All Posts By

BJ Bueno

How Fairy Tales Can Help You Improve Customer Communication

When we know what stories are near and dear to our customers' hearts, we know how to BETTER communicate and connect with them.

What are fairy tales? Simple stories to keep children entertained in the nursery, perhaps—tales of giants and princesses spun out of simple fancy and wayward whimsy? Perhaps, they’re something more. 

Fairy tales are some of the oldest stories in existence.  These are tales that have been told since the beginning of time. In one form or another, these stories have been told time and time again to entertain, but also to teach.

The details vary from culture to culture: Europe gave us Hansel and Gretel using their wits to get away from a ravenous witch, whereas Brer Rabbit and his tricky antics originate in the antebellum American South. But, the underlying messages remain the same: there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome if we’re smart, steadfast, and not above being strategically committed to objective truths.

Brand Lovers and their Cultural Stories

Another way to refer to fairy tales—and other old, eternal narratives—is as cultural stories. Although we seldom articulate our connection to cultural stories—the rare exception, perhaps, being the prom or bridal dress shopping experience that leaves us “feeling like a princess”—the truth is that these tales play a pivotal role in our decision making.

Cultural stories connect us to our ideal selves. These are symbolic road maps we use to navigate our way through life—strategic touchstones to reference as we move forward from where we are to where we want to be.  Cultural stories provide the framework we see ourselves in, both as individuals and in relationship to others.

It’s critical for brand managers to read this narrative and understand that our customers do the same thing. Consciously or otherwise, the tales we learned as children play a pivotal role in guiding our responses to things that we can’t understand.

Why Fairy Tales Are Important

We use cultural stories to help us understand life experiences.  We also use these cultural stories to guide our actions to better navigate what life throws at us.  This is where cultural stories guide purchasing behavior.

For example, the man who feels trapped and without choices in a complex world may identify deeply with and long to be the rugged hero who rides out and takes on the unexplored frontier, ready and able to meet the challenges of the world, always confident and capable. 

In an effort to alleviate internal tensions—feeling powerless, yet being desirous of change—he may “take on” aspects of this strong hero, in the hope that following the example may endow him with some of the qualities he most admires. Lighting up a Marlboro may deliver a satisfying smoke, but it also lets the zero become the hero. There are twenty opportunities in every pack to be bold, to be fearless, to be the agent of change in one’s own life, to step into the spotlight and star in the story.

What are the cultural stories that most influence your customers? When we know what stories are near and dear to our customers’ hearts, we know how to better communicate and connect with them.

Behaviors That Influence Cult Brands

Leaders may struggle to create brands that are still relevant in today’s culture due to the high but ambiguous expectations they must achieve. Consider the tried-and-true method of identifying and aligning around a compelling brand promise. This is critical when comparing your brand’s performance to its objectives. The “should” behavior of a brand may be established across all touchpoints, although there may be inconsistency. 

It’s much easier said than done.

Pointing to a single feature of the brand and expecting results isn’t going to cut it. Despite this, corporations spend billions of dollars on training programs as an obvious “cure” for brand behavior. According to HBR, $160 billion is spent in the United States alone on ineffective training programs. Bad conduct endures in the absence of proof that these interventions improve organizational performance.

Blaming it on external circumstances is also not an option.

It is not the customers’ fault if the brand fails to deliver on its promises. If the market changes and customers do not respond as they did in the past, the brand’s behavior must be adjusted.

To truly ignite change, a thorough approach that examines behavior both inside and outside the business is required.

1. Obtain an outside viewpoint

Change in brand behavior occurs from within, but top-down change is extremely impossible to ignite from within. According to a recent HBR article on leadership development, “HR managers and others find it difficult or impossible to approach senior leaders and their teams with an uncomfortable truth.”

Using an outside agency to help identify the shifts in behavior that the brand needs to make and establish a clear strategy can ignite the behavior change in a far more productive way than if the job is tasked to internal leadership.

2. Begin at the top

Begin by engaging with senior management to identify the brand’s values and strategic direction with the help of an external team. Then, identify the shift in behavior in your leadership team and commit to making changes that are in line with the strategic direction. The brand’s promise should act as a guidepost in determining the type of behavior that needs to be altered.

3. Examine and reorganize roles and responsibilities

This must occur at all organizational levels in order to represent the brand’s promise and encourage change. It is vital to ensure that the brand has the infrastructure in place to support its promise. A brand that is built on its exceptional customer service, for example, must have the right team and people in place to execute.

