A Leader’s Guide to Emotional Branding

The second word most toddlers learn to say is “mine,” usually accompanied with a “ready-to-fight” disposition. It is the beginning of the possessive and territorial orientation we carry with us right up until our will is read to our descendants. But “mine” is more than a statement of control; it is an expression of identity. To be a Harley guy, a Nordie, Deadhead, or Starbucks fan is a complex communication of affinity that goes beyond pure preference. And, it is the dream of every brand manager.

The concept of brand in this country started in the west with the branding of cattle. Cattle shared open grazing range. When it came time to drive cows to market, the hot tattoo was a convenient way to identify a particular cow. Obviously barbed wire fence altered the practice of using branding for identification.

The golden arches today help us identify a particular fast-food restaurant; an apple with one bite removed identifies a particular computer company. Brands are powerful tools for customer trust. They spell “consistency” and “reliability.”

The word “brand” is typically associated with image--logo, signage, impression, promotion, etc. Companies protect brands with the same fervor they guard patents, trademarks, and company secrets. Let a new hamburger enterprise opt for silver arches as its emblem and even a clown named Ronald will have something to say about it.

Brand as Identity

There is another side of the meaning of brand. Branding in the Wild West was more than a tool for identification; it was also a means to determine ownership. The “Circle J” brand was not just the moniker of the cattle associated with the ranch along the east side of the Brazos River. It also told everyone that the cows were the property of that particular ranch.

There is a very big difference between simply recognizing a McDonald’s and adoring it. What steps change “the Starbucks at the corner of First and Main” into “my Starbucks?” A friend told me she loved her favorite restaurant in NYC so much she found herself tidying up their sink when she used their ladies room. That is emotional branding! How can outstanding customer service be an effective tool for building the trust in a brand that provokes customer devotion, not just confidence? Three principles characterize those organizations that elevate “trust in a brand” to “love for a brand”—inclusion, generosity, and honesty. They are also the features of their leaders.

Inclusion: Customers Care When They Share

The CEO of eBay said in an interview, “Most good innovation comes from customers. The more time we spend thinking in the ivory tower in San Jose, the worse off we’re going to be.” The company places great stock in their voice of the customer efforts that bring in dozens of customers every year for feedback, ideas and suggestions. Politicians would be wise to learn the ways of eBay. Great brands build brand devotion through fostering customer participation.

On Southwest Airlines Flight 22 from El Paso to Phoenix, the flight attendant accepted assistance from two adoring passengers to help pass out peanuts to fellow passengers. The most important part of the occurrence was not the obvious fun the two guys in Bermuda shorts and ball caps had. It was the noticeable positive effect the incident had on everyone on board. Even super serious passengers could not help but grin as they received the all-too-familiar snack from the flight attendant-wannabes!

Generosity: Great Brands Give Back

Anne Frank wrote; “No one has ever become poor by giving.” Great brands have a captivating impact on customers through a recognizable attitude of generosity. And, generosity starts at the top (think Buffett, Gates, Oprah and Paul Allen). Generosity attracts and retains because it conveys the kind of unconditional positive regard that characterizes relationships at their very best. Customers like the way they feel when dealing with service providers who have such an abundance orientation. They feel valued, not used. They believe they are recipients of a sincere desire to serve, not just a ploy for payback.

Bouquets is an award winning flower shop located in downtown Denver near many parking meters as well as a bus stop. Many businesses refuse to give change for meters and buses, except to customers, because it depletes their cash till and takes employee time to go back to the bank for more change. Bouquets replenishes a bag of quarters daily, specifically designed to make change for anyone who asks, says owner B.J. Dyer. “Coins are offered with a smile and a business card. Many people later become our customers when they need flowers,” Dyer adds.

Honesty: The Whole Truth and Nothing But

“Honesty is the cornerstone of all success, without which confidence and ability to perform shall cease to exist,” wrote Mary Kay founder and CEO Mary Kay Ash. Great brands are fans of truth telling and truth-seeking. Take it from the City of Santa Clarita (California), selected by Money Magazine as one of the Top 25 places to live in the U.S. Santa Clarita’s mayor holds the annual hairdressers banquet—a powerful forum to learn what matters most to citizens. The city also shows its willingness to be frank and make information a two-way street with its citywide Citizen Participation program.

The most famous cattle brand in the state of Texas is the “Flying W." It is the symbol for the largest ranch in the U.S.—the 875,000-acre King Ranch in Southeast Texas. Established in 1860, the ranch has produced cattle and horses that have won top honors at competitions around the world. One King Ranch horse won the Triple Crown in 1946. But King Ranch is best known for its significant and generous contributions to the cattle industry. The King Ranch example of going beyond image holds an important message for all brand-maker leaders.

Customers devoted to a brand are assertive advocates. Devoted customers are quick to forgive blunders (e.g., the rapid comeback of JetBlue after the tarmac fiasco). Brand lovers contribute ideas that help the brand innovate and grow. And, wise leaders eager to create a strong emotional connection with their customers have learned it starts with a culture grounded in an allegiance to inclusion, generosity, and honesty.