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Who Loves You?

As I’m putting inscribed candy hearts into the last of my Valentines (Be Mine…Luv U…Text Me) I can’t help thinking that the only thing that ultimately matters in marketing is the relationship between the brand and its audience. In the absence of a special relationship with its customers, a brand cannot help but drift toward commodity status. The question is, how do you build the kind of personal relationship that supports a premium position for your brand?

Of course, a real personal relationship is a connection between two people, whereas a brand is a kind of useful fiction. Because of this, I believe it is helpful to think of your brand as if it were a fictional character. Audiences establish real emotional relationships with fictional characters all the time, that’s what the suspension of disbelief is all about. Without it, no one would ever cry at the movies.

For a marketer, the question becomes, what kind of character is your brand? Especially, what is the objective it pursues and what are the conflicts it wrestles with in pursuing that objective. Understanding the brand as a character is the key to developing a relationship in which the audience identifies with the brand and feels connected to it–a relationship, to put it in story terms, in which your customers feel like they know who your brand is, what it believes and how it thinks.

I could use your help with this exploration, if you are interested. I’d love to know if this metaphor–the brand as a character–seems useful to you as you approach the idea of building the relationship between a brand and its audience. Is it meaningful to you based on your own experience? And if so, could you describe the character of a brand to which you feel some personal connection? What has the brand done or said that led you to feel connected?
A long time ago a wise anthropologist who had (like me) drifted inadvertently into the world of marketing, taught me this:

Most brands spend their time desperately trying to get their customers to love them. Really successful brands manage to demonstrate, by their behavior, that they love their customers.
Happy Valentine’s Day!

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery