Customers Want to Know: Are You Friend or Foe?

by | Jan 22, 2014 | Branding, Business, Content, Design, Experience, Marketing

To understand what’s going on in your customers’ heads, sometimes you have to get back to basic human psychology.

Let’s skip all the high-concept marketing talk, and get back to basics for a few minutes here.

Branding and marketing isn’t about fluff, or trickery, or opinions, or manipulation, or creativity, or preferences, or fanciness. It’s not a layer of prettiness added at the last minute. It’s not about pushing messages down people’s throats. It’s not about buzzwords, or trends, or social media.

It’s about old fashioned human psychology. It’s about shaping the way people respond to a situation. It’s about making things happen.

The Friend-or-Foe response

One of the most ancient functions of the human brain is simply to separate things that are good (food, family, warmth, etc.) from things that are bad (poison, enemies, predators, etc.).

You use this part of your brain thousands of times every day, maybe thousands of times every hour. It happens in an instant, based on subtle clues your brain has picked up from the surrounding environment. It’s so fundamental that you probably don’t even notice it.

  • You approach someone on the sidewalk. He’s wearing old, dirty clothes. He hasn’t shaved in a week. He’s limping strangely. He looks up at you and narrows his eyes. Friend or foe?
  • Your grandmother opens the front door of a house you’ve visited since you were a baby, and her eyes light up. Her eyes widen. She opens her arms to hug you. You smell peach cobbler from the kitchen. Friend or foe?
  • You receive an email from your boyfriend with the subject line “We need to talk.” Friend or foe?
  • Your law firm is interviewing for a much-needed administrative assistant position. The candidate is late for the interview, and comes into the office wearing flip-flops and shorts. His resume is missing a page. Friend or foe?
  • You hear screeching breaks and someone yelling. Friend or foe?
  • You’re worried about your wife being mad about you rushing out the door this morning, but her voice is upbeat when she calls you in the afternoon to see what you want for dinner. Friend or foe?

The Friend-or-Foe response is one of the most basic mental transactions that’s hard-wired into our brain. There’s no way around it.

Every time a potential customer visits your website, takes your business card, clicks your Google ad, picks up a phone call from your sales rep, or walks into your office, they’re brain is doing the same thing. They’re trying to figure out, in an instant, whether you’re a friend who can help them accomplish their goals, or a foe trying to get their money and run.

It doesn’t matter what the principals think

The principals always think their company is the Friend. They think it’s completely obvious to anyone. Obviously better customer service. Obviously better quality product. Obviously more trustworthy staff.

But here’s the deep, dark secret that most companies’ principals never totally understand: it’s not obvious to the customers. The customers are still trying to figure it out based on the few pieces of information they have. All they see is your clunky website, your cheap logo, your inconsistent marketing materials, your sales guy that won’t go away, or the dead plant in the corner of your office.

By the time you start your pitch, their Friend-or-Foe response has already kicked in, and you’re probably fighting against it before you ever open your mouth. Sometimes you’ll overcome it with a convincing presentation, but many times you’ll just lose that potential customer, and be left to wonder why they didn’t understand how great your offerings are.

You need consistency, character, and reassurance

To clarify, I’m not suggesting the goal is simply to be more “friendly,” although that can help. Having an honest, authentic, “human” brand can go a long way toward helping potential customers feel comfortable with you. It’s also not as simple as “don’t look evil.” (Most companies already try to avoid looking evil.)

It’s really about presenting your company in a way that is thoroughly reassuring to your potential customers, and that presents a rich and consistent experience that helps them understand (at a deep psychological level) that you’re unique among your competitors, and that your company is the obvious best choice.

Right now, you’re probably stuck in limbo between Friend and Foe with regard to how your company represents itself. The experience is a bit haphazard and tossed-together. It doesn’t have a deep sense of focus and purpose and character. It’s filler. It’s nice. It’s just alright.

This means your customers have to really dig in and figure out whether they can trust you or not, and many of them won’t put forth the effort.

Most companies are really bad at the Friend-or-Foe response

With regard to crafting their customers’ Friend-or-Foe responses, companies fall into three categories:

  • Companies that are bad at it, and go out of business.
  • Companies that are bad at it, but see some success anyway. (This is probably you.)
  • Companies that are good at it, and are wildly successful.

Generally speaking, if you can craft the customer’s experience in a way that thoroughly reassures them that you’re a friend who’s going to help them accomplish their goals, then your company’s going to make good money.

Most companies fall into the middle category. They have a janky website, inconsistent sales materials, and lots of “random acts of marketing,” but they’re seeing enough success year after year to keep going. They might even be growing, in an awkward and inefficient way.

Often, these companies are brute-forcing it by pounding gobs of money into advertising, and then trying to making something in the margins. In the worst cases, they feel like they’re actually doing great at marketing, because there’s lots of activity, lots of money changing hands, etc. They don’t realize how many potential customers they are failing to engage with, simply because they never hear from those that got away. This “success fallacy” is a common misperception that’s hard to clear up.

Your company probably doesn’t do this well, and it’s time to fix it

Because most companies are bad at crafting marketing experiences that successfully pass the Friend-or-Foe test, there’s a good chance your company is one of them. (This is true even if you’re making money and growing, since it’s possible to grow through brute force and throwing money at the problem, even if your marketing is actually performing less efficiently than it should be.)

To fix it, you have to get outside the mindset of a company principal. You have to look at the situation with genuine objectivity. All your faithful customers will pat you on the back and tell you everything’s great, but how often do you hear from the hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of potential customers you lost because they just weren’t feeling it? What was it about your brand experience that left them cold?

You also have to overcome your crippling fear of change. If you’re already making money, you’re probably afraid to change anything. This unfortunate reflex is the reason many businesses continue to crawl instead of walking (or running).

Your business wants to move faster than you’re allowing it move. You probably do have a great business, but you’re probably not expressing that to customers in their own language, and in the subconscious ways they’d find most reassuring.

It’s time to step out of the way, and see what your business can really become when its full character and potential is unleashed in a refreshing, powerful, and evocative way that makes people want to embrace your company instead of skeptically evaluating it. Then you can pound money into advertising, and watch your bottom line explode.

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