The real hero of your brand’s story is not your customer

I would  never even think of telling someone they have an ugly baby. Moreover, I’m not the guy who will admit that you really do look fat in those jeans if asked. However, if you believe that you should cast your customers as the hero of your brand’s story, my conscience obliges me to risk a possible insult. At the very least, I urge you to reconsider.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that all customers are important. Customers who aren’t are like 39th birthdays. They only come around once. However, to regard them as important is one thing. To dress them up in the clothes of a hero is quite another.

Consider first what the word “hero” implies. Heroes are people who solve the big problem or resolve the burdening tension that few others can. They are the dragon slayers, the courageous visionaries, the people who take huge risks to accomplish unimaginable feats. As such, they become objects of admiration and emulation. Okay, you nor I might be able to do what Michael Jordan did on the courts, what Chesley Sullenberger did on the Hudson River or what a first responder does while putting life on the line for victims of some tragedy. However, these and others we designate as heroes become symbols of principles, ideals and causes we revere and choose to support.

So, if you still think your customers are heroes, perhaps you should stop trying to sell them and hire them instead.

The countervailing point of view is that brands, not customers, should play the role of hero in the brand’s story.  Taking into consideration the requirements of heroism, this too may be an overreach. However, it is possible for brands to become hero-like.  Because like heroes, brands have the potential to symbolize ideals or causes people belong to and support.  People don’t wear Harley Davidson tattoo’s, become walking ads for North Face or decal their car bumpers with the name of a favorite political candidate because they are paid to do so.

 In fact, providing customers with  ideals worth rooting for is one of the most important functions a brand can perform. For this reason, and in addition to becoming known for a unique functional benefit, an equal or even greater effort should be put against associating a brand with ideals it stands for.   As a matter of fact,  functional benefits are eventually copied or they go the way of the typewriter, the Walkman or Windows v 1.0. However, ideals like perfection, persistence, independence, responsiveness, just to name a few – these do not have expiration dates.

It should also be said that becoming  associated with an ideal does not come about through lip service.  It requires an unabiding commitment by management.  This explains how Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Howard Shultz and others turned their brands into best-selling stories. It’s also worth noting that in each of these cases, they committed to something greater than making money.  Certainly their fortunes didn’t come about by ignoring the importance of profitability.  But through ups and downs, their efforts to stand up, stand firm and stand for something meaningful remained steadfast.

Something too should be said about the need for authenticity once a brand sets out to become associated with some ideal. David Ogilvy once admonished, “Your customer is not stupid. She’s your wife.” Today’s consumer (and a certain wife I know) are not easily fooled. Authenticity demands an honest and passionate conviction.  Otherwise,  you’ll be found out.  For this reason, it’s important to let the voice that is saying “THIS is what I believe in” be the voice that leads your quest.  In case you are having difficulty hearing that voice, it could be because it’s being drowned out by the voice of that customer you refer to as “hero.” Asking your customers what you should stand for is like asking your children how to be a good parent.  

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