultivated and developed through practice.

The Habit of Complaining

Thomas Merton observed, “Those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything.”1

Complaining—both to others and to ourselves—is a common habit. This habit goes hand in hand with an ungrateful spirit.

Becoming mindful of this habit and catching your mind in the act of complaining can help break the cycle.

But to get all of the benefits that gratitude has to offer, we need to cultivate it.

How to Cultivate Gratitude

When we’re complaining or feeling ungrateful, our minds are subconsciously asking a question like:

What’s not right about this?

What’s not good about this?

Why aren’t things the way I want them?

What we focus on determines what we think.2 When we ask the brain to access information about what’s not right or what could be better about a particular situation, it will surely provide a plethora of answers.

Cultivating gratitude is a practice of shifting your focus from “what’s not right” to “what is right?” The question may change to:

What am I taking for granted right now?

What can I be fortunate about right now?

What could I feel grateful for right now?

To these questions, too, the mind can formulate many answers. But, because of the negativity bias, it takes more effort to shift your mindset to the positive.

A Scientifically-Proven Method for Improving Wellbeing

Positive psychology offers a five-minute exercise to train your mind to scan the world, not for the negative, but for the positive.

This simple exercise can help individuals cultivate gratitude and increase their level of happiness in less than a month.3

TRY IT: Take out a journal and a pen. Think back over the past 24 hours before bed and write down three to five things you can be grateful for. Do this for 21 days and notice if you feel a change in your well-being.

Invite your leadership team to try it too. Evaluate the results for yourself, and collectively, after 21 days.

Onward

Many leaders have overachieving personalities. They hold a subconscious fear that if they feel or express gratitude it will undermine their constant drive for improvement in themselves and others. The reality, however, is that feelings of gratitude and appreciation don’t compromise progress; they fuel it.

What if everyone in your organization was able to cultivate a little more gratitude each day?

Might your work environment be very different? With greater appreciation and connection, might your corporate culture be on an entirely different trajectory?

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What Every Marketer Should Know About Brand Tattoos

Brand tattoos can teach marketers about customer motivation.

Harley-Davidson, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple logos have been permanently etched into the skins of customers worldwide. Why do they do it?

Why do these raving fans, or what we call Brand Lovers, scorch their bodies with a company’s mark? And what can marketers and brand managers learn from them?

Most acts of unabashed brand loyalty are a genuine mystery to marketers: Why do customers anxiously camp outside IKEA grand openings? Why do bikers brand Harley’s flaming eagle onto their arms?

From over a decade of researching loyalty and implementing it through our consulting business, we have come to identify a brand’s outliers—their most passionate fans—as the people with whom marketers should engage, talk, and most importantly, listen to with the greatest attention if they want to truly understand their brand.

Although tattooing brand logos and imagery may seem too extreme to marketers, these outliers represent a brand’s choir. These radical customers often understand your business on a deeper, more meaningful level than the people working at the company.

Brand tattoos, when understood, can teach marketers about customer motivation.

Tattoos were once considered counter-cultural in America. People branded themselves with tattoos to mark themselves as different and to challenge the societal status quo.

Today, however, body art is a part of mainstream American culture.

Why People Get Tattoos of Brands

Think about what the term “branding” really means and you’ll have a better appreciation for the importance of the psychology of tattoos. We have a biological instinct to mark ourselves. While body art may scar the body, its meaning is branded into us.

There are many psychological reasons customers brand themselves with tattoos of the companies they love. Here are three:

  1. Membership into Social Groups: Brand tattoos help customers bond with others in the same social group who share special interests and common values. Brand tattoos send a message that they belong to a unique, personally meaningful community. You only “get the message” if you’re part of that group.
  2. Finding Meaningful Associations: Brand tattoos remind customers of personal values. The tattoo is a permanent badge with special meaning. It creates a powerful recall cue of the memories, experiences, emotions, and other positive associations they have with the brand. A single image, as represented by the tattoo, can encapsulate a series of complex memories and feelings.
  3. Connecting with Ideals: Brand tattoos are reminders of the customer’s ideal life. The brand becomes associated with specific ideals, as Apple has become inextricably linked to creativity, beauty, and self-expression. Customers see the brand’s mark as a reminder of these ideals, and they draw strength from the image.

