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What's true in real life is true in marketing.

I’ve embraced a simple truth when it comes to brand planning:  what’s true in real life is true in brand building.  Over time and across categories, I've observed that the ways in which people form personal relationships mirrors how they form brand relationships.

Forces such as empathy, experiences, energy and endorsement help shape our real life relationships.  Think about the people with whom you enjoy your most lasting relationships.  It’s likely those individuals who “get you” because you share the same values, sense of style, point of view or sense of humor; these same people are likely those with whom you've enjoyed truly memorable experiences; people who always seem to be up to something new and interesting; they are likely the people you trust most because their reputation is consistent.

What’s true in real life is true in brand building.

These same human dynamics –  empathy, experiences, energy and endorsement – create a clear and actionable planning model to help marketers create more customer-centered brand platforms.


Empathy is persuasive because it is seductive – by creating a common ground, empathy draws people closer to you.

If empathy is how we bond with each other, it stands to reason it is how customers bond with brands. We gravitate towards brands that get us.  Empathy occurs when customers project onto your brand their own feelings and attitudes.  Define a brand's source of empathy with its customers and you'll find its essential truth.  What's the basis of your relationship with your customers?  What is it you share in common on a deeper level?  What are your shared values; your shared dreams; your shared sense of style?  

Empathy isn’t a squishy measure.  We find its surrogates in the leading brand equity research models.  Brand Asset Valuator, one of the world's largest and most robust brand equity tools, identifies personal relevance as one of its leading indicators of brand health.  Research International’s Equity Engine measures affinity as a key measure of brand equity.  We also find empathy in B2B research in measures such as understands my company's needs and trust.


Like people, brands are ultimately judged by what they do, not just by what they say. We tend to believe something after we have experienced it first hand.  

Building awareness only goes so far.  Successful marketers orchestrate immersive experiences to turn perceptions into deeply held beliefs and behaviors.

Long term success is no longer assured by the quality of the product or service – it's about the total experience.  Every interaction defines the brand, e.g., the craftsmanship of the packaging, how the phone is answered; the quality of the customer service team (are they brand ambassadors or employees?); the online experience; events; the trade show booth; mobile gaming.  You name it, the list goes on.  Why?  Because experiences turn perceptions into beliefs.

Again, this is not a soft measure.  The 2011 Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index shows that customers are increasingly defining value through the total brand experience, and that experiences have a strong impact on customer decision-making.


Energy is a powerful force.  We’re drawn to its heat and light like moths to a flame.  Energy casts an aura of infectious momentum that people often interpret as being successful, innovative or popular.

Again, what’s true in life is true in brand building.

Think of those friends in your personal life who never stand still – those rare individuals who actually have an interesting answer when you ask “what’s new?”  We enjoy having these people in our circle of friends because the relationship never gets stale or predictable.  They inspire us.

Just as we desire this in our friendships, we seek this from the brands we choose.

Brand energy can be channeled in many ways.  Richard Branson is a master of using PR stunts to create news for Virgin.  Hyundai has gained share through a steady cadence of new product launches and bold customer service initiatives. Marketing practitioners know full well the attention-getting power of the words “new” or “introducing.”  Most often this comes through well-sequenced product introductions, in which every 6 to 12 months we are re-inspired to explore what the brand has to offer.  Most marketers are good at planning launches.  Maintaining energy requires that we think through what happens in the months after a launch to project a sense of ongoing momentum.

It is the absence of energy that causes otherwise loyal customers to get bored; to flirt with other brands; to spice up their life by trying something new and interesting.


Building empathetic brand relationships, immersive experiences and an aura of energy and momentum will fall short if word-of-mouth runs counter to personal perceptions.

Word of mouth didn’t begin with social media.  We thrive on the opinions of others.  From our earliest years to adulthood we learned to seek and follow the opinions of friends, embracing what’s popular at the moment.  Social media simply put on steroids what used to happen on the playground and at the proverbial water cooler.

If brands are built on empathetic relationships, then we must acknowledge that the relationship is now a menage a trois.  In a social media environment, brands are increasingly defined by the relationship that exists between the product and the customer and the other customers who also use the product.  (This observation is why I coined "wikibranding" at an ad:tech panel years back.)

Many marketers assume that customer advocacy is a way to convert others in the customer’s circle of friends.  While this is often true, advocacy can also serve a bigger goal, because giving customers channels through which to share their experiences is also a customer loyalty strategy.  When a customer advocates a brand, they are deepening their commitment to the brand by putting their name and reputation on the line. 

What's true in real life is true in brand building.

The true power of this planning approach is in mapping out the "4Es" as a holistic strategy. Each of these dynamics – empathy, experiences, energy and endorsement – can inspire specific, integrated and measurable tactics.