What is it about some brands that create cult-like devotion from customers? That's a question we're tackling with Dan Cobb, Chief Strategy Officer and CEO of Daniel Brian Advertising, as we examine how and why customers can become "irrational advocates" for brands, and what this means for CMOs.

We originally spoke to Dan on an episode of CMO Convo, our podcast digging into the issues on modern CMOs’ minds. You can listen here or read on to find out all about…

CMO Convo | Brands in the age of irrational advocacy | Dan Cobb
On this episode of CMO Convo, we’re joined by Dan Cobb, Chief Strategy Officer and CEO of Dan Brian Advertising, to examine some of the biggest brands, what about them inspires such devotions, and what CMOs can do in the world of irrational advocacy.

Dan’s background and interest in irrational advocacy

Hi Dan, great to have you here. Before we get down to discussing irrational advocacy, how about you introduce yourself to the audience? Tell us a bit about yourself and why we're talking about this subject today.

I'm a student of the business of advertising and the owner of an advertising agency, Daniel Brian Advertising. To help our clients to succeed at what they do, we study the phenomenon of successful brands.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing brands, including Rocket Mortgage, Chick-fil-A, and Papa John's, and I’ve been seeing big shifts in the way these brands are addressing their consumer audiences. We've begun a new adventure in studying this phenomenon we call “irrational advocacy,” and we believe it's really the future of how we build brands in social media and beyond.

What is irrational advocacy?

Let's talk about the term “irrational advocacy” because it’s probably not familiar to everyone in the audience. What do we mean by irrational advocacy in relation to brands?

Well, we tend to presume that humans make rational decisions and that we’re rational beings. But when we look at new studies on psychology and consumer behavior, it looks a little bit more like this: we are irrational beings who rationalize our decisions. We're emotional beings, who make emotional decisions.

And so what we need to understand is what drives those emotions. What causes us to make a purchase, to pay a premium, to wait longer for a product or a service, to tell our friends, or even go on social media and become a marketing agent for a brand? That’s when we move into the stage we call irrational advocacy.

Let's look at Apple, for example. Why would you, the night before the launch of a new iPhone, wait in line for 24 hours in the cold and the dark to get a phone when you already have a perfectly well-designed functional phone in your hand? The next version might be slightly better, but why would you go through all that to get a tiny bit more convenience the following day from a device that may not offer that much new advantage for you?

It's not about the phone. It's about something bigger. There is some other cause that creates that consumer behavior.

Irrational advocacy is all around us

Devoting yourself to queuing up for hours is the extreme end of the scale, but it's something that affects even day-to-day buying decisions that consumers make.

If you're buying chicken cutlets, for example, what’s the difference between a name-brand chicken cutlet and a store-brand chicken cutlet? You make the choice based on the brand, and that's a purely irrational decision right there.

Speaking of chicken, we work with Chick-fil-A. The night before every grand opening, there are people who camp out in tents, and they will wait in lines that wrap around city blocks to get into a Chick-fil-A the day it opens. Why is there that much passion for a chicken sandwich? It's not a whole lot better than Popeyes, so what's going on there? That's what we studied working with that brand.

We interviewed consumer audiences to try to understand why a company that's closed on Sundays is loved for that fact. Customers are getting less access to the product; that is not an advantage. But to the consumers, it is – they associate those Sunday closures with a brand that has values.

Chick-fil-A is a great example of advocacy because people get into very heated arguments online about which fast-food restaurant produces the best sandwiches. It seems to happen a lot on Twitter; people are like “No, Chick-fil-A's the best chicken sandwich!” or “Popeyes has the best chicken sandwich!”

Absolutely. They have a passion for their brand. It follows to sports. You go to any sporting event and people are painting their faces the color of the brand they love, only in this case it’s their sporting team or their university. It's about association and identity. People wear clothing that represents who they are. They buy vehicles that represent what they stand for. They may even pay a premium for a vehicle that's not reliable.

I'd say the worst vehicle I ever purchased was a Maserati. It had massive repair bills, it was in the shop more than it was in my driveway, and yet, it represented a persona that I was trying to build at that time in my life. I’ve outgrown that persona since then and decided I just want a reliable car that works.

You can change your mind about these things, but there are times when you're willing to pay a premium and put up with all kinds of inconvenience and quality defects to say “This is the brand I want to associate with.”

We're talking about this mainly from a B2C angle, but it's relevant in the B2B world as well, particularly because of the shift in the ways of working. Now that a lot of the tools that people use for work are in their own homes, people are building more of an emotional connection to them.

Why do certain people prefer Zoom over Microsoft Teams, for example? You have that emotional connection to Zoom because it's been such a big part of our lives over the last couple of years because of the pandemic. So irrational advocacy is not just something to think about in B2C, it also plays a part in B2B.

It's in every market. You associate brands with your identity. It’s not about simply needing a product to fulfill a utility in your life. When people enter the stage of irrational advocacy, it's about self-identification. It's about saying, “This is the brand that I am. I represent a certain set of values and passions, and a purpose. These are the things that drive me.”

If you find a brand that identifies with the same values, you’ll identify with it and even promote it because you want those values to become greater in society. So your community builds, and your influence on the larger community grows too because you’re part of a growing value system.

That’s the mindset of the consumer. They may not be able to analyze all of that. Often, all they know is “I'm a Chick-fil-A fan,” or “I'm a Popeyes fan,” and they can't explain all of the reasons, but they can start giving you a few examples here and there.

Irrational advocacy in marketing

Let’s focus for a moment on the “irrational” part of irrational advocacy. It makes it sound like something that we can't control or predict in the marketing world. Is that true? How much control do we actually have over this?

