How a brand wins by caring

July 15, 2014

Recently, we were discussing a research program for a client that would provide prescriptive insights on what levers could be manipulated to enhance brand perceptions. While tossing around various brand image metrics we might want to include, I was reminded of an experience I had early in my career working with a large consumer-packaging brand.

One of the most powerful and successful brands in the world, they had a very specific approach to measuring their brand persona relative to other national and regional brands they competed with.  In study after study there was one dimension they insisted be included regardless of the product category or the competitive set, and that was to ask consumers to rate how much they agreed or disagreed that “the president of the company cares about me as a customer.”

Now, at the time, it seemed an odd question to ask. I mean c’mon, do you really think that the president of a mega, international corporate brand has the time to think about some customer who is spending $4 or $5 dollars on one of their products at the local Piggly Wiggly?


It just seemed to be a stretch.

However, as I’ve become more experienced in brand research, I now understand why that question was so important to them, and what it was intended to measure.  One need only look at the strategy GM is using to try to resurrect their brand in the wake of a series of recall missteps. By placing CEO Marry Barra out front in an effort to connect emotionally with their customers in a way that shows she cares, they have not only mitigated the damage to GM’s brand image, they have also posted their biggest gain in first half annual sales since 2008.

But perhaps the most dramatic example of the power of caring when it comes to brand health occurred this past Friday, when arguably the world’s best basketball player, and the most reviled person in Northeast Ohio, made a stunning announcement. LeBron James, who shattered the collective hearts of his hometown’s long-suffering fans by taking his talents to South Beach in 2010, announced he was ‘coming home again’ to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers.  And, to overcome the vitriol, anger and resentment in the wake of his less than artful departure in 2010, LeBron made the announcement in way that emphasized more than just winning or losing basketball games. Instead, he talked about having a history growing up in NE Ohio, about feeling like a son to the people that live there, about understanding how people in the area felt about their pro teams and their sports heroes, and about how, after four years away, he realized just how much he cared about them.

It was a powerful, and pitch perfect brand strategy that in effect, wiped away much of the negativity that had become associated with the LeBron James brand, especially in and around Cleveland. And speaking as a native of NE Ohio, and one of those long suffering fans of Cleveland pro sports teams that was really, REALLY angry back in 2010, he could not have done a better job of making me a new disciple of his resurrected brand. To paraphrase the Nike marketing campaign around LeBron before he left Cleveland in 2010, I am once again, a witness.

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