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  Does your brand have hand?
by Karl Treacher
November 7, 2005

Is the key to brand loyalty in doing whatever it takes to win over the customer? Or is this in fact too desperate a move to earn customer respect?

Most people remember "Seinfeld" character George Costanza as somewhat of a dork, a klutz, someone unqualified to give advice on relationships. In general, this was true of the fall guy in the American television program "Seinfeld"; however, in his trademark bumbling and often embarrassing way, George managed, in the space of one half-hour episode, to introduce a concept that may well explain why business-to-business brand loyalty is dissolving for many companies.

In this particular episode of "Seinfeld," George gives a very passionate speech about not allowing one member of a relationship to "have hand." What George meant by "hand" is the upper hand. The having hand denotes possession of a controlling interest in a two-person relationship. In his case it just means that his date has control of the relationship.


How does this relate to business and branding? Well, George goes on to say that if one party in a relationship has hand, then the other party will lose the ability to have any real say in the direction of the relationship. In fact the party without hand will suffer from diminished self confidence, poor self-esteem and a course of suffering at the hand of the dominant party. The implications of one party losing hand in business are disastrous.

The Problem
Whoever said that competition is healthy must have been either a consumer or someone involved with a product or service in a virgin or immature market. Aside from achieving better value for money for consumers, and growing a market, competition is also largely responsible for significant changes in business behavior and ultimately business relationships.

For any company, the concept of multiple competitors means that the demonstration and communication of brand value becomes paramount. What most seem to misunderstand is that competition doesn't mean dropping your pants or begging to secure business. How many beggars make it big? None, and that's because people don't recognize value from people who appear desperate or without confidence in their cause. The same goes for brands and the people that represent them. Too many brands go about securing business by prostituting their own integrity. This is often done with a motto of "whatever it takes" or "going the extra mile." The result of such action is always the same. There is possibly a good short-term return, with a behavioral precedent in place that gives the client all the power (hand) and leaves the brand with all the diminished authority of an order taker.

The Cause
You don't need to look too far for a cause to this unhealthy state of affairs. Human nature suggests that most of us, like it or not, look to exploit the weak. So by representing your brand in a way that suggests that you are willing to do whatever it takes, you are weakening your brand and asking for a relationship devoid of mutual respect and loyalty.

So who is to blame? Well it often comes from the top of the top. In a world driven by revenue targets, those who set the targets often have their hands clasped so tightly around the purse strings that they have cut the circulation off to their brain. To those untrained or unskilled in brand relationship skills, flexing on brand values to make budget and satisfy stakeholder expectation probably makes good sense. This may well be the case in the short term; however, the long-term ramifications of this style of policy means diminished brand equity, and that is never good.

So, what is the answer?
Stand for something. The strongest and most resilient brands stand for something. They may flex under a storm of competition, but they never lose their footing. People need to be empowered and leaders need to lead rather than simply manage.

As soon as a brand allows a client to dominate a relationship, then that brand has given the client permission to undervalue you and your offering. Organizations that believe that "the customer is always right" are clearly stating that they themselves don't know what is right or wrong and are happy to be told.

In brief, get your brand identity straight, believe in it and communicate that belief at every opportunity. Resist the temptation to give away hand for immediate gain. As George found out, keeping someone happy can cost you everything.

Previously published in Professional Marketing Magazine.

   Karl Treacher is the CEO of brand intelligence group Brand Behaviour, and is a recognized authority on brand psychology and human influence.

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