The Secret Sauce for Creating Gold Medal Relationships

By Stanford Smith, Contributing {grow} Columinst

My wife and I are infected by Olympics fever.

We watch the Olympic trials together every night.  Inspired by track and field hopeful we have intensified our jogging and 5K training schedules.  Our children have been enrolled in gymnastics and registered for mini-triathalons in an attempt to see if there is a future gold medalist in our midst.

We’ve got it bad.

The #1 reason for our obsessive devotion to the Olympics is NBC’s superb ability to tell a story.  These stories pull the audience into the life of the Olympian.  We feel connected to Gabby Douglas’ life, challenges, and triumphs as she lines up for her vault.   Missteps and wobbles (on the rare occasion they happen)  hurts us as if it were our own child or friend.  We pump our fist and smile with pride when she sticks her dismount like we trained alongside her for years.

It occurred to me that businesses pay an enormous amount to earn the same loyalty and devotion from its consumers.  You would think that the billions would translate into cult-like dedication.  In some cases it has, try attacking Apple or criticizing Southwest Airlines and you’ll see what I mean.

But, most businesses have failed, despite their healthy ad budgets to achieve a fraction of the love my family shows to future Olympians we just met last night.


Here are a few causes:

1. Weak Storytelling:

I believe that consumers want to connect with the people behind the business.  They enjoy hearing about the local grocer who only buys produce from farmers in a 10 mile radius.  They want to know why a laptop was built with aluminum versus plastic. They care about a company’s effort to fight adult illiteracy in their community.

The problem is that businesses have their heads up their arses.  They think that abstract soundbites and clever taglines are stories.  They aren’t.

2. Wrong Hero

Have you ever seen a business Twitter stream choked with self-congratulatory tweets? How about the commercial that waxes eloquent about a company’s commitment and 100 years in business?  While this information has some merit, it’s missing a key component –  the customer.  Customers pay attention to companies because they solve specific problems.
Successful companies craft their stories around the customers and position them as the hero.  Their social media strategies create close bonds with their customers directing them to information that enriches their lives. In these stories, the company is the mentor and ally supporting and guiding the customer.

Pop quiz – who is the hero in the Harley-Davidson story?  The motorcycles or the rider?  Yep, the hog rider.  The motorcycle is a prop that helps the rider live out their dreams of conquering the open road and connecting with other rebels.

3. Monologue versus Dialogue

It’s shocking that some companies still question the merit of openly interacting with their customers.  Even now companies hide behind perfunctory press releases and turn-off their blog comments.  This behavior supposes that customers need to be handled like a live grenade.  Customer dialogue is confined to hermetically sealed focus groups and choreographed performances.

The problem is that customers expect transparency.  In fact, customers distrust businesses that can’t empower their employees.  Look to Comcast for a powerful lesson in employee trust and customer dialogue.  Comcast knows that the “cable company” isn’t on the list of beloved companies.  They seem to have the most to gain from carefully staging every interaction.

To Comcast’s credit, they committed to a different course.  They put their reputation on the line by interacting with customers through their Twitter channel.  At any time you can contact a comcast rep via Twitter.  These reps are empowered to send offer advice and check on repair status. These conversation happen in plain view for customers and competitors to observe.  While Twitter hasn’t completely rehabilitated Comcast’s reputation it is building the company’s position as a customer-centric organization.

Social Media’s Secret Sauce

With all of the breathless speculation about the latest trends and tools, It’s easy to overlook the simplicity of social media.  It really comes down to telling a story that focuses on the customer as hero.  From their invest time in creating relevant, informative, and transparent dialogue between your team and customers.

That’s the secret sauce and it’s critical that you use it now before your competitors do.  Right?

Contributing Columnist Stanford Smith obsesses about how to get passionate people’s blogs noticed and promoted at Pushing Social, except when he’s chasing large mouth bass!


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  • jennwhinnem

    Thanks for the reminder, Stan. It did raise a question for me: do people REALLY care about the people behind the business? For me I’d say sometimes do…and then sometimes I just want to rent the car (or whatever) and get out of there. What makes the difference?

