Meet the Democratic Brand

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on Liberated Brands. If you missed them, read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

So far, we have addressed “who owns your brand” and the benefits of letting go. You’ve seen why it’s important to liberate your brand and take advantage of the full range of perspectives that can help you increase equity. Now it’s time to go a step further and take up the charge of democratic brands.

democratic brands

A democratic brand is not a political statement; it’s a way of life and a key success factor for 21st century business. It’s a brand that embraces the power of community, tapping into the value of all your constituents, from prospects and buyers to employees and partners.

Living with the new reality means accepting some important facts about how relationships with brands have changed:

  • You can attempt to manage opinions about your brand, but you must recognize that you no longer have full control.
  • The company behind the brand is now in role of influencer, dependent on its audiences for validation of brand messages.
  • Your brand is in the customer’s hands. They accept or reject your positioning, depending on how well it fits their needs and beliefs.

We’ve all seen instances in which companies try to forcibly exert control over their brands by either denying what the world knows to be true or by propagating messages that are clearly false or off target.

Generally, that doesn’t go well.

When it comes to brand messages and customer interactions, the most likely response to strong-arm tactics is a swift and vocal backlash from customers, media and observers, especially on social media.

United Airlines learned this in their move to bring back the “Fly the Friendly Skies” ad tagline in the wake of the damage done by the “United Breaks Guitars” video created by passenger and musician Dave Carroll in 2009. Even four years later, customers remembered the video and the message behind it – that United was anything but friendly to Dave and his guitar.

As a result, the ad campaign, which United’s VP of Marketing and Loyalty, Tom O’Toole, described in the New York Times as setting “an aspirational target for the customer experience United delivers,” was panned on social media.

Democratic Brands are Customer Centered

In contrast,democratic brands employ a more customer-centric approach. They embrace their community to extend their reach and impact. Instead of fighting customers, they woo them, encouraging input and interaction every step of the way.

From creating new products to defining service terms and features, Democratic brands facilitate customer interactions in a way that inspires repeat business, referrals and recommendations.

Companies that employ a democratic brand philosophy do more than pay lip service to customer relationships; they take those relationships to heart. For example, instead of simply surveying buyers after the sale, they observe customers in action to see how they really engage with a brand.

Many customer surveys fail because they:

  1. Ask the wrong questions – “Did you have a pleasant experience” is much different from “Did we meet your needs.”
  2. Reach the wrong customers – By self-selection, poor sample selection or improper execution.
  3. Are skewed by employees – Like when a staff member says, “Please rate me all 5s so I can get a bonus.”
  4. Happen too frequently – Customers are sick of getting a survey on every receipt.

Customer observations, on the other hand, don’t lie.

An objective observer with an open mind can see how a customer walks through your store, traverses your website and interfaces with employees. Are they buying? Thinking about buying but then interrupting the transaction halfway through? Not buying at all?

Paying attention to these actions can help you pursue the right avenues for further investigation so you don’t waste resources on the wrong issues. Running down rabbit holes is expensive and time-consuming. You need to capture actionable data and find the right feedback loop for sustained success.

Democratic Brands are Social

Another way democratic brands bring their community into the conversation is by using tools like social listening to monitor online conversations. Watching for catch phrases and comments that cover more than just brand or product names, social listening lets companies assess the tone of  conversations to determine whether there are positive or negative currents at work.

Are people tweeting about how unhappy they are with a recent purchase? Do they brag about their new (car / shoes / phone) on Facebook? Maybe they’re venting about a problem with an employee or talking about how much they appreciate someone who stepped in to help when they needed it.

These are signals you can use to create or strengthen customer relationships.

If you want to develop a truly democratic brand, employ these tactics in conjunction with offline methods to engage with customers.

Customer focused or customer driven?

The democratization of brands has taken away absolute control and replaced it with an indisputable need to influence brand perceptions. A key point of distinction between control and influence is the difference between a customer driven company and a customer focused organization.

There’s no doubt that it is vital to know your customers…and that they know you. A brand that clearly expresses its value proposition to the right target market builds community and fosters the relationships that are the essence of a democratic brand.

Listening to customers, understanding and anticipating their needs and desires, is a prerequisite for gaining permission to create the brand you want. When you truly understand customers, you know which brand attributes are most relevant to them. Create brand messages that resonate and design marketing creative, content and campaigns that express your desired brand personality while appealing to customers’ sensibilities.

That is customer focus.

There is a fine line between being customer focused and customer driven. The difference is in who sets the direction for your business. A customer driven company puts the buyer in the driver’s seat.

[Tweet “Being customer focused requires the fortitude to say “No” to customers when necessary.”]

Customer focused companies are in tune with customer needs. They listen, observe and (when appropriate) act on the opportunities and challenges their customers present. What they don’t do is give up strategic control, spawning chaos as they try to accommodate divergent customer opinions and conflicting desires.

Democratic brands are, at their very core, customer focused.

They succeed because they integrate the best and most valuable lessons from their customer relationships, without losing sight of their strategic direction.

Here a quick example to highlight the difference:

In a customer-driven software company, a sales representative for a major account might come to the product development team and insist that a feature his customer wants be added to the next release. Because the firm doesn’t dare say no to a request from a major buyer (“We’re customer driven, after all,”) they add the feature, delay the product launch, and all customers pay the price.

Even worse, the new enhancement comes at the expense of another feature that customers haven’t heard much about yet. It had been kept under wraps because it will give the company a serious leg up on the competition.

Now turn the tables and look at the same scenario in a customer-focused company. The request comes in from the major customer and the product team evaluates it. A recommendation is made to senior management: “We can’t do this unless we postpone the release of the competitive feature.”

Knowing that the competitive feature has a greater impact on both the immediate and long-term health of the business, managed decide to add the customer’s request to the next release instead of dropping what is most important to the company’s success.

Customer focused companies that embody the principles of a liberated brand do this without damaging customer relationships because they build their business around sensitivity to customer needs and desires.

The democratic process does not promise that everybody wins, but that every voice has a chance to be heard. That is the basis of informed, strategic decisions about the brand and even the direction of the company as a whole.

Customers tend appreciate the fact that these firms listen and respond, even if the answer is not what they hoped to hear. Respecting customer input in a consistent and authentic way makes a democratic brand more resilient than one that doesn’t.

Where is Your Brand?

Does your brand fit the profile of an open and engaging, democratic brand? Or are you still trying to wrest control back from customers?

Letting go is the secret. Embrace customers as partners in building your brand. Engage, listen, share and enlist them as allies. Let them help shape your brand, and you’ll discover a world of new opportunities for growth, and an army of advocates to get you there.

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