Using the Visible to Infer the Invisible

trader joesHave you ever wondered why great experiential brands like Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Costco do little to no advertising? It’s probably because they understand that in the mind of today’s consumer, actions speak much louder than words.

Though they are values most of us care about, brand traits like “trustworthy,” “ethical,” “fair treatment,” etc., have become more buzzwords than reality. Consumers are so used to hearing companies say that they do business by these requisite traits, that the words do not mean anything anymore. This is especially true when a business says one thing and does exactly the opposite. Consumers no longer trust a company’s words when they are trying to gauge a company’s values. Instead, they look to what is most visible to them—the behavior of that company’s employees.

In some of PadillaCRT’s recent research work, we found that consumers use the apparent happiness (or unhappiness) of a company’s employees as a way to gauge whether or not that company is trustworthy. When they see employees of a company like CarMax, Trader Joe’s, or Southwest Airlines genuinely smiling, helping one another, looking like they are having a good time in their place of work, and engaging cheerfully with customers, they assume that the company is one with honorable values.

Inversely, if employees are unhappy, being yelled at, looking unengaged and are unhelpful to consumers, consumers assume that, even if the company talks the talk, it is not one that walks the walk when it comes to values.

southwestThe same is true of customers’ experiences of your brand, and its treatment of employees, in the media. We live in a connected and information-driven age. You can’t smile in-store or on the sales floor and then do your dirty work behind closed doors. Customers can and will find out your business practices and behaviors, and they’ll pick the brands they associate with, and which ones to give their hard-earned dollars to, based on that information.

Summed up, it’s the idea that “if they treat their employees well, they’ll treat me well” and “if they treat their employees poorly, they won’t care about me either.” Consumers bypass the words and instead look at what’s happening around them, using the visible to infer the company’s values. This is just one more reason that your brand identity—and whether it’s positive or negative, admired or despised—is built on behavior. Every single experience, interaction and reaction counts. Before you tell customers that you’re fair, ethical and to be trusted, make sure you actually are. We’re not in the age of the jingle anymore—hollow words do not a great brand make.

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