Customers instinctively look for meaning; they naturally look for something to rally around; they crave an emotional payout from their interaction with the brands they love.

Brand tattoos create a permanent physical connection between the customer and the brand. In a world where most businesses focus exclusively on growth and sales, the opportunity for businesses to serve customers on a deeper level remains open and waiting. The results can be magical and, yes, growth and sales often follow suit.

Four Qualities Tattooed Brands Share

The most popular brands that people tattoo on themselves like Harley-Davidson, Nike, Coke, and Disney share certain qualities:

  1. Tattooed brands are iconic in nature; they are deeply rooted in our contemporary cultural mythology.
  2. Tattooed brands have strong visual appeal—an iconic image like the Nike symbol is a powerful visual marker.
  3. Tattooed brands are effective at lifestyle marketing. They represent and promote a way of being in the world, a lifestyle philosophy. Vans and Jimmy Buffet are terrific examples of successful lifestyle marketing.
  4. Tattooed brands tend to offer a promise of an ideal experience the customer is seeking. For example, Harley’s blazing eagle image symbolizes freedom on the open road.

The #1 Place Customers Tattoo Themselves

Where’s the most prevalent place for customers to tattoo the brands they love? It’s not their arms, shoulders, or even backs: it’s in their minds.

Customers instinctively create mental tattoos, powerful associations between brands and experiences.

Marketers should focus on creating experiences the customers want. These experiences leave a mental imprint that’s difficult to measure, but undoubtedly present. We can say that a salient mental imprint—a tattoo on the customer’s psyche—is the goal of successful branding efforts.

Marketers should see tattoos as portals from the customer’s personal values to their real-life experiences instead of just a gateway to sales.

The purpose and role of the brand is to open their customers up to a meaningful experience that later becomes associated with the brand.

Again, tattoos represent an intricate web of experiences, feelings, and memories. As marketers, our job is to set the conditions for these experiences, feelings, and memories—not simply sell a product or service.

Create Meaningful Experiences for Your Customers

How do you set the conditions to create meaningful experiences for your customers?

1. Start by understanding your customers.

Ask your customers questions directly. If you operate a retail store with cooking supplies you might ask:

  • What is your ideal customer experience when you enter our store?
  • What do you value most when you’re cooking in your kitchen?
  • How do our products make your life easier?
  • What are the dominant feelings you get when you shop in our store?

Questions like these can provide you with infinitely more useful information about your customers than demographics, psychographics, or focus groups.

2. Brainstorm ways to create the ideal customer experience on a consistent basis.

Think about:

  • How can you surprise your customers?
  • How can you serve your customers better than anyone else?
  • How can you create a consistent experience that your customers will come to expect and enjoy?

Although it’s unlikely that you’ll hit the ideal experience every time, the closer you can get to it with each interaction, the more meaningful—and irreplaceable—you will become to your customers.

3. Develop a framework for your brand.

An effective brand framework should:

  • Highlight what’s most important to your customers.
  • Align your organization to better serve your customers.
  • Help you make better decisions that will impact long-term loyalty and growth.
  • Predict consumer behavior by understanding your customer’s motivations.

An effective brand framework acts as an evaluative tool: something you can use to determine whether or not your marketing efforts will resonate with your customers by connecting to something that they value about the brand.

Onward

The measure of success is not in the number of customers who rush out to tattoo your logo on their bodies. The most important mark will always lie in your customers’ minds.

Creating a brand framework will help you create consistent meaningful experiences for your customers, causing them to “tattoo” your brand’s image in your customer’s hearts and minds.