I read an interesting Futurelab marketing blog this morning on Cult Brands, that provided some great examples of brands with a cult following of evangelists. A few examples they provided:
- Wegmans: Musical theater students in Massachusetts [editor's note: this was my high school] created an entire musical based on the brand. People write love letters to the company, begging them to open stores in their neighborhoods.
- Lululemon: They have a lululemon ambassador program; ambassadors are people in their store communities who embody the lululemon lifestyle and live their culture.
- Linux: Not only did they create evangelists, but their evangeliests affect the product and the brand because of its open source.
- Zappos: There is probably no need to describe this one, but their customers are drawn to their massive shoe collection, customer service practices, and off-beat culture.
- Surge: This product has a solid following, even 10 years after it was pulled from store shelves! Their fans are campaigning for a comeback.
- Mazda Miata: This brand has 77 meetup clubs worldwide.
As a marketer, I am truly fascinated and inspired by the notion of generating evangelical belief in a brand among customers and prospects. Considering word of mouth is still the most powerful form of marketing, conventional wisdom says when you have an army of believers voluntarily promoting and discussing your brand on your behalf, you have truly done your job as a marketer. You’ve heard that before. However, my primary point of this entry is even with a community of evangelists, your work is far from complete.
The next will probably make many marketers cringe – which is exactly why you need to keep reading.
Positive sentiment is only part the battle. As a brand you should also want skeptics. Your goal is to convert both evangelists & skeptics into brand analysts.
This might not make sense on the face – as a marketer, why would I want public skeptics of my brand? Several reasons.
Why Skeptics Are Important to the Health of Your Brand
1. Objectivity. The downside of evangelism is the strength of the belief and passion in the brand will sometimes incline the evangelist to dismiss skepticism, without first listening and learning from it. On BigSoccer, where I’ve contributed over 5k posts as a Brand Analyst, pure evangelists who see no down side are “koolaid drinkers” (they consider their skeptical brethren “nattering nabobs of negativism”, borowing Spiro Agnew’s term). While having hundreds of fans publicly showering a brand with love and “likes” on a Facebook fan page provides warm and fuzzies, this is completely subjective and only represents a small segment of your current or prospective audience. Objective prospects are going to seek out “the other side” when evaluating your brand – it behooves you to provide this objectivity on your terms, not your competitor’s. The alternative is to be at the mercy of a skeptic’s Google search.
2. Identifying FUD. Skeptics of every national or global brand already exist. They simply may not always be vocal, and probably don’t hang out on your brand’s fan page. If they do, consider this a bonus as they will provide you with valuable insight into what your competitors may be using as to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty & doubt). This will help you shore up weaknesses in the perception of your brand.
3. Embrace your Skeptics. This minority may still be influencing buying decisions – but without publicly identifying themselves, you do not have an opportunity to present data that could convince them otherwise. Consider these people valuable & embrace their comments to learn as much as possible why they feel this way. This is coming from a natural skeptic of course.
Convert Your Evangelists & Skeptics into Brand Analysts
As important as brand evangelists & skeptics are, your brand should also encourage & embrace each group to meet half way and become Brand Analysts. These are people who spend their free time analyzing both the positive and negative side of your products to the nth degree on public forums. There is no better place for real time product feedback than crowd sourcing the passion-driven perspective and opinions of your BAs on a public forum. Disagreement often yields insight & creativity; be sure to mine and leverage this insight to learn from these people & continually improve your brand. As Bill Gates famously said:
The toughest feedback to hear, is the feedback you need the most. You get better by listening to your toughest critics. Your greatest source of growth can come from the people that will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Bill says, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Bill also says, “You’ve got to want to be in this incredible feedback loop where you get the world-class people to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”
Brand Analyst communities made up of both your brand’s evangelists & skeptics provide that critical segment of the feedback loop. They may post on sites like TripAdvisor, spend their time discussing AMC’s The Walking Dead, or analyze (sometimes to death) their favorite soccer teams on BigSoccer.com, a community of 150,000 passionate soccer fans. On this site, (which I have contributed over 5k posts to), soccer Evangelists & Skeptics generate thousands of pages of content with their fellow Brand Analysts about hundreds of different soccer club brands ranging from on-field tactics & strategy to off-field issues such as marketing, management and personnel decisions.
Cultivate & Listen to Your Communities of Brand Analysts
While a Brand Analyst is still semantically an Evangelist, being able to see the downside or point out criticisms enables them to come across more credible and neutral to prospects researching your brand. You want these people to be an accessible source via the Web for prospective buyers & influencers. This can be done by cultivating a volunteer community of credible and articulate BAs, whether it’s a local, national or global brand.
While I suggest monitoring these communities, I would caution marketers to remain white hat, by avoiding the temptation to “plant evangelists”. Instead, monitor the conversation at a distance. If your brand’s community of active BA’s shrinks, it’s a potential “canary in the mine” moment for your brand. What is going on? Listen and analyze more closely for trends to uncover patterns to address as appropriate. The growing field of Text Analytics offers ways for marketers to automate the sentiment analysis process.
In closing, when your brand is discussed anywhere, it can only be a good thing. Your job is to gain context by knowing who is saying it & qualifying their comments. Are they an Evangelist, Skeptic or Brand Analyst?