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Customers First

We Don’t Talk About Bruno…What Can Brands Learn From Encanto?

Because I have small children, I have seen The Walt Disney Company movie Encanto about 37 million times. And this experience has made me wonder: does every brand have a Bruno?

We Don’t Talk About Bruno – What’s That About?

A quick summary for those who haven’t seen the movie. Encanto is about a family that has magical gifts. Bruno’s gift was the ability to see the future, which sounds fantastic, but most of his predictions were negative. His family began to believe his predictions caused the bad outcomes, and after one especially notable conflict, Bruno left. Ever since, the family’s most famous song says, we don’t talk about Bruno.

In every group, each person has a role to play. Bruno’s role was that of the truth-teller: the person who, genuinely out of a sincere desire to help, says things other people don’t want to hear. These people are often dismissed from the conversation, brushed off, as Bruno was, as the crazy uncle no one listens to.

Who Is Your Bruno?

What does that mean for a brand? Who is your organization’s Bruno? Who don’t you talk about?

Bruno could be a customer, quick to write harsh reviews pointing out even the smallest flaw.

Bruno could be an activist, loudly demanding your company conduct itself in a way they see as more humane, ethical, or otherwise correct. 

Bruno could be an employee speaking up about working conditions and pay rates.

Bruno could be a manager pointing out that changes need to be made because the in-store experience is suffering.

Bruno could be in leadership, taking a stand and telling the others the organization isn’t going in the right direction. 

In the movie, it becomes clear that Bruno’s predictions weren’t causing the events that happened. He merely spotted the clues of impending events ahead of time and did his best to let people know. But it was easier for the family to become angry with what they were hearing and stop talking about Bruno. 

This dynamic plays out in every human setting, including within our organizations. Perhaps you can think of times within your career when you’ve seen someone who’s been acting as a truth-teller phased out of the organization or otherwise disregarded. This is a thing that happens, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

As part of our ongoing conversation about trust, we need to reach a point where brands trust themselves enough to be able to listen to the Brunos of the world without shutting them out. We have to trust that the people in good faith relationships with us – our customers, our communities, our employees, team, and leadership – tell us things we don’t want to hear because they want us to do better. 

We don’t talk about Bruno, but we have to if we want to grow.

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 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.


Can You Listen to Your Customer?

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

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

Some of these companies are telling you the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Your Brand Values to Work for You: Walmart’s Promise to Hire Vets

When Walmart  promised, earlier this month, to hire any recently discharged veterans who want a job, it made headlines around the world.  Veterans have had a disproportionately difficult time finding employment after finishing their military service: the Huffington Post reports that unemployment rates among veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan was 10.8 in December, compared to a 7.8% general unemployment rate.  Homelessness has become rampant. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, nearly 63,000 were homeless on an average night in 2012.

This crisis situation was cited by Walmart as part of their reasoning behind the pledge. CEO Bill Simon also said, “Hiring a veteran can be one of the best business decisions you make. Veterans have a record of performance under pressure. They’re quick learners and team players. They are leaders with discipline, training, and a passion for service. There is a seriousness and sense of purpose that the military instills, and we need it today more than ever.”

These are all good reasons to hire veterans. But it’s hardly a comprehensive list. Other commentators have been quick to point out that Walmart, with its 37% annual employee turnover rate, has a gigantic, ongoing need for new hires. Adding 100,000 veterans over five years to the payroll, incredible as it may seem, doesn’t even make a meaningful dent in the face of that need. At the same time, Walmart will be entitled to specific tax incentive payments for hiring veterans.

Understanding Brand Values: Why Walmart Is Doing The Right Thing

What we’re interested in is what this pledge means for the Walmart brand. Walmart is a polarizing entity. The store has ardent fans; legions of them. There’s just as many critics out there, commenting on Walmart’s problematical sourcing, international bribery scandals and labor practices. One identifiable trend that has emerged over the course of Walmart’s recent history is the values-oriented response: when the critics have gotten too loud, the company responds with a headline grabbing initiative that puts the retailer in the best possible light in the eyes of its best customers.  It hasn’t been long since we’ve heard about Walmart’s efforts to go green and promote sustainable choices. Now we’re seeing Walmart step up and offer employment to the nation’s veterans.

What’s going on here, and why is it working?

As we said in Customers First, there’s a reason that Walmart is among the world’s most successful retail businesses. They have spent a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy developing a comprehensive understanding of who their customers are. This understanding transcends simple demographics: it is by understanding their customer’s core motivations—the psychological factors that drive all behaviors, including purchasing decisions—and presenting their organization as possessing and in alignment with those motivations that a brand gains a prominent place in a customer’s worldview.

