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


The Social Life of Brands

The social nature of thought, combined with the neuroscience of brand loyalty, should be a major factor in marketing priorities. Every touch point in a consumer’s life should be treated as a pivotal moment, an opportunity to reinforce the connection between the consumer and the brand. Touch points that encourage the sharing of social sentiment may be especially powerful reinforcers. Thus, the more often that people like Nathan Aaron post their recommendations online through ratings, reviews, tweets, and commentary, the more broadly emotional associations related to that product or service will proliferate. When Aaron perceives that others value his information, he is more likely to continue sharing it, and to attract others to jump on board. This social sentiment about brands need not be limited to a fan site like; it can appear in any context, facilitated directly by brands and retailers across both digital and physical touch points.

How, then, can your company shift to a relationship-driven approach to marketing — anchored in authenticity, trust, and multifaceted connections? There are four tenets, which form a convenient acronym: Reframe, Understand, Listen, and Engage (RULE).

Reframe: Focus on the Whole Person

Many companies are still learning how to design every touch point to generate a greater level of social interaction and participation. The new forms of marketing, grounded in building relationships, are to conventional marketing what interactive games are to television drama. Instead of a single, point-to-point narrative, presented the same way to every audience member, the campaign is an immersive experience, in which the play is unpredictable and both players — the consumer and the marketer — may respond quickly. It is less scripted, and consumers have an active hand in shaping the outcome of the game. The authenticity of connection is critical; a brand that is not trusted cannot survive in this milieu.

To develop this level of authenticity, marketers must learn to connect with the consumer as a whole person, including those drives and motivations that were formerly considered irrelevant to product consumption. One useful body of work for this is the four-drive motivational theory developed by two organizational science professors at Harvard Business School, Paul R. Lawrence (who died in 2011) and Nitin Nohria (currently dean of the business school). In their book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey-Bass, 2002), they proposed that people are motivated and make choices as a result of four innate drives: the drive to acquire possessions and status; the drive to bond and relate with others; the drive to learn and understand the world; and the drive to defend what they consider important. Marketing has long attempted to address these drives, but different campaigns have focused on different ones. The more drives that are taken into consideration by marketers — not just the drives to acquire and defend, but also the drives to bond and learn — the more loyal consumers become. With socially oriented marketing, it’s particularly important to balance all four drives, rather than emphasizing only one or two.

For example, Kimberly-Clark’s marketers engaged all four motivational drives in their Potty Project campaign created for Huggies Pull-Ups training pants. They considered all the stressful dynamics of potty training: the drive to acquire (gaining status as a good parent by successfully training your children); the drive to bond (by having a better relationship with your kids); the drive to defend (by avoiding conflict in the home); and the drive to learn (by mastering parenting skills). The Pull-Ups team created a website ( with instructional videos, featuring a community of parents learning together. It showed ways to make potty training a cooperative, relatively fun-filled task for parent and child. In just three months, the Potty Project became a top destination for potty-training parents, garnering 857,000 visits, which totaled 45,387 hours, and 1.9 million video views. Even better, parents shared the experience; the amount of material sent on from the site to visitors’ friends exceeded the project’s target by 400 percent.

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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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