Warm, competent brands win big. Social psychologists explain why.

I’ve worked with brands for the past fifteen years. Throughout these years, I have often used the “brand persona” as a tool in brand implementation work. The “brand persona” humanizes the brand and thus helps employees to understand the values and qualities of the brand.

But before we get to that phase, we need to position the brand as well as its competitors. We place it in a three-dimensional space of attributes, based on the values that consumers attach to it.

A very common, but not at all surprising, observation is that brands that people feel are sympathetic and competent outperform their competitors financially. Brands that are competent, but that are conceived as cold and inhuman, struggle the most.

We are witnessing a boom of small and sympathetic brands. Brands that have a face, a story, and a mission are challenging the big conglomerates, companies that often are viewed as greedy and indifferent. There is a rising thirst for honesty and transparency.

The book The Human Brand by Susan T. Fiske and Chris Malone supports this observation. It views this trend from an interesting perspective. According to Fiske, a social psychologist, people evaluate each other’s intentions very rapidly by observing two factors: warmth and competence. A person who can combine both inspires confidence and admiration, while a competent person who doesn’t convey warmth raises feelings of distrust and even envy. A good-hearted but incompetent person is met with pity and sympathy. Worst off are those who are viewed as dumb and cold – they can easily even raise feelings of disgust.

The main point in Fiske and Malone’s book is that we apply the same methods of evaluation to both people and brands. This is why I recommend that every executive who strives to lead his or her company to success should evaluate the decisions being made based on whether they support a perception of warmth and competence. However brutal it might sound, the brand is no more and no less than the sum of these decisions.

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