I always felt that one of the horrors brought to the world by social media was the like button. Call me cynical, but seeing people liking hundreds of things every day, and more importantly flaunting their liking to the world, somehow dilutes the emotion and opinion that were once associated with that verb. Then when I noticed companies everywhere asking people to like them on Facebook, I realized that this ‘social feature’ is also accommodating and encouraging companies’ naïve time-old quest for love.
Working as a brand consultant I’ve come across more and more companies over the years trying to co-opt the power of love. From automakers to cosmetics firms, from the food & beverage sector (yes, the usual suspect and suspect) and all the way to the telecommunications industry (see below), companies everywhere increasingly urge us to love them, ourselves or each other. A couple of years ago a “100 most loved companies” ranking appeared, and more recently a customized tool was developed to help companies measure the love more accurately. So what’s going on?
Well, it’s been proven time and again that companies need to build an emotional attachment to their brands in order to sustain preference and loyalty. Numerous studies in recent years, including medical and academic research, have established that emotion rather than reason is the primary driver of buying behavior and brand preference. Indeed, I’ll be the first one to preach the importance of an emotional bond with customers, employees and other relevant stakeholders. But is love that emotion? I doubt that. If anything, evidence suggests that these days consumers are falling out of love with brands.
It’s not surprising that many companies and their advisors interpret this desired emotional bond as love. After all, love is perhaps the ultimate emotion and the most long-lasting one, so you can’t blame companies for aiming high. However, what many of them fail to understand is that in this age of corporate disillusionment – felt by employees, consumers and members of society at large – the last emotion people want to bestow on a company is love. The company that wants your love today might tomorrow change its strategy, get acquired, downsize its workforce, be found to be conducting its business unethically (or using emissions-cheating software in its diesel engines), and the list goes on. Your love then would be meaningless, not to mention unrequited.
So what kind of an emotional relationship should companies strive to have with the world? In my opinion, the relevant elements at play are feelings such as trust, respect, satisfaction, curiosity and inspiration. I refer to it as goodwill rather than love. People tend to love people, not companies. They can also love objects and ideas, but they’re beyond the point of wanting to have a loving relationship with a commercial entity – even if that entity is their employer, and even if it produces beautiful smartphones.
This is then not to say that companies should avoid building emotional relationships with their stakeholders; it just means they should keep it a bit more real and down-to-earth. In order to do that, I believe there are 3 key things businesses of all kinds need to do (beyond the obvious of course, which is offer great products and services):
Stand for something. An idea, a belief, a value – something that’s greater than just making money. People (other than investors perhaps) have a hard time relating to sheer profit-making, though they accept that it’s an inherent part of doing business.
Be fair and honest. With your employees, customers, suppliers and anyone else that either matters to your business or is affected by it. Don’t cheat and don’t lie. This is not about being more Catholic than the Pope – it’s about being a decent human being.
Have an open dialogue with those around you. Listen to their needs and concerns, and consider these in your decisions and actions. A dialogue is different from a monologue – it’s engagement rather than communication.
The above will not make everyone love you, but it just might make the relevant people have a positive opinion of you, and that would make them more likely to want to support your business.
Clearly there’s nothing wrong with engaging consumers on Facebook and gathering likes and followers as part of community-building efforts. But let’s not confuse this with love: you’ll never be anyone’s substitute for love, friendship or religion, nor should you, so you may as well stop trying.