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 / Autumn 2012 / Issue 68(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Social Life of Brands

A marketing strategy informed by neuroscience can help companies enhance customer engagement — and make better use of tools like social media.

It was love at first sight for Nathan Aaron. The North Carolina graphic artist, illustrator, and social media proprietor first saw Method Inc.’s high-style, environmentally conscious household cleaning products on display in his local Target store. He was smitten.

“What caught my attention immediately was mint dish soap.… Now, I’m a mint fanatic! Crazy about the stuff.… Plus the gorgeous Karim Rashid packaging didn’t hurt things one bit. And that was the beginning of my, should I say, lust affair, with Method.” Aaron wrote that in 2008, in the first post on his new blog, Since then, he and a community of like-minded consumers have posted more than 1,000 paeans and gripes there, all devoted to the Method company and its brand proposition (fashionably designed, beautifully scented, nontoxic cleaning products). is nothing more or less than a fan site, similar to one you might see for a hit movie or television show. It contains reviews of the company’s products, commentary on its marketing strategy, interviews with employees at all levels, and reader polls — plus fierce critiques when Aaron (or a reader) thinks that the company has made a misstep.

Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, the cofounders and chief executives of Method, are not put off by Aaron’s familiarity or independent-mindedness. On the contrary, they think he’s a dream consumer, and their marketing strategy is built around people like him. “To succeed in a world of earned and social media requires you to shift your mind-set from talking to customers to inspiring advocates,” they wrote in The Method Method: 7 Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-Up Turn an Industry Upside Down (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011). “Not only do advocates make good business sense by buying more of our products more often, but also they engage us — online, in writing, on the phone, and in person — teaching us all sorts of stuff we wouldn’t have figured out on our own.”

Would your company consider Nathan Aaron a dream consumer or a loose cannon? Would you encourage his public affair with your brand and listen to his ideas, or demand that he stop? Would you even know he was out there? Your answer says a lot about your approach to marketing and customer relationships.

Nathan’s devotion and Method’s response to it are becoming more typical. Some might attribute this trend — the increasing use of community engagement by marketers — to the rise of online social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, fan sites, and social marketing websites (also known as private-label media) created by companies themselves. (See “Scaling Up Social Media,” by Christopher Vollmer and Karen Premo.) But the trend represents a more fundamental change in marketing practice, linked to insights from social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience and brain research. Every form of interaction between companies and consumers — taking place online and offline, in stores and over mobile devices, in branded content and by word of mouth, and indeed through all direct consumer experience — is now understood to be shaped by the social nature of brands.

As marketers put this insight into practice in sophisticated ways, a one-way message or image can no longer compete. The value of a brand is linked to the relationships it fosters: the social connections among people who buy the product or service. Managing these connections at every scale, from an individual contact to a message that reaches millions of people, is the fundamental task of marketing today.

With the right conditions in place, a brand can move beyond a purely transaction-based relationship to become a platform for an experience that feels to consumers like friendship. Great marketers have known how to do this for decades, of course, but it is now possible to make authentic connections more consistently. Tapping into the social nature of a brand this way means thinking differently about the expectations that consumers have for the product or service, their view of the company that produces it, and the values they share about it. Some marketers, like Whole Foods, Ikea, and eBay, are consciously evoking a shift in attitude that grew more prominent in the Great Recession: a desire for less acquisition of goods (or even experiences), and for more meaningful, lasting forms of fulfillment. Companies that promise simplicity, connection, and sustainable benefits can gain the most from this shift — but only if they deliver.

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  1. Charles Gremillion, Make Their Day: The Power to Make Guests Happy (Tribe, 2011): By the director of Embassy Suites’ brand culture, on the power of a great customer relationship.
  2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011): Compelling guide to the two overarching systems that govern thought.
  3. Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey-Bass, 2002): How to build a business that meets the drives to acquire, bond, learn, and defend.
  4. Jim Stengel, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies (Crown Business, 2011): Research-driven manifesto on the link between what brands stand for and how they prosper.
  5. Maritz Institute
  6. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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