What Are Social Media Good For? Putting a Face to a Brand

Exude Competency and Warmth, and Consumers Will Respond

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Chris Malone
Chris Malone
When marketers use terms like brand "personality," "character" and "manner," they're more accurate than they know. New research into consumer brand purchase and loyalty behavior has revealed that the way humans respond to brands is simply an extension of the way they instinctively perceive, judge and behave toward one another. In short, people were the first brands; faces were the first logos. That insight could revolutionize brand and social-media strategies.

Over the past several decades, social psychologists deduced that as humans struggled for survival they had to develop an ability to make two kinds of judgments with great speed and accuracy: What are the intentions of other people toward me? How capable are they of carrying out those intentions?

Researchers call these two critical categories of human perception "warmth" and "competence." Through studies across 36 countries, they have validated warmth and competence as universal dimensions of human interaction. They have further determined that warmth includes an array of traits such as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and honesty. Competence is reflected by traits such as intelligence, skill, creativity, efficiency and effectiveness.

To find out whether the warmth and competence model applies to brands, my firm and a team of academics led by Susan T. Fiske and Nicolas O. Kervyn, renowned researchers on warmth and competence at Princeton University, examined eight brands: McDonald's, Burger King, BP, Shell, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Tylenol and Advil. For each brand, our study captured the warmth and competence perceptions and priorities of a demographically balanced sample of 1,042 U.S. adult consumers, as well as their purchase intent, brand loyalty and social-media usage.

What we found is that consumers' perceptions along key traits of warmth and competence are highly predictive of both purchase intent and brand loyalty. Consumers instinctively judge brands just as they do other people. To turn our earlier formula around: Brands are judged as people; logos, perhaps, like faces.

Yet the profession of brand management, and in large measure the advertising industry, has been built on the delivery, measurement and communication of the features and benefits of each product or service. These are certainly important, but it turns out they're an incomplete subset of the much broader and more powerful categories of warmth and competence. What this indicates is that brands and companies that deliver on critical warmth-related and competence-related traits, rather than limiting themselves to traditional features and benefits, will create stronger and longer-lasting bonds of customer loyalty.

This model may also hold the key to one of the most vexing brand challenges companies now face: how to most effectively use new media that have aptly been named "social" -- those virtual gathering places where people interact with each other and, increasingly, with brands.

Similar to others, our study found that some 77% of U.S. adults are members of social networks -- 67% in Facebook alone. Because social-media use has proliferated so dramatically, most companies are trying to establish a marketing presence there. Few have been able to figure out how to monetize all the friends, followers and fans they've collected. But because we now know that consumers evaluate brands with the same criteria they do people, social networks by their very nature offer particularly fertile ground for putting warmth and competence insights to work.

Our study found that two of the most critical but under-delivered dimensions of brand loyalty are "acts in my best interests" and "is honest and trustworthy." Without these, genuine human trust and brand loyalty are impossible. Brands and companies that want to build lasting consumer loyalty can begin by following these simple guidelines as they develop their social-media strategies:

Use social networks to better personify your brand and put a human face on it. Nothing is more powerful than real people demonstrating genuine warmth and competence in real time.

Focus on social networks as your preferred medium for delivering customer service to consumers whenever possible. Putting service-related honesty and selfless intentions on display for consumers to comment on and share with others will surprise, impress and inspire them.

Rethink your customer-service policies and practices to focus on building trust, goodwill and loyalty, rather than on minimizing company risk, cost and involvement. For consumers, these are often the truest reflection of your honesty, trustworthiness and commitment to their interests, rather than your own.

Social media are simply the most obvious place to apply insights about warmth and competence. This universal model of human perception has the potential to significantly reshape almost every aspect of the way companies build, manage, service and advertise their brands.

Although some successful companies, such as Zappos and USAA, instinctively employ warmth and competence principles in building legendary customer loyalty, the model and its potential are virtually unknown outside of academic circles, where its power is recognized by eminent social psychologists around the world.

For those unfamiliar with the model, perhaps the best way to immediately grasp its significance is to consider the recent experience of Tropicana -- the highest scoring brand on warmth and competence in our study. After only two months last year, the packaging redesign on its Pure Premium orange juice was dropped after passionate consumers cried out for a return to the longtime Tropicana brand symbol, an orange with a straw sticking out. Those fanatically loyal consumers weren't asking for a return to some feature or benefit of the product. They wanted its familiar face back.

Chris Malone is chief advisory officer of Relational Capital Group, a research–based, professional development and advisory services firm based in Philadelphia. Previously he was CMO of Choice Hotels International and prior to that senior VP-marketing for Aramark Corp. He was also a co-founder-principal of Zyman Marketing Group.
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