Be The Human Candle (On The Evolution Of Brand)

Image by Phillie Casablanca via Flickr

It All Started With Great Ads

Used to be that brands were what we said they were: Advertisers pushed the message and the public bought it all. The eye-patched “Man In The Hathaway Shirt” was macho-for-the-office defined, and that was it.
Later we said that brands were what the customers said they were: Social media turned Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Google, Dell, Nike, McDonald’s, the whole wide world of brands into a global conversation.

Boy did we talk. About their logos, their advertising campaigns, their labor practices, everything. It was as if brands were people: Did we like their personalities? Did we want to be like them?

Now it is the conventional wisdom that the image you hold in your mind of the brand, is itself the brand’s definition. It’s out of their control.

But Today's "Social Media" Definition Doesn’t Fully Work Either

Well…sort of. It’s an incomplete definition. Because really, there is no such thing as one image, is there? The customer’s mind changes year-to-year, month to month, day to day, minute by minute.

I’ve had fifty different perceptions of Starbucks and it is my favorite brand, but I would not describe it the same way twice on two consecutive days.

Mostly what changes my mind about the brand, to be honest, is the particular store that I’ve visited most recently. If well-treated I am happy; if they don’t care I walk away a little bit annoyed and let down.

This happens to me in airports sometimes, where they sell Starbucks coffee from what looks like a Starbucks stand, but it’s somehow not the “real thing.” Generally the airport Starbucks folks just don’t seem to care, or to enjoy their jobs, the way the regular baristas do.

A Personal Experience That Taught Me Better

A couple of months ago I was at a Starbucks close by.

Was putting half-and-half in my coffee when the employee cleaning out the trash cleaning out the messy, wet, sticky Splenda and sugar packets – started telling me how much he loves his job. He was literally singing!

Completely unprompted, not knowing that I blog about branding and not recognizing me as a frequent customer at all, he told me how much he loved his job.

He said: “I used to have (insert unfulfilling other job), and I always wanted to work at Starbucks, and now I do! And I love it!”

I sat down. Several hours later he shifted stations and was serving espresso and other caffeine creations. There was a visible aura of good energy around the counter. It just went everywhere.

The Human Candle Effect

People like that Starbucks employee are what keep this relaxation brand (to me it is not coffee they sell but a time out) in business. They are human candles. And what I learn from them and from others is that a company’s overall brand depends on not just one image, but many images. Not just static images, but dynamic images. It’s not a singular thing that gets built and is defended.

A brand is people in motion, connecting and interconnecting all the time, reinforcing something that holds the core of the brand together.

Remember those cartoon flipbooks they sold years ago? And when you flip the pages fast you see the story? That’s a brand in miniature, except millions of people are flipping the books and creating a moving mosaic together.

Yet at the same time, like any relationship, brand is invisible and yet there is something very tangible and real about the experience of interacting with a representative of it.

In fact the brand is never exactly the same twice – nor should it be - because the interactions between the customer and the company’s representatives are never identical. And yet as the repeated interactions have the same quality and flavor, there is a consistency to the experience that qualifies the brand as being “a thing.” A thing of value.

Employees As The (Overlooked) Secret Sauce

Looked at in this way you can see why employee morale, understanding of the brand, passion for the brand, championing of the brand accurately is absolutely critical to delivering a value-added experience for the customer.

And most companies totally overlook this and from what I have heard, they treat their people as the least valuable asset on the books.

This is so crazy! It is the human relationship that brings together the buyer and the seller again and again.

It is the knowledge of one another and the trust the customer has for the seller – however fleetingly we think of it - that creates a perception of value over and above what is actually being sold. I cannot emphasize this enough.

“Some Of Our Ice Cream Isn’t Kosher”

When we were in Florida we went to buy ice cream. No sooner did my  husband start to order than the woman behind the counter, noticing his yarmulka, said,

“I’m just warning you, as one Jewish person to another, that some of our ice cream isn’t kosher.”

