Chris Malone: 'Every brand is human, and every human is a brand'

September 25, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Branding consultant and author Chris Malone describes the blurry lines of how companies interact with their customers in the 21st century.

Interview by Ryan Bradley, senior editor

Mr. Clean is a fake person who represents a real cleaning product.

Mr. Clean is a fake person who represents a real cleaning product.

FORTUNE -- You're a consultant, and you help companies' marketing departments -- everyone from Coca-Cola (KO) to the NBA to Procter & Gamble (PG) -- better reach their customers. What does this mean?

First, you have to know it's not just snake oil. I majored in business statistics. I'm a quantitative and analytical person, and I've always been intensely curious on how and why things work. When I was doing brand management at Coca-Cola, I became a bit indoctrinated into the classical sales and marketing way of things, which is very data driven. But the further I got in my career, the more I'd dig, and at the bottom of that deep hole, ironically, I found this warmth and competence thing. The fact is, selling has fundamentally to do with the people-to-people stuff.

Warmth and competence, that's really what your new book is all about. The Human Brand: How we relate to people, products, and companies, which you co-wrote with Susan Fiske, comes out next month, but it seems especially well timed. Like, I should be building my brand right now, all the time, along with big companies ...

Ha. Yeah. The whole field has changed in the last 10 years with the proliferation of social media and reality TV, Kim Kardashian, Duck Dynasty, Honey-Boo-Boo. The term "brand" is much more mainstream. Earlier in my career, we'd talk about if this notion of brand even applied. Obviously, now it applies to everything.

What do you mean, everything?

Every brand is human, and every human is a brand: One is simply an adaptation of the other. Everything that applies -- how we damage them, repair them -- applies to the other.

So is your advice for me, building my brand, the same as it would be for a corporation?

Essentially, yeah. Look, people are behind companies, and it's the human moments that are most effective; that and keeping sight of your customers. One of the best examples of this from a company standpoint is Dominos (DPZ). When they went to talk to customers and asked them to talk about their pizza and, on national television, shared the fact that most people didn't like their pizza -- it was a conscious decision to do something that was unexpected, a demonstration of vulnerability, and trust. It was a demonstration of warmth rather than simply coming out and saying, "Here's another, new and improved." They brought Patrick Doyle [Domino's CEO] and the development chefs in to show there were people, real people, working to make something better.

MORE: Health apps don't save people, people do 

Is this like when someone on Twitter retweets someone else calling them out for being wrong?

Your mistakes are a huge opportunity to build stronger loyalty with your customers. They don't get that much opportunity to see who we really are. Usually when you see the CEO, it's because of a problem. Customers are incredibly forgiving in the short term, but they are well aware of whether a company cares more about short-term financial gain or longer-term loyalty.

I can think of a few companies, quite a few companies, that may think twice before admitting mistakes.

Sure, maybe, but look at the the case of BP (BP). All those denials, all those fingers pointed at someone else during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, all it did was tell us that this was a company that could not face up to what it did.

Okay, so it's not a company, but would this strategy even begin to work for the NSA?

That's a tough one. At the end of the day, it's really hard for the NSA to adopt a posture that will get people to trust, because trust requires transparency, while the mission of the NSA is to maintain some level of secrecy.

That mission seems ill-suited for these times.

Yes, the thing that is inescapable -- there's no such thing as a secret anymore. The degree to which you think you can control the information and limit the exposure is really going away. You have to assume everything is going to come out anyway, whatever the damage.

Okay, let's try a real company that probably will not embrace this warm, fuzzy, transparent posture: Goldman Sachs (GS).

Well, the general public is not their target audience. Even so, while the degree to which they alienate the public doesn't have an immediate impact, maybe it does in the long term? Even if I'm not doing business, their reputation becomes damaged, perhaps it becomes more difficult to hire, or maintain employees. And you know, it's not just Goldman, this is a real challenge for all public companies. Maximizing shareholder returns is not always in the best interests of your customers.

So far, there seems to be one common denominator to all companies that could stand to benefit by acting more like people -- or good people, likable people -- they're consumer facing. That is, they sell us things, like pizza.

Sure, but this strategy is not only for consumer-facing companies. I'll give you an example, a client, I can't tell you the name, but it was an industrial supplier of products and services. It, like everyone, was hit hard by recession, and did what a lot of companies did: dramatically reduced costs, laid off workers, raised prices, and went back to customers and said, "I'm sorry we can't honor this contract ..." The response from Wall Street was, "Wow, you've done a great job managing your costs!"

MORE: 40 Under 40: Alumni movers and shakers

Fast-forward two years, the new CEO figured out the company had lost $1 billion in accounts to competitors and needed me to figure out why. You can't believe the blowback: Their clients felt so wronged, so betrayed, and abandoned at the time of greatest peril, this was their revenge. This was the impact.

As much as the company thought it had a reputation for being the most honest and trustworthy, they were shocked when they were perceived as the least honest and trustworthy. There isn't any way around this: These are the consequences of the actions that Wall Street applauded.

What's interesting about this example is it seems to transcends loyalty -- weirdly it seems more about empathy. You have a whole section of your book that pretty much destroys the idea that loyalty cards are a good thing.

They're attempting to fill a void that is more naturally filled with relationships. With a lot of this sort of add-on, customer loyalty stuff, I often find it useful to think, What was it like before the Industrial Revolution? What was it that was valuable to customers, that made them frequent a business? The more we scaled, the better it was, and we assumed all that customer interaction stuff could be scaled too, with great saving and no cost. Well, the cost is, we don't actually know one another.

I find myself pretty consistently appalled by how bad companies are at Twitter or Facebook, which are kind of amazing places for them to, you know, actually serve their customers.

For Facebook, they are totally blowing it. They're being dragged kicking and screaming into an ad platform when they have the best relationship management tool in the world. Why not charge companies to interact with their customers in a meaningful way -- solve their problems, chat with them -- on the companies' pages rather than just the same old ads. The problem with Facebook is that if you create a page, only the administrator can post to the entire group. Imagine if they structured things in such a way that individuals were posting.

MORE: Tragedy in Switzerland: What drove two top executives to suicide?

The same could be said for Twitter, which also appears to be going the same old "revenue-by-way-of-targeted-advertising" route.

We are going to have to drag our economy kicking and screaming out of the middle ages of the ad economy. Now, people want to turn the Internet into the equivalent of TV, with the same sort of television commercials. For all the stuff that's changing in the world, we're making it more complicated than it needs to be.

A lot of what drives people to do things today is the same as what drove them to do things 1,000 years ago, and it won't change for another 1,000 years. It's that warmth and competence -- if companies could remember that, and meet their customers with that, they'd be a lot better off.

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.