Walmart knows, definitively, that their customers are patriotic. They want to support America, and by extension, her troops. Look at the core of Walmart’s audience. Generally Millenial-aged and older, these customers came up during or shortly after the end of the Viet Nam war. Soldiers returning at that time were not greeted with open arms: the social fallout from this resulted in the codification of a uniquely American value. No matter how ideologically reprehensible a military conflict may be, we hold the actual combatants blameless for their participation in it.

Walmart’s pledge is perfectly in alignment with the values of their best customers, who want to support the troops but heretofore have lacked a meaningful mechanism to do so. Conflating shopping at Walmart with supporting the troops allows shoppers to feel as if they’re making a positive difference while they’re doing something they’d already ordinarily be doing. The positive emotions evoked will strengthen the already strong brand between Walmart and their customer. This was a smart move that came out of understanding their customer’s psyche. Would it work for every brand? That’s an interesting question. We’d love to hear your thoughts.


Being Smart About Story Time: A Humanistic Approach To Marketing

What are your competitors going to be doing to attract their customer’s attention in 2013? Many of them are going to attempt acting less like advertisers and more like publishers, according to this Adweek article focused on the digital marketing trends to expect in 2013.

Strategic product placement within narrative text or video pieces designed primarily to offer value to the public (in the form of information or sheer entertainment) is a formula that has proven to have some traction. The lines between editorial content and advertising content are blurring across all platforms. Journalistic objectivity, a once-sacred cow, is rapidly becoming something we worried about yesterday. In the evolving ethical environment, it’s okay if your content has an agenda – provided you’re honest about what that agenda is.

It’s pretty easy to extrapolate an explosion of brand-created content in the near future. People like and respond to stories, both the informative and the entertaining. Digital content is easy to produce, and relatively low-cost. Given this information, shouldn’t every brand be telling stories?

Well, yes. And therein lies the problem. When you have a tool that works, and it appears both easy to use and cheap, you’re going to see that tool adopted with a wide-spread enthusiasm. The result? A glut of content flooding into an already swamped marketplace. There are already millions of places for your customer to get their information and entertainment. Why are they going to choose yours?

Toward a Humanistic Approach To Marketing: Finding Content That Resonates

The great news is that your brand doesn’t have to try to create content that appeals to all of your brand’s customers and potential customers, past, present, and future. If you want to be smart about content marketing, it’s essential to identify and articulate only those stories that are going to be relevant to and resonate with your very best customers. Your very best customers are those who do lots of business with you, who ardently recommend you to their family, friends, and colleagues, and who choose your brand before any other. (These are the folks we call Brand Lovers: you can read about them in Customers First)

Your Brand Lovers are a fantastic source of stories and content about your organization that other customers (current and potential) will find very compelling. Spending time with your Brand Lovers, listening to and learning about them, is an essential way to identify the types of cultural narratives they find irresistible. These stories may be distinct from those tales that win admiration and approval from society as a whole.

For example, Pepsi Max is currently running a campaign that features three young men tricking their boss in order to get free time off to watch the Big Game. The technique they use (also known as gaslighting) is very frowned upon in socially-aware circles, but Pepsi Max is clearly confident that their customers will find it side-splittingly funny — something that they wish they could do themselves, if only circumstances permitted. Their Brand Lovers can envision themselves within the entertaining narrative, taking on the role of the clever trickster for their own. It’s a little bit of empowerment that they can tap into every time they choose a Pepsi Max.

That’s a smart use of story telling. Because it is very specifically targeted, psychologically, we think it will be an effective campaign. Other stories that are crafted without the focus on understanding who the Brand Lover is and what they enjoy are likely to fall flat.

Should You Care If Your Customers Are Saying Goodbye To Church?

They’re called the “Nones,” and they’re one of the fastest growing demographic groups in America, according to a recent well-publicized study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Adults who have no religious affiliation number approximately 46 million individuals, roughly 20 percent of the total population. One third of adults under the age of 30 consider themselves unaffiliated.

Delving into the Pew report reveals some critical insights about this cultural change. Respondents still overwhelmingly report having faith in God. Many consider themselves extremely spiritual. They haven’t abandoned the absolute fundamentals of their faith identity. What they’re leaving is the church, and by extension institutionalized religion.

As you might imagine, there has been a tremendous amount of discussion centering around exactly why this change has happened. The Pew team is calling the results unprecedented. In the New York Times, Pew Forum researcher Gregory A. Smith says, “We really haven’t seen anything like this before. Even when the baby boomers came of age in the early ’70s, they were half as likely to be unaffiliated as compared with young people today.”