Imagine that. This person makes a living from whoever walks into the ice cream store. And it’s not like there are tons of people in the store every minute. She was ready to take money out of her own pocket, or her employer’s (which could be even riskier), for the sake of doing what she perceived to be the right thing.

Darn skippy I’ll be in Yo Mama’s for ice cream (A1A & Sunrise Boulevard) the next time I’m in Fort Lauderdale. And you see – I’m mentioning them, so you may go there too. That’s the effect of a human candle in action.

Loneliness Makes The Relationship Matter

The fact is that we live in a very impersonal world today. Most things can be automated and done remotely. Most people are desperately seeking financial and emotional survival. And there is precious little time to interact.

So if a company can hire people who deliver that emotional connection, however brief, on demand and with no commitment other than the price of the merchandise, it’s an exponentially powerful recipe for success.

Emotions became part of our work decades ago. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote about the increasing importance of human emotional labor in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Labor, published in the mid-1980s.

Hochschild showed that the art of putting on a face was not just an add-on to a job, but increasingly integral to it. And she was right: People want to buy from other people who bring them joy.

Why Are Human Candles So Important?

There are two basic reasons why human candles matter so much to building a brand.

·      On the ordinary level, they light up the darkness and ordinary misery of the customer’s day, they stand out above other employees of the company, and make the customer want to patronize that business again and again. As discussed.

·      In the out-of-the-ordinary, exponentially exciting, value-added way that only a candle can, they make up for other employees who are negative representatives of the brand, who deliver a terrible experience you wish you could forget.

Pay The Human Candles, Retrain The People-Haters

Many people who deliver great brand experiences don’t even realize what good representatives they are. It just comes to them naturally. They have high emotional intelligence.

So instead of being looked down upon for their people skills – “that’s easy” – and paid insufficiently, they should be actively recruited and promoted to positions of authority.

Too often leaders not only have terrible people skills, but they actually have contempt for the people they lead, preferring instead to value an abstract “mission” over real human beings.

Sociopaths may look serious and be efficient, but they are often arrogant, cruel, and turn people off. In contrast human candles make money. They are the ones who make sure that the brand lives on in the customer’s mind and the customer’s life and that it is paid for from the customer’s wallet.

Anyone Can Do It With The Right Mindset

You don’t have to work for a big brand like Starbucks to be a human candle. In three ordinary interactions last week I met three of them:

·      At the post office. I was irate after waiting on a line for half an hour, to send packages that were already covered with pre-printed postage, sealed and wrapped. I was tapping my toes with impatience. But I knew her from past interactions, and when I complained, she explained the policy to me.  “We do things that way, honey,” she said. “It’s just the way it is.” Or something like that. Whatever she said it wasn’t the words, it was the tone. She was sympathetic to the customer’s experience. And what was funny was that there was a sign on her keyboard that told her, “Make eye contact with the customer.” She barely looked at me, but she made contact anyway.

·      At work.I needed to find a specially equipped conference room. It was late on a Friday, I had no idea where to get what I needed, and he was sitting in somebody else’s seat. He looked busy, but he took fifteen minutes to help me get what I needed. No questions asked; he just accomplished what for our group was an insurmountable, last-minute task. This one person encapsulated the entire value system of our agency – collegial, responsible, helpful. Without any fanfare.

·      At a credit union. She deals with a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money. But what money they do have, and deposit there, is tied up in taking care of their families, especially the kids. She talks to people about their kids, and what’s going on in their lives, even though it has nothing to do with her technical scope of responsibility. She makes sure that people will go to that particular credit union again and again.

In today’s day and age it is tempting to make things simpler by keeping people and their quirks out of the business equation. But in the end it is people that buy things, and it is only other people that keep them coming back for more.

The Key Takeaways

As an employee, be one.

As a business owner, hire them.

As a leader, promote them and pay them, put on a hat and serve them ice cream every now and then.

As a manager, develop them, train them, and learn a lesson or two as well. It’s not only about keeping the trains running on time, but about making sure those trains are comfortable.

As a human being, just be nice to other people. Not everything is about money, and the way you earn a living is also the way you earn joy in this life and also in the World To Come

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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