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Why the biggest branding mystery is one you don’t need to solve

You never really know what people are thinking.

Even if you run across one of those people who proudly proclaim they say what’s on their mind, they tell it like it is, they’re an open book, there is always something they’re holding back. Something you’ll never get to know. The human soul is wide and deep, and most of us only ever let other people into the shallow end.

That can be a good thing. After all, there’s no need to know the friend telling you don’t smell that bad after a workout is lying. She’s being nice, making you feel better and likely thinking to herself, ‘Of course you smell. You just ran 5 miles in the blazing sun in workout clothes you should have retired years ago.” (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience, as the smelly one with very nice friends.)

It’s also an important thing for each of us to understand. If we never really know what other people think of us, we shouldn’t waste a single second worrying about it. The same goes for brands.

I know how that may sound, but hear me out. As businesses, clients are vital. We quite literally need them to survive. So we don’t want to run around pissing people off and saying whatever ill-advised thing might pop into our heads. Irresponsibility, cruelty and mockery are always bad ideas.

But I have encountered many businesses who know who they want to be. They believe wholeheartedly in their own set of values, and they have stories worth telling. And yet they won’t tell them. They won’t embrace the very things that make them unique because they’re afraid of the unknown. They’re afraid of turning people away. They’re afraid of what people might think.

All of this came to mind the other day when I read about the latest advertising campaign from the Dutch airline KLM. This year, it’s celebrating its 100th anniversary — no small feat for a business these days — and they’re marking the occasion with a new tagline, “Fly responsibly.”

If you’re nerdy about words and marketing strategy, you can read all about it here. But the gist is that KLM is advocating for sustainability and eco-friendliness. They’re actually encouraging passengers to take the train or meet virtually rather than take a plane and incur the environmental costs.

What airline do you know of that encourages people not to fly? Exactly.

It’s not good for the company’s bottom line. It’s not going to deliver any customer conversions or measurable ROI. In fact, I’m willing to bet, if KLM had surveyed its customers, not one of them would have listed sustainability as a leading factor in choosing an airline. Airline passengers want cheap flights and more legroom. Environmental friendliness is a nice-to-have, not a have-to-have.

And yet, I’m also willing to bet that KLM’s reputation will strengthen as a result of this campaign. I, for one, see the brand in a different light, and I’d choose it over the competition, if I decided not to take the train instead.

As businesses, we need to give our customers what they want. But all the customer research in the world still might not tell you what that is. That’s why you’ve got listen and learn. You’ve got to pay attention. You have to work hard. But you also have to be you, whatever that means. You have to tell your story. It may not resonate with every potential customer, but it will turn the customers you have into rabid, raging and loyal fans.

You will have the kind of business that lasts 100 years.


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