What the “Nones” Know: Times Have Changed

Now, we’re loathe to argue with the people at Pew. They’re great researchers, and no one can match them for the focus, intensity, and professionalism that they bring to their work. But in this instance, we need to say that a vital part of the picture is being missed here.

The decline in formal religion affiliation is not a unique phenomenon. Instead, it is a larger trend where once powerful social structures no longer appeal to individual members in quite the same way. The flocks leaving the church are the same people who no longer involve themselves in local politics, belong to community organizations like the Elks or Kiwanis, or volunteer to improve circumstances in their community. There are a number of factors that have lead to this change.

Researchers including Ray Oldenburg, Barry Wellman, Anabel Quan Haase, James Witte and Keith Hampton have been tracking the factors contributing to decline of community, and identifying what structures have emerged to replace those that have been abandoned.

It’s important to understand that the abandonment of traditional social and cultural organizations does not indicate that people have given up their need to belong to groups that reinforce and support their individual identity. That need remains constant. What has changed is the way people are filling that need for themselves. Loyalties have changed.

Organizations that required a significant commitment in terms of time, behavior modification, and economic resources have been left behind for brands that want nothing more than regular sales. The barriers to entry to a relationship with a Starbucks, for example, is significantly lower than the complexities involved with joining a synagogue, yet the meaningful rewards, in terms of connecting with others and reinforcing one’s self-concept, remain the same. Absent of any pervasive social pressure to act differently, the choice to realize the greatest rewards while making the least amount of effort or sacrifice is a no-brainer.

This is important knowledge to have when you’re deciding how to position and market your organization. This major cultural shift has played out in real time in the life of your consumer. They know they have an infinite number of brands they can ally themselves with, and little in terms of meaningful consequences in abandoning former associations. Starbucks has used this knowledge to become one of the most dominant brands in the world. If your organization can recognize and capitalize upon the voids created by this shifting social dynamic, you’ll be able to do the same thing. It’s a matter now of putting customers first.

Are You Ready For Some Football?

The 2012 Football Season has finally started, bringing joy to the hearts of fans everywhere—at least as long as their teams are doing well.  While there’s lots of action to watch on the gridiron, you’re going to want to pay special attention to social media this season.  The NFL, its teams, and even individual players are proving to be surprisingly adept at using Facebook and Twitter to strengthen the relationship they have with their fan base.

Social Media From The Sidelines

In Customers First we talk about one central concept: the better you understand your customer, the more completely you’ll be able to meet and surpass their expectations. This is the recipe for fanatical brand loyalty.

The NFL hasn’t always demonstrated a concrete understanding of what their fans want the most—witness the most recent frustrating lockouts—but they seem to have gotten a handle on things as far as social media is concerned.  They’re using their Facebook presence to give all of the Monday Morning quarterbacks a platform to share their opinions and be heard, posing to their fans the very same questions that are normally discussed by James Brown, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino, and the rest of The NFL Today crew during halftime.  A post asking which of five rookie quarterbacks starting this Sunday would be the most successful drew over 2,700 responses. While there’s no doubt that the fans admire the athletes on the field, it seems that the behavior they most identify with and emulate with is that of the commentators.

Adweek has given the NY Giants a glowing review of their social media efforts, and we think you should pay particular attention to the bit at the end, which discusses how the sales of tickets and Giants memorabilia is being integrated successful into the social media content mix. Translating online activity into real world revenue works best when the conversions are not forced, but occur naturally and organically. The Giants present a wide range of content, including images of the locker room before the game, exclusive game photographs and post-game live chats with team personnel.

A comprehensive narrative is built, delivering a powerful emotional dividend of anticipation, excitement, and (in the case of the season opener against the Cowboys) heartbreak. It’s a complete experience. Sales solicitations to watch the game again or purchase tickets for the next game mesh seamlessly into the mix. Putting the customer first—providing the information and emotional experience they’re seeking—strengthens the relationship in such a way that they’re predisposed to do more business with the Giants.

An Effective Social Media Presence

When we talk about individual players having an effective social media presence, we’re really talking about the power of the intersection of two powerful unconscious forces: archetypal images and the cultural narrative.  Sports stars and celebrities attain a quasi-mythical status through media exposure. Some of the commentary surrounding Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady would lead one to expect that the man could change water into wine in between throwing touchdown passes. This puts them in a unique position where they are both more and less than they actually are.  Some of their actual humanity becomes obscured by celebrity’s glare; at the same time, they become powerful symbols of skill and perseverance. The ups and downs of a professional football career track neatly against some powerful cultural narratives, such as the hero’s journey, in which a pure heart and determination can prevail over even the most unjust fate.

