Why being respected in business is much more profitable than desperately trying to be liked

Here are the ten brands with the most loyal customers in 2017. A list compiled by US consultancy Brand Keys from 740 brands across 83 industries. Can you spot the attribute that’s common to each?

  1. Amazon (retail)
  2. Google
  3. Apple (tablets)
  4. Netflix
  5. Apple (smartphones)
  6. Amazon (video streaming)
  7. Samsung
  8. Facebook
  9. Amazon (tablets)
  10. YouTube

Yes, they are all in some way a technical product, but that’s not it. They are all companies founded by someone who saw an unmet need in the world and sought to meet it. As opposed to companies that research what consumers want next and then pretend their company is best at providing it. Which, alarmingly, is how most brands operate today.

When people like Jeff Bezos and Larry Page set out to bring their new thing into the world, they didn’t care if people liked them. They just got on with it and said “Just you watch.” When Steve Jobs disagreed with his own board that Apple should keep making computers because that’s what customers wanted, he reportedly shouted “At Apple the customer doesn’t get a vote!”.

Lee Byung-chul is perhaps the best example of all. He started Samsung in 1938 with a vision to help his fellow Koreans acquire the same technological tools and appliances that rich western countries had. To help them grow their businesses and live happier lives.

In short, these founders set out to be respected by consumers for what they believed in, as opposed to simply trying to ingratiate themselves into our lives by researching our desires. They sought to have the authentic value of their innovations create genuine consumer desire, as opposed to the façade of brand image and marketing.

Compare that approach to how we see most companies trying to win our brand loyalty. You only have to watch TV each night for all the evidence you need.

  • Car brands show us what we like to do on weekends, thinking this will make us go “Gosh, that SUV brand really understands me. I will buy their product.”
  • Food brands empathise with the busy life of a young mum, hoping this will cause female consumers to magically switch their brand preference.
  • Fashion brands present short films on gender equality, hoping this will distract us from the poor stitching in their jeans.

These companies adopt the strategies of a stalker who desperately wants to be our friend. Think about it: they find out what our job is, how much we earn, where we live, what we like to do, how we think, what our values are… and mirror it, in the hope that we will like them.

I’ve had countless Chief Marketing Officers come to my company and say “make us more likeable”. They’ll sign off on six figure budgets for research to find out all they can about what consumers want. Then they’ll sign off seven and eight figure budgets to communicate those messages to consumers in the form of ad campaigns and customer engagement and ambient stunts and social media blitzes.

An estimated $716 billion will be spent globally this year doing just that. Which is just plain crazy. And here’s why:

  • Enduring profit is more likely if you retain the customers you attract.
  • Attracting is expensive. Advertising. Discounts for customers. Sales incentives for staff. And so on.
  • Retention builds your market share. Lowers cost per acquisition. Growth becomes organic through word of mouth and favorable media and online reviews.
  • So if retention delivers better profits. And if retention comes from customers receiving authentic value from your brand via real world experience, not just the perception of value via marketing. And if authentic value comes from pursuing an authentic motive to improve things.
  • Then you have to agree that seeking to be respected for what you believe in is a more profitable path for your business than seeking to be liked for what you’ve found out people want.

You will always be able to attain good quarterly sales by sucking up to consumers. My question is: what then? Keep doing it and end up living and exhausted, stressed and morally compromised life? Or learn from the top ten most trusted brands and figure out what it is you genuinely believe, deep inside, that the world needs and build a business model around that? 

About the author

Mike Edmonds is Founder and Chairman of Meerkats, a creative business solutions company in Perth, Western Australia. Meerkats has been named Campaign Brief’s ‘Agency Of The Year’ three times and won awards globally for its creativity and strategic thinking.