Is the Brand Evangelist Really the Marketer's Friend?

Zealous Supporters Can Actually Do Damage to the Cause

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Writing opinion articles is rewarding to me on so many levels, though much of my satisfaction comes from engaging in conversations about topics with people who make me smarter. The last thing I ever claim to possess is the last word on any given subject. Getting persuaded and changing my perspective is fun, actually.

Only it happens less and less these days, as I hear more and more from brand evangelists whose sole purpose is to stridently and oftentimes angrily declare their beliefs. It's got me questioning the premise that evangelists convert the unconverted and are therefore audiences to which brands should commit money and effort. Perhaps there's a line between "passionate supporter" and "zealous absolutist" that our culture and tech encourages evermore individuals to cross?

"I'm your No. 1 fan," Kathy Bates says to James Caan in the movie "Misery," and then proceeds to do far more damage to him than his worst enemy could have ever imagined.

It's like a broken record in my experience. I'll write something about, say, a brand that missed the mark on its latest campaign and could improve, why I think the operational truth of a business obviates some or all of its marketing promises or, conversely, why so-and-so brand gets it just right and how. Then I'll hear from one or more evangelists, whether in the comments section, on Twitter or directly, and learn that I'm completely wrong, probably stupid and likely pursuing an unrelated agenda. I'll reply, doing my best to acknowledge a point other than those, to which I'll get a second (and then string) of declarations that get angrier and nuttier.

Evangelists rarely change my mind. It's as if the internet makes people think that you convince others through repetition and volume. It's how the faithful feed off of one another, but do passionate supporters really convert new ones -- or do their disappointments turn the rest of us off?

I'm not the only one who witnesses this kabuki drama. Check the comments after most news pieces and all opinion essays, and you'll quickly trip upon a few posts that attack a writer's info, intentions and general qualifications to be a human being. That means fellow commenters witness the blather also, and it's more than likely that said zealots probably share their impassioned vitriol with anyone whom they think deserves it.

In the consumer electronics space, evangelists who appear too ardent are labeled "fanboys" and the value of their adoration discounted accordingly. People who embrace too many logos on their apparel are called a bad name I won't write here, and the merits of their affections disregarded. Extreme political beliefs seem comical when revealed in the light of objective circumstance. Anybody who buys into a particular strain of music, art or literature risks a commitment so intense and complete that it risks leaving the rest of us behind.

While we're encouraged to enlist such advocates, evangelists, even cults of followers because their love will spread to others, especially online, there's some interesting research suggesting that the opposite may be true. An as-yet unpublished project by Don Schultz and Martin Block of Northwestern's IMC Department, based on data collected by Prosper International, reveals that brand preference is declining in almost every consumer product category. Even more surprising is that the rise in "no brand preference" comes with greater consumer use of digital media and reliance on word-of-mouth.

I wonder if vocal evangelists are turning people off, or simply too busy talking with one another to care one way or another?

Marketers and sales people have long known that wooing customers takes time and is more art than science or technology. Religions know that the way to convert people is to acknowledge, share and then address their questions. But brand evangelists aren't professional communicators or theologians. They don't know that professing love or defense of a brand, however sincere, isn't the same thing as enabling others to love it. Where fanatics see enemies, smart marketers see only future customers.

Maybe brands need to encourage more people who ask questions instead of supporting those who think they already have the answers?

I'm open to changing my mind on this one.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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