Put it all together, and you get Peyton Manning. After many, many years of loyal service to the Indianapolis Colts, Manning was laid low by a neck injury that sidelined him for a season. His team let him go, and today, the elder Manning is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Manning’s Facebook page addresses the situation with humor (there’s a great image of Steeler’s coach Mike Tomlin saying “What do you mean, his neck is fine?”) and language that frames this period in Manning’s career as a new chapter in an exciting narrative.  Fans aren’t just tuning in to see the game: they’re seeing Manning’s return and his triumph over circumstances. What happens when fate deals a good guy a bad hand? No one knows for sure, but they’re using social media to make predictions none the less.

Not everyone can throw a perfect spiral pass. Few people can take a hit from a linebacker and get up again. It’s pretty hard to kick a football forty yards through the uprights. But what we can do, as marketers, is take the lessons the NFL is teaching about the effective use of social media and apply them to our own online conversations. Be prepared for touchdowns!

The Social Side of Social Media: Can You Crowdsource Creativity?

We’ve got to hand it to Mountain Dew.  They’re trying so hard to do social media right—especially when it comes to listening to their customer base and soliciting creative insights from the people who actually love their products. If there was a direct relationship between efforts and results, someone in the Mountain Dew PR team would be getting top honors right about now.

But something’s not working quite right.  Mountain Dew was searching for a name for their new green-apple flavored soda. They turned to the masses, and the masses responded—not always a guaranteed thing in this world! Unfortunately, the masses didn’t respond with really brilliant, insightful, sales-generating names for the soon-t0-be-debuted beverage.
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Beyond Batman: Understanding The Events That Shape Our Customers

We join with the world in sorrow and grief over the Aurora, Colorado massacre.

As a culture, we’ll be a long time figuring out what went wrong, and why. As business leaders, we have to understand the impact of events like this have on our customers.

For the owners of movie theaters, this is a huge and immediate concern. But what does it mean for the rest of us? You may not think there’s an immediate connection. If you’re selling women’s clothes or automobiles or the finest financial planning instruments, at this point, you’re thinking, “Exactly what does this horrible shooting have to do with my customer base?”

Culture, Community, and The Ties That Bind

We’ve talked before about the fact that our customers don’t exist in isolation. Approaching business from a humanistic perspective means understanding that we’re all connected: every single customer is part of a family, a neighborhood, a larger culture. The groups we belong to partly define us. Our behaviors, decisions, and world views are partly shaped by the behaviors, decisions, and world views of the people we associate with.

It’s important to remember that systems—all systems, every system—move inevitably from stability to instability. Entropy is a universal force. Things come undone. We see this on the physical level as well as the social level.  Once great institutions—the central forces that guided and shaped every decision that people made—are not so powerful anymore.

People no longer identify as strongly or as wholly with their church, country, or community as they once did.  This process can take place over the course of time—an in-depth examination of American Catholicism is a good example here—or it can happen very rapidly. How many people applying to work for your organization this week are going to have Penn State proudly listed at the top of their resume?

The groups may falter and fail, but the need to belong remains. Let’s bring our attention back to Aurora for a moment. Examining the coverage of this horrific event reveals one surprisingly strong narrative thread: outrage that this shooting happened specifically in a movie theater. People go to the movies to be entertained, surely, but they go for other reasons: to be anonymous in the audience, free from the responsibility to be aware of and engaged with others, and to give over one’s attention wholly to a story. The setting may be secular, but the experience is close to sacred. To be violated here, in this fashion, is not a trivial thing.

Right now, our customers are largely conscious of this. We know a woman who told her mother she was going to a midnight showing of Batman, to show solidarity with and compassion for the Aurora victims. Her mother’s advice? Wear sensible shoes. Just in case you have to run. You never know.

A year from now, two years from now, those words may have faded, but the sentiment will remain, tucked away in the collective unconscious of our customers. The spaces we assumed were special and sacred, different from the rest of the world and free from the world’s worries, aren’t, really. This will shape their decision making in new and complex ways. We see this after every large scale traumatic event, even if it appears that our customers aren’t directly affected.

It is our role, as business leaders invested in providing superior service to our customer base, to be aware of the changes in group behavior. Some people are going to buy running shoes in the wake of Aurora. Some people are going to buy guns. What about your customers? You need to know what they’re are going to do and why they’re going to do it. That’s the type of awareness that separates leading organizations from the rest of the pack.