  • Barb Sawyers

    Terrific post. Another mistake business storytellers make is to start at the beginning and treat the story as a chronology. Like TV crime dramas, they need to lead with the big conflict that will drive the plot.

  • I like the way you automatically grab my attention with the title. You should never judge a book by its cover (or a blog by its title), but I give you kudos for your headline writing. The rest of the post was good, too!

  • Thanks. Headlines are always tricky. Glad this one worked. 🙂

  • That’s a great suggestion. I know that businesses often shy away from “conflict” so I would substitute conflict with challenge.

  • Southwest Airlines comes to mind. Airline passengers care about the plane, the length of flight, and the food. Southwest decided to showcase its people. Now Southwest loyalists value the excellent (and quirky) service they get from the Crew, Attendants and Ticket agents.

    I believe that if you haven’t focused your customers on the humanity behind your business you are set-up to get beat by the competitor that does.

    That said, I once was in a hurry to get a business meeting. My flight had already been late and I was had little time to waste. The car rental representative picked up on my tension and moved the process along quickly. She also made a point of asking me where I was headed, I told her, and she alerted me to construction along my route. She showed me a detour that got me to my meeting with a few minutes to spare. Her empathy would make a great story.

  • Pavel Konoplenko

    Great point. Athletes are easier to tell stories with because they already are human. In fact, they’re more than human, they’re heroes. Sharing their story and engaging with fans becomes easier. However, that doesn’t mean that brands can’t do the same thing – it just takes some creative thinking. Excellent point when you brought up Harley Davidson. By creating the brand image as an extension of the consumer then you form a natural relationship. After all, when you think of a Harley Davidson motorcycle, it’s hard to imagine it riderless.

  • Stanford writes: ”
    Customers pay attention to companies because they solve specific problems.”

    I think that is importantly false or rather incomplete.

    Customers generally don’t know what problem they have; they pay attention to companies who can frame their overall situation as a problem capable of solution.

  • Hey Michael. Thanks for the comment but I disagree. Customers know their problems. They don’t know always know the best way to solve them.

    Some examples: Problem: The paint in my bathroom is peeling from the moisture. The company that explains how to solve that problem wins. Problem: My son hates studying his multiplication tables. The company that shows how to get interest him in math wins (eg. Khan Academy). Problem: I have a big yard and hate mowing it. The company that shows me how to cut my yard without throwing out my back or buying a riding mower wins.

    The “frame the problem” and “consult on the solution” approach makes sense for certain complex sales. However, the client still knows their problem, but they may not understand the implications of the problem or the criteria for selecting a solution.

    Your point of view is often supported by the famous Steve Jobs observation that he never asks the customers what they want. But Steve did solve a specific problem – his. He hated his cell phone. He created another one. He thought that MP3 Players were clunky – Apple built the iPod.

  • It’s funny that you mention dramas; first thing I thought of as I started reading this re: NBC’s Olympic coverage. I don’t like it when that drama is manufactured or conflict is shoehorned into the persons story and there are times I think they focus too much on creating ‘conflict’ for drama’s sake instead of advancing the plot (the games themselves). FWIW.

  • Gettysburg Gerry

    I think #’s 1 & 3 are important. I think companies large and small forget that the first word in social media is SOCIAL. Whether you are telling a story or fixing a problem, be human, that is what I feel most consumers want.

    I have to agree with Jenn somewhat, I am not convinced that all consumers really care about the people behind the company. I am seeing more and more that there is no template, each company is different and beyond the basic courtesy and engagement, all have different needs.

    SouthWest, well, after watching far too many of their reps be rude to passengers on that reality show…I will never fly SW, of course I am just one person and probably in the minority.

    Nice post, thanks for making me think….

  • First, Word. Some right good stuff here Standford.

    Turning off comments – or ignoring, or deleting – I just don’t see the point of pumping out content if it’s just gonna sit there? Customers talking to you is a good thing – even when they’re giving you bad news. Ignore at your own risk, if you choose to talk ‘at’ them and not with them. Same w/ the wrong hero; read a ‘customer service statement’ from a major brand not too long ago and it was ALL about the company; the customer was barely an afterthought – and I’m sure they felt that all the way to the competition. Soundbites aren’t stories (thank you!). Stories take time – to build, to develop, to reach people in a way they can relate to.

