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Respect: What it Means for Your Brand

Early on in my career as a manager, I sat down with my boss and began complaining to her: “I think that some of the people on my team don’t like me.” She responded by giving me some of the most thoughtful advice that I have ever received: “It doesn’t really matter if they like you or not,” she said. “What matters is whether they respect you.”

This advice popped into my head again recently as I was thinking about the evolution under way in social marketing. Most savvy brands have long since moved beyond trying to earn “likes” and followers on social channels, and have rightfully focused their attention on the concept of engagement. And, while engagement undoubtedly matters, I believe that there’s still something higher for brands to strive to achieve: respect. How to gain respect—and how to keep it—is one of the more pressing challenges ahead for savvy marketers.

The dictionary defines respect as “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements.” This certainly captures the feelings that we would want to associate with our brand. However, one thing that the dictionary doesn’t say is how to stand out in a crowded market. That part is up to us marketers.

Fortune magazine publishes its annual ranking of “The World’s Most Admired Companies” using a variety of attributes, including management quality, product and service quality, innovation, value, and community responsibility, among others. For the publication’s 2015 list, the top five spots went to Apple, Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon and Starbucks. Likewise, Forbes just published its list of “America’s Most Reputable Companies,” with Amazon, Kellogg’s and Lego leading the way in 2015. A point worth noting: One of the decisive statements presented to the Forbes survey takers was, “I admire and respect this company.”

So just what can respect mean for your brand, especially if you don’t have the awareness of Apple or Amazon? I believe that widespread brand respect can come down to really focusing on one or two key things that you want to do better than anyone else in your category, or that you want to be remembered for beyond the experience of your product or service. Respect requires both intent (“I want to stand for something”) and persistence (“I will continue my stance no matter which way the wind blows”).

The ground on which you earn your respect may be your quality, your customer service, your social responsibility or even just the smile that you bring to a customer’s face. One of my favorite brands is the online clothing service Frank & Oak. While I like the brand because of its products, I respect it because of the great customer service, embodied each month in the hand-signed note included in my package. I can sense that Frank & Oak wants something more than simply being a well-liked brand: It wants to be admired.

Last year, Starbucks announced that it would begin a program for providing a free college education to its employees. In doing so, it clearly acknowledged that many people want to be more than a barista; company Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz stated this explicitly, and this was a bold—and potentially risky—statement of the brand’s intent.

Seeking respect can be as simple as offering excellent customer service or as risky as attempting to reset the higher-education equation in America. Your business must identify the intent of these efforts, and then ensure that all of your messages and behaviors support that intent. Marketing of all types can leverage this element of intent and demonstrate the qualities worth respecting across channels.

Respect doesn’t necessarily require risk, but it does require clarity. If you’re already invested in driving customer engagement, now is the time to look at what comes next. Your engaged customers are primed for a deeper message and a deeper connection. They’re ready to give you a little respect. 


Norman Guadagno is vice president of client engagement at Wire Stone, an independent digital marketing agency based in Sacramento, Calif.