4. Evaluate day-to-day behaviors

Evaluating day-to-day actions outside of job descriptions assists workers in identifying the specific things they can do to better reflect the brand. At the end of the day, the simple things that a brand performs should reflect its promise.

5. Measure Change

Setting new behavioral expectations is one thing. Another is to hold the individuals behind the brand accountable for the new conduct.

6. Alter and adapt

In order to sustain new behavior, it is critical to constantly adjust and adapt your processes and procedures. Set a timetable for change and commit to reevaluating what works and what doesn’t within that time frame. There is always room for advancement.

If the brand needs to change its behavior to improve its reputation, following these six stages will assist to ensure that the change is widespread and long-lasting. When done correctly, it can boost employee engagement, sales, and people’s perceptions of your brand and organization.

How Retail Therapy Helps Customers and Retailers

Every organization has the opportunity to identify points where they can let their customers do the driving.

What do you know? It turns out you can buy happiness.

Okay, I might be overstating the case—but only a little. Nearly a decade ago, researchers Scott Rick, Beatriz Pereira, and Katherine Burson found that retail therapy—going shopping specifically to lift the mood, a behavior typically characterized as negative by the majority of observers—may actually have a therapeutic benefit.1

It is by delving into the unconscious psychological and social factors that influence customer behavior that we, as retailers, learn how to better please our shoppers. Rick, Pereira, and Burson have given us valuable insight into some of the factors that influence customers who come into our stores specifically for retail therapy.

What are these shoppers searching for? Over the years, many theories have been put forward, including the thrill of the hunt for the novel item or bargain price or a more basic alleviation of boredom. What Rick, Pereira, and Burson’s research shows is that retail therapy customers are motivated by a desire to restore some element of control to their lives.

The act of choosing between various types of merchandise empowers the customer—even if they have no intention whatsoever of making a purchase. The time the customer spends shopping is time that the customer occupies a powerful position: ultimately, they’re in control of the transaction. They are the decision-maker.

Let us contrast this experience with the rest of our customers’ lives. The evening news broadcast is consistently full of headlines designed to evoke feelings of powerlessness. There’s an invisible enemy causing a global pandemic. War and revolution are everywhere. Crimes against the most vulnerable continue to escalate. The planet’s getting warmer, the ice caps are melting, and from the weather report, it looks like Mother Nature is doing her best to kill us all. There is nothing—not a single solitary identifiable action—that an individual can do to solve any of these problems. It’s a frustrating situation that forces one to confront their own position in the universe; a position that all too often resembles complete irrelevance.

Retail’s Mysteries Revealed: Toward a More Humanistic Business Model

If you had to choose between feeling like an all-powerful, omnipotent decision-maker or a frustrated, powerless spectator to overwhelming series of distressing events, which one would you pick?

Your customer thinks the same way. If we want to attract the retail-therapy-seeking customer into our stores, we need to find ways to fulfill their need to be in control. Every organization has the opportunity to identify points where they can let their customers do the driving.

An empowered customer is an enthusiastic customer.

That’s how retail therapy helps retailers. If you want to see how this is working out in your store, keep an eye on the headlines and your sales numbers over a designated period of time—two weeks to a month would be ideal— and see what identifiable patterns emerge. The decision to actually make a purchase is the ultimate power held by the customer. The points when they feel most powerless or overwhelmed is when they’re most likely to self-medicate with retail therapy, shopping, and buying more.

Putting Customers First means understanding the world our customers live in, and how the events that take place there impact their everyday purchasing behavior. If we can do that, we can build brands that thrive.


Seven Easy Ways to Make Customers You Meet Feel Important

Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, "Make me feel important." —MARY KAY ASH

One of the most pernicious and underappreciated difficulties in businesses is the fight to feel valued. But What happens when customers feel devalued? In almost all our research, three things happen:

  • Devalued customers destroy your brand’s reputation.
  • Devalued customers don’t come back.
  • Devalued customers will make your competition stronger.

Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, “Make me feel important.”Mary Kay Ash

  1. Put away your cell phone.
  2. Notice something good about your customer.
  3. Connect with the eyes. Eye contact signals interest.
  4. Ask good questions. Good questions are more important than selling.
  5. Seek input and advice from the customer. Ask, “What do you think?”
  6. Be kind.
  7. Do your best.

How might you let your customers know they are important today? 

Because I know you enjoy learning, check out these additional articles to round out your knowledge:

  • 11 Simple Ways To Make Customers Feel Valued (Forbes)
  • The Little Things that make Employees Feel Appreciated (HBR)
  • Why Every Company Needs a Chief Experience Officer (HBR)

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. 


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:


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:


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.


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.


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!


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.