OPINION14 January 2014

Do your customers know what you stand for?


David Forbes explains the benefit of exploring the ‘emotional space’ in customer relationships in order to build brand loyalty.


But as I think more these days about the ways people connect to brands, both intellectually and emotionally, I disagree. In fact, I’d submit that in the area of values – both what your brand stands for and what your customer believes in – there’s plenty of unexplored territory.

Let me explain. The identity of every brand is made up, more or less, of two distinct categories of features – aptitudes and attitudes. Aptitudes are the things that a brand is good at – and good for. Judgments about brand aptitudes are primarily an intellectual consideration: Does it do a good job at what I need it to do? Is it good at the kinds of things that I look for in the products that the brand makes? Do these brand aptitudes meet my standards or performance and excellence? Is the service good? Are problems resolved quickly and effectively?

Brand attitude, on the other hand, is the sort of emotional stance your brand takes – the set of values it appears to support in its products and practices. Perhaps even more than brand aptitude, brand attitude is mission critical at every marketing touchpoint – and ultimately is the primary basis for building and managing customer relationships.

When we pull apart this emotional force, there are two distinct parts. There is motivation – what drives the brand to make the products that it does, the way that it does – what is the brand ultimately trying to do for its consumers. Brand promise – which focuses on fulfilling consumers’ ultimate emotional motivations – is perhaps the most critical element of brand appeal, the strongest driver of brand loyalty. It is the compelling prospect that the brand will give its customers what they ultimately want – whether that is feeling more competent in the kitchen, more nurturing in their relationships, or more powerful at work.

But there is a second component of brand attitude – brand values. These are the things people feel that the brand holds as meaningful and important, and the values a brand projects needs to align with what the consumer feels is meaningful and important.

It’s very powerful when a brand is able to promise to give the consumers the kinds of emotional fulfillment they want. It’s equally powerful when the consumer-brand relationship goes deeper than mere transactions, and is fact rooted in common values. A brand proposition that says, “This is what we stand for. This is what you stand for. Let’s stand for this together,” is a recipe for a much sturdier connection.

Brand intimacy

It strikes me that there is tremendous opportunity for brands to explore the emotional space in their consumer relationships. To identify how consumers can ultimately be fulfilled by a brand, and to identify the shared value systems that will make consumers feel solidarity with the brand. Brands are more intimate with people these days, and thus more likely to try to position themselves as personalities, not corporate entities. Chalk it up to the rise of social media, where brands think in terms of “friends” and “likes.”

Companies are increasingly asking people to judge them (and each of their brands). And if brands seek to be in personal relationships with consumers where they are regarded more like people, then they need to pay attention to the things that build connections in real friendships – including deep emotional fulfillment and strong beliefs in common values.

“A brand proposition that says, “This is what we stand for. This is what you stand for. Let’s stand for this together,” is a recipe for a much sturdier connection”

Nigel Hollis, in his recent book The Meaningful Brand, talks in a general way about the possibility of some brands achieving a state where they can deliver a higher order of emotional benefits, and observes that some brands achieve a kind of values resonance that is emotionally rewarding to consumers. I might suggest that all brands need to understand how they can provide deeper emotional fulfillment, through a careful systematic examination of what consumers really want, and what kind of fulfillment they can really offer alongside their functional benefits. Similarly, I would say that all brands would do well to think about how their values are perceived, and how they can create values alignment with their consumers – and again this should involve systematic investigation of the consumer values that operate in a particular business space, with dedicated analytics to understand a brand’s alignment with those relevant values.

In my work, we have developed very detailed categories for understanding the nature of deep emotional fulfillment, and are at work as I write creating a similar values hierarchy viewpoint for understanding the ways that brands can resonate the ideas and principles that are most important in the lives of their consumers, in the lifestyle moments when particular products are being used.

If brands truly want to build relationships with the people to whom they sell, then brand managers will be well advised to think deeply about how they build relationships – the literal situations may be different, but the operating psychological principles are almost certainly the same.

David Forbes holds a Ph.D. in clinical and cognitive psychology from Clark University and is the founder of Forbes Consulting.


Toward a Unified Model of Motivation; Review of General Psychology June, 2011.Vol. 15, No. 2, 85-98