Brand charisma is the key quality that propels one person or one product ahead of every competitor. And it goes far beyond an inviting ad for a product. Brand charisma is like a perfect soufflé: it depends on every step being exactly executed, yet when it’s complete one misfortune can cause it to collapse.
Why do we care? Because only a tiny portion of the media that clamor for our attention represents products and services that we want or need. Most importantly, we need to understand how advertisers appeal to our emotions. Then, we will be better able to filter out the chaff and find those nuggets that we truly value.
Brand charisma is so broad a category that books could be, and have been, written about it. Therefore, I will point you to some sources but I don’t propose to repeat that material. Instead, this blog post will dissect brand charisma using science and psychology. Then we’ll put it back together to derive practical research-based advice: for the consumer, for the investor and for the business owner.
Brand Charisma for People vs Products
Here’s one more way to narrow the scope: Brand charisma is commonly used to describe people as well as products and companies. However, the practical aspects are somewhat different. Charismatic people tend to smile, give sincere compliments and respond individually to each person they meet. However, a product is not so high-touch in its approach (unless perhaps the product is a robotic companion!). Consequently, this blog will focus on products and companies, and leave personal charisma for another day.
Brand charisma is very personal. And readers of my blogs know some of the companies and products that get me excited. However, your list of beloved brands is probably different from mine. It’s not my goal to interest you in what I like, but rather to take apart and analyze the “like” process that affects each one of us.
What is Brand Charisma?
Brand charisma is an irresistible attraction that makes us want to associate with a product, company, or person. And, we’ll feel drawn to them if they:
– Move us emotionally.
– Make us feel connected to people we admire and respect.
– Feel genuine, authentic.
– Stand for something.
– Have a distinctive personality.
– Cause us to trust them.
For some people, having charisma is central to their own meaning of life. As a result, we often observe brand charisma when we look at those who are remarkably successful:
• To a politician, brand charisma means vote-getting and a place in the history books.
• To a company, brand charisma means loyal customers who will go to extra trouble and expense to acquire its products.
• For a celebrity, brand charisma means legions of eager and devoted fans.
• For a leader, brand charisma means being a person that others want to follow.
The essence of brand charisma is an emotional response. To see this, fill in the blanks in this sentence:
When I think of (name a product, company or person) I feel (attracted, fascinated, happy, confident, excited, awed, loved, …).
Feeling is the key to brand charisma.
Dissecting Brand Charisma
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The Bard’s version is famous (although perhaps double-meaning). In addition, however, physicist Richard Feynman agreed: “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
Yes, it’s often true that names and their definitions don’t tell us much. However, with brand charisma the words themselves give us considerable insight. For example, consider what OED has to say:
– 1.2 A particular identity or image regarded as an asset.
– 2.1 (as noun branding) The promotion of a particular product or company by means of advertising and distinctive design.
These particular definitions of brand are the relevant ones from a long list. They reveal that we are talking about brand as an identity that, in and of itself, has economic value. And that one way to build that value is through ads and design.
– 1. Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. [Synonyms: charm, presence, personality, force of personality, strength of character; magnetism, attractiveness, appeal, allure.]
– 2. A divinely conferred power or talent.
Thus the word charisma means attractiveness but it also gains from its alternate definition, derived from the original Greek. We can become so smitten by a charismatic person that we can almost believe their gifts to be heaven-sent, beyond the aspirations of ordinary mortals.
Thus the combined phrase brand charisma suggests product identity elevated to a divine level. As a goal of product promotion, that’s a high standard to meet!
Brand Charisma Research Results
Let’s get into the science. Some interesting recent work about brand charisma looks at how social media influence consumer perception of brands.
A noteworthy article in this area was published in 2012 by Laroche, Habibi and Richard of Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec. This paper is a model of research in several respects: explicit hypotheses and relationships; clear exposition; and significant results. And this study was consistent with work by Erdoğmuş and Çiçek in Turkey. Moreover, it inspired follow-up work by Mousavi, Rad and Asayesh in Iran, confirming that the results apply across very different cultures and contexts.
Summary of the Research Study
Laroche et al diagram a linear model in which social media facilitate four sets of Relationships, between customers and:
– Other Customers.
Moreover these relationships in turn influence Brand Trust, which in turn results in Brand Loyalty.