On the surface, it would appear irrational. We like to think that emotions should be ignored, and we should make rational decisions in our lives. However, in reality, emotion is a driver of good decision-making. We’ve found that people who lack emotional intelligence have vast difficulties making decisions.

It turns out that emotions are the synapses in your brain that are working at a higher level of complexity. They look at all the ways that people read expressions, for example, in a conversation to know if they can trust someone. They look at how a brand promotes itself to see if it's self-centered or if it's a generous brand.

Those are cues that are difficult to realize at a rational level, so our emotions engage and they make decisions for us based on historic views of whether or not this person or brand is trustworthy.

So emotions are actually very rational. They're just much more complex and more difficult to understand. It comes down to the way someone raises an eyebrow or talks with confidence. All those nuances can make or break trust.

So the irrationality is more on the consumer side, but there are rational techniques that CMOs and marketing departments can take to engage with those irrational behaviors. Is that what we're saying?

Absolutely. If you're trying to engage an irrational advocate audience, the worst thing you can do is be a promotion-based brand that runs sales every week and shares proof points. When you're constantly appealing to the rational brain, you're only going to achieve a rational level of relationship with your customer. Now you have to win on price, you have to win on quality, and you have to check all the boxes.

However, if you build a relationship with a consumer based on values or a mission to change the world, those proof points and those sales gimmicks are not necessary. Now, the consumer gets on your side and joins in that movement based on the values.

We find that companies who create a brand persona of corporate citizenship rise in all scores. People believe they have a better price; they believe they have a better product and a better service simply because they have a strong community engagement, they give back, or they invest in local causes.

Let me give you an example. We did a campaign with Hungry Howie's pizza company. They wanted to join the fight against breast cancer and give back to the community, so we made the boxes pink, and during October a percentage of every sale was donated to help those who can't afford to get a mammogram. In doing that, sales went up 23%.

Now, the consumer had no personal benefit from that. It was all about others, so that was an irrational behavior if you think that people are inherently selfish. In reality, we make decisions that are not only for ourselves but for others. It's kind of how we're engineered.

We tested it the other way too. Let's say you discount the pizza by the same amount you gave to those causes. Nobody cares a whole lot because it’s only a small percentage – it's maybe 1% or 2%. You have to give a 50% discount or even offer a free pizza promotion to compete with giving a donation to the breast cancer awareness program that we did.

Wow. That's really interesting, and it's nice to know that people are more willing to give a little than receive a little.

If you think about it, we're trying to get people who are going to follow us and share our product. Let's say we did pizzas on sale at 50% off – I never saw a consumer go crazy, share that with all their friends, and make a post go viral over that.

However, when we did the pink pizza box campaign, people took photos of themselves with pink pizza boxes. They told their friends, “You gotta come out and buy this pizza. My mother's facing breast cancer; I think this is a great cause.” We grew by a quarter-million Facebook followers during that campaign, gaining more than we had for any other campaign.

Irrational advocacy is about getting the consumer to be a promotional agent on your behalf. It's not about you; it's about a cause they can join with you and make a difference in society.

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The power of brand values

It sort of lessens the guilt of making a purchase, particularly something like pizza, where it's not a healthy thing. We all love pizza, but knowing that buying pizza is also gonna help people probably makes us feel better about making that purchase in the first place.

Everybody feels better if they do something for someone else. Think about TOMS Shoes – that brand was built entirely on giving back. You buy a pair of $50 shoes that are probably worth half that, but they're giving a pair away to a third-world country or someone in need, so you feel good about buying the shoe.

We call this buyer the slacktivist. This is someone who wants to be an activist in everything they do. They want to make a difference, but they want it to be convenient. It’s fast-food activism. If I can simply buy this product instead of that product, and I'm giving back by doing that, I'll make that choice. It’s the fastest-growing category among what we call the behaviorals – these are different types of behaviors in the community.

Another type of behavioral is those who are looking for the sale all the time. We call those the nomads, and they’re the largest group in society, always looking for the lowest cost. They are rational in their choice: whatever is the lowest cost, that's what they’re buying.

Now, what we call the aspirational buyer is now up to a quarter of the population, and they're the fastest-growing type. These are the buyers who say, “Well, I don't necessarily need a discount. What else are you doing here? Can you offer me a better sale beyond that? Is there some benefit to society?”

And so the aspirational buyer will actually spend more money and choose their purchasing environment based on values. The aspirational community is based on greater wealth, and greater ability to discretionarily spend their money. And by the way, you get better margins from that buyer because they're willing to spend a premium – you don't have to win on price.

Is it fair to assume that people rarely fit into one single category across all the types of purchasing they do? You might be a rational buyer when it comes to certain things, and you might be an aspirational buyer when it comes to other things. Is that correct?

Absolutely. There are different commoditized products, for example, gas. We would probably all drive to the station with the cheapest gas right now, especially at the price it's at, so there are certain things you're generally not willing to pay a premium for.

However, if a gas station were to stand up and say “We're making a green planet, and our gas is a little bit more expensive, but we're changing the world, and we're creating more environmentally safe practices,” I guarantee you there's a percentage of the audience that will drive past the lower-cost gas station and pay more because they believe they're making a difference.

Definitely. That's getting more and more prevalent among younger generations as well. There have been studies on Gen-Z and how much they need to have shared values with the brands that they support. Is that likely to get more extreme in the future? Do you think we’re gonna get absolutely tribal with the brands we support?

I think it's getting tribal already. There have been a few cases of this at Chick-fil-A. There were protesters out in front of their restaurants because they had faith-based values and donated to certain faith-based organizations. It touched the sensibