What we talk about when we talk about loving brands

If you want to sell me something, give me an experience, tell me a story, or be my friend. Or you could do that for someone I love, so that she or he can come and tell me, “Yo homie, buy this product, I’m totez in love with it and Imma use word of mouth to be a brand advocate.” (It’s well under 140 chars, don’t worry.)

It’s part of a phenomenon that some people (OK, just me) have called the “villaging effect.” The villaging effect is the transformation of a large population into what are effectively small communities tied by interests and locality. On the one hand, a mutual interest helps override geographical limitations (by enabling you to order, say, the best messenger bag online). On the other, these same mutual interest groups help you find the best offerings in your localities. End result? The world is smaller. And it pays to have a personal touch.

Simple recognition, which once worked so well, suddenly isn’t good enough anymore. We used to talk about how advertising changed parity products, and now it’s come full circle—products and the brand experience are now changing parity advertising

When it comes to a brand experience, Apple’s the go-to example. If you’ve ever bought a Mac or an iPhone, you’ve experienced the thoughtfulness that went into the packaging and the after-sales service.

But it doesn’t have to be a billion dollar brand. I recently went to Canteen, a sandwich shop in Cambridge, Mass., where the service was so good that I’ve been back at least five times in the course of a month. I will not deny that I wanted to try out different sandwiches. But I went in with a springier step, and recommended the place to all of my friends because of the smiles I got when I went in. The fact that the owner remembered my name, and the overall friendly demeanor of the place, made a utilitarian activity—lunching alone—feel pretty good.

It can be a slick user interface, or it can be a warm smile. I’m a human being. Give me a great experience, I’ll come back. And I’ll bring my friends.

Thursday, July 15, 2010, is a day which will forever be marked with sadness, because it’s the day after the Old Spice Guy stopped making online videos for people. But on the two days he did—what a glorious story he told! Swan dives, beating pirate piñatas with petrified fish while speaking Demi Moore’s name, the first monocle smile. Some people say there are no new stories, and they’re right.

The most interesting man in the world was there, and before him, the man in the Hathaway shirt. But nobody told a story so well as Isaiah Mustafa and Wieden and Kennedy’s Team Old Spice. And for that story, even though I’m faithful to my Dr. Bronner’s organic soap, I salute them.

A few years ago, I had just moved back to America and the winter was hard on my Chuck Taylors. I wanted to buy boots, but I was too poor. One day, I walked into John Fluevog on Newbury Street in Boston and fell in love with a pair of boots there. I couldn’t afford them. But the gentle people there (now dear friends of mine) saw my plight and gave me a discount tailored to meet my budget. For the first time in my life, I was well-shod. I’ve since bought at least a dozen pairs of shoes, and I’ve told this story hundreds of times. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I think part of the reason we expect these intensely personal efforts in exchange for brand loyalty is because we, as a generation, use more badge products than any that came before us. As markets inexorably develop, we deal with extreme choice by personalizing everything. It’s not just a choice between a wristwatch or smartphone. Everything we buy needs to have a personal resonance, and make a statement about who we are.

While the market ecosystem is getting more complex, the solution is simple. A smile always brightens your day, smile at me when I buy your product. When you do me a kindness simply because we’re two human beings and it’s nice to be nice, I’ll end up giving your company money. Maybe I’ll blog about it, and maybe that will lead to someone else doing you a kindness too. As the Old Spice Guy might say, those brand advocates are now diamonds.

Photo by counsellor

Arafat Kazi I dropped out of college, almost died of typhoid, and now I'm back in school. I play drums and read detective novels. Twitter: @arafatkazi

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