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.


Why Do Most Loyalty Programs Fail? … Find out on the next episode of Make Business Matter

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

On this episode, I examine the main reasons why most loyalty programs fail and how this results in companies continuing loyalty programs just so customers don’t get upset by their points disappearing. I show how businesses can create an effective loyalty program and what an effective loyalty program should do. Finally, I give five steps that can lead your business to create true loyalty.

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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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 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:


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:


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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