    Which brings me to @jennwhinnem:disqus and even @michael_webster:disqus point. Not every business can be Apple, create solutions for problems no one ever knew they had. Maybe customers don’t your company’s specific solutions, but they do look to solve their problems or satisfy their wants. And like Jenn, sometimes I don’t have time or interest in building a relationship w/ a company, I just want the fix, the deal, buy the whatnot and move on. FWIW.

  • Karen Highland

    I think that today’s customers are more savvy, if you will, because of social media and the wealth of information at their disposal, and I agree, they know what their problems are. I also think they’ve developed a resistance to that kind of framed marketing, that attempts to tell them what their problems are. I’m sitting back and watching the growing resistance to Apple, [my 25-year-old son has joined the boycott Apple movement] as they still try to tell us what we need, and other companies are surpassing them in technology.

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  • Totally agree here Stanford. Too many have read about Steve Jobs and have bought into his self centered credos. Yes he was a genius, and broke the mold, but for now there has only been one in recent times. Until another surfaces… let’s all stick to the formula of listening to and observing consumer behavior and realizing they have a few ideas.

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  • I’ve been thinking about this the last few days Stanford. I know this is Social Marketing 101, approaching industry Canon – but the reasons that some companies become Icons is hard to relate with a single anecdote or recipe.

    Harley Davidson for example, it’s a motorcycle company that can sell a ton of 25$ T-Shirts, and they have for a long time. I remember getting a shirt from the Daytona Harley Shop given to me by a family friend when I was just a kid – and I thought it was the coolest t-shirt in existence. My Dad sent me a rare one from New Orleans a year or so ago, and it is probably the coolest looking t-shirt that I own today. When consumers will willingly wear your logo around like a walking billboard, dress their kids up in it, and associate their personality with it, that’s definitely a win – but the feeling that inspires that kind of following is inspired instantaneously, before even being exposed to a story or marketing.

    It’s definitely in the branding. The colors, the iconography, the people who were already wearing Harley Davidson T-shirts. When it comes to the name even, a word like Nike almost sales itself. I remember thinking that the word Harley was a deduction in the cool factor (some psychological association with the letter H maybe?), but the D in Davidson brought it back to having a neutral effect on the brand, represented by eagles, leather, American flag, chains and motorcycles.

    It just seems to me like successful branding is a sum of its parts, and when brands get it right it’s cerebral. I always felt the same way with the Olympics – the name even lol. The fact that the 1996 Olympics was in Atlanta, the colors of team USA, everything has always made me feel like the Olympic brand was cool (I never realized it until now though). NBC’s coverage, the investigative reporting and backstory, and the product itself is the selling point now (I don’t think Harley Davidson’s would continue to sell shirts to the same customers if they started producing only Mo-Peds) but it can’t be a coincidence that I had the same type of brand identification with Nike, HD & the Olympics from an early age. It’s cerebral – I can identify it, but I can’t explain it.

  • jennwhinnem

    Excellent example, Stan. I was just thinking about an experience where I was waiting in line for an available rental, and the customer service reps introduced themselves to each customer and made a big deal of shaking hands, etc. Meanwhile the line of people behind me were just as grumbly as I was. Had they taken your approach, however, I would have been encouraged! And grateful.

  • jennwhinnem

    Mark’s post “why you should blog even if nobody reads it” covers that pretty well (what I remember was: SEO). But I agree, don’t shut off the comments. I still feel pretty mixed that Seth Godin doesn’t allow comments.

  • But if you’re going to hold in moderation, not going to reply at all, not going to engage anywhere else for that matter – what’s the point of having them? I see it typically in two scenarios: it’s proforma from a business/individual, there for show (and SEO) and looking ‘social’ or it’s a ‘big name’ w/ some 0.032% follow back ratio.

  • Hi Stanford. Great insight! I just commented on Mark’s post on ROI “Relevance” and asked about engagement there. You covered my short thoughts there so very well here. The story. The humanity behind the event or company seems to be what we have been missing all along and that’s why the social web is so critically important to the future of business if used in the right way.

    You 3 examples are great primary tools to demonstrate the necessity of connecting with people.

    Thank you so much.

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