The researchers conducted an online survey that obtained 441 responses from approximately equal numbers of men and women, aged 18 to 55. Participants rated 21 statements on a zero-to-five scale. Here are some typical phrases:
– I am proud of the product.
– If I were to replace the product, I would replace it with another product of the same brand.
– The company understands my needs.
– I have met wonderful people because of the [product online] community.
– I rely on my brand.
The researchers verified internal consistency in the results. Then, they performed “structural equation modeling” using the widely used software EQS. That analysis generates path coefficients that express how strongly one factor influences another.
The research results are shown in this figure, which I have adapted and simplified from Laroche et al:
The path coefficients in black were computed by the researchers from their data. To them I have added the numbers in red, which are the product of the two coefficients along each of the four paths leading from Social Media to Brand Trust.
The largest number in red is 0.513, labeling the path that depends on relationships between customers of the brand. It’s almost twice as large as the next strongest path, measuring how customers respond to the product itself. As a result, the researchers conclude that companies who want to build trust in their brand should make a point of encouraging their customers to form a communicating group. That’s because the trust the consumers gain through that experience seems to rub off on the brand itself!
A few comments about the diagram above:
– All Factors Are Important. Just because the bottom path has the highest coefficient, doesn’t mean you can ignore the others! Brand loyalty can be killed by many other factors. For example: a product that explodes upon use! Or has a poorly chosen name. Or, comes from a company accused of exploitive labor practices abroad.
– Social Media Isn’t the Only Way. The research quoted above focused on social media as facilitator and driver. However brand loyalty can be, and has been, created by every kind of communication and promotion.
Brand Charisma: Art’s Extrapolation
How does all this relate to brand charisma? I propose that there’s a logical relationship between a handful of closely related brand concepts. And here’s a sequence for you, along with explanatory phrases. I borrowed the first two sets from the Laroche survey instrument:
– Brand Trust (aka Brand Honor): I rely on my brand. It never disappoints me. And it gives me everything that I expect out of the product.
– Brand Loyalty (aka Brand Commitment): I consider myself loyal to my brand. I’m willing to pay more for it. And if my brand is not at the store, I will buy the same brand from another store.
– Brand Cult (aka Brand Tribe): When I purchase my brand I feel part of a group I respect and love. Buying my brand feels right and true. And I know that I have found the very best brand of all competing brands.
– Brand Charisma: I find my brand to be irresistibly attractive. My brand is so much better that it can’t be compared with anything else. And I feel proud to be associated with my brand.
Art’s Simplified Sequence to Brand Charisma
iReach also identifies Brand Affinity (“A brand I feel good associating with”). However, I view affinity with a brand as a factor that helps the formation of a Brand Cult. As a result, I don’t think it needs separate mention here.
I would like to argue that each of these factors can lead to the next one. And moreover, that each factor incorporates the ingredients that precede it. Consider:
– Laroche et al quote research that concludes that trust is one of the main factors that allows loyalty to develop. Consequently, brand loyalty itself incorporates brand trust.
– I assert that loyalty to a brand can grow into a brand cult provided that there are ways for brand followers to find each other and interact. Differently stated, if a company encourages formation of a community through social media or other means, customer brand loyalty can evolve to cult status.
– Brand charisma is attained when others around us reinforce our own trust in and loyalty to a brand. As a result, the combination of internal and external commitment rises to a level that deserves the term charisma.
Thus I would extend the Laroche model (without however having conducted any supporting research!) with the following diagram. Here, each box embraces the boxes that precede it, and facilitates the box that follows it:
As discussed before, the inputs arise from customer relationships. These in turn are facilitated by promotion and communication, including social media.
Brand Charisma: Practical Implications
We’ve been talking about concepts at a very high level. Let’s bring things down to earth with some practical suggestions.
For the Consumer:
As consumers, we can gain by understanding the process described above, via which our emotions are manipulated to cause us to buy products. However, I claim that we shouldn’t let that understanding kill the fun of being a consumer! We all deserve the thrill of belonging, the pride of ownership, the joy of having the very best [fill in the blank] in our closet/fridge/garage. And this is true so long as we realize we are drinking the Kool-Aid, and so long as we still have the self-control to say “no” when we need to.
Many people want to understand the meaning of life, to find a right and satisfying way to live. And it’s helpful to understand how brand charisma may influence our opinions and actions. As a result, we can make choices that are best for us, and not suffer from the hidden persuaders around us.
For the Investor:
If you are weighing the merits of one company’s stock versus another’s, that company’s brand charisma should be part of your calculation. You can even be systematic about it. For example, the annual Customer Loyalty survey by BrandKeys lists the leading brand in each of 72 product categories, from a universe of 635 major brands. Moreover, Warren Buffet advocates investing in companies that are protected by “economic moats,” and brand charisma is one of the factors that can widen and deepen such a moat.
For the Business Owner:
It’s hard to think of any business that cannot benefit by strengthening its brand. How to do this is the subject of thousands of books, articles, graduate school programs and consultant come-ons. A few useful articles are listed below, but generally speaking, the how-to is unique to every business situation. Hey, if it were easy, every business would do it well!
Which products exert brand charisma to you? How do you feel about the emotions those products bring forth?
Drawing Credit: “Miss Kool” by GDJ on openclipart.org
Useful Sources – One Book and Five Articles:
David F. D’Alessandro and Michele Owens, Brand Warfare / 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand
iReach, The Power of Brand Charisma and Social Loyalty
Jones Knowles Ritchie, Hunting charisma at Cannes/ how brand magnetism creates winning ideas
Tim Reeder, Does Your Brand Have Charisma?
Dan Einzig, Ten ways to build a brand for your small business | Marketing Donut
Liz Papagni, 7 Fresh Ideas on How to Brand Your Business
Apple is an obvious example. My personal experience with Apple began in 1986 (2 years after the first Mac was introduced) when I bought one at HRL (in my role as head of the computer support department) to personally see what the fuss was all about. At the time, we were a VAX-based facility, but within a year I saw that this product was going to change the world, and began leading my department in a new direction, away from the VAX (a central, shared computer) as the main provider of services at HRL and toward a network of individual computers sharing data.
Over the next 5 years as I nudged HRL in Apple’s direction, I saw how brand charisma was affecting some but not others. Then came the “dark days” period at Apple where the company almost went out of business, having lost their way along with their charisma for many people. It wasn’t until the iMac came out, followed by the iPod that I began to sense a reversal, which exploded with the iPhone so now it is the ultimate example, in my opinion, of brand charisma, where a significant number of people simply wouldn’t want another product for either a computer or a phone. Now, if you watch a TV show or a movie, it is almost ubiquitous that you’ll see the back-panel of a laptop or desktop computer with a shining Apple clearly visible as a prominent signal identifying the status of ultimate-cool for whoever is using it. Same with the iPhone.
But this category can also include multiple brands, under the umbrella of a “class” label, such as “Japanese cars”. For some, particularly in Southern California, that is the category within which they will make their buying decisions, and it will not necessarily be tied to a single brand like Toyota or Camry. Likewise, continuing this car example, it might be “German cars” or “sports cars”. It is interesting to think about how companies in an industry can promote class-loyalty of this sort, while still remaining rivals within the business as a whole. Such a business has to be careful how they promote their product or criticize another business product without undermining the class-loyalty which they share, and benefit from. In the same way, some people might reverse that relationship and actively avoid a whole class for whatever reasons … price, quality, or other perceived shortcomings. And finally, there are sometimes classes of products which a person adopts or avoids because of a political leaning (such as the “buy American” preference).
Good observations, thanks Charles! Your point about class loyalty is well taken. One could extend it to the way that one political candidate can help or damage the prospects of other candidates of the same party, appearing on the same ballot.
Thanks Art. I’ve never been able to logically explain companies like Tesla. Perhaps your insights are relevant there? Dick
Hi Dick, Tesla is headed by a wealthy philanthropic idealistic leader who gets good publicity. They managed to get celebrities driving the first Teslas and thereby made them fashionable. I think the charisma of Elon Musk and the star-studded ownership rubbed off on the cars at first, but now that they have delivered 100,000 units they have proven their product and they are promoting them as the “best” in the niche they have defined (high performance, long range, hang the cost). Ergo, brand charisma that makes customers willing to pay extra (a lot extra) to own one. They have helped themselves now by announcing the Model 3 at $35,000 model, available in 2018, and securing almost 300,000 names on the waiting list to buy one in just a couple of weeks. Tesla would make a great business school case study, and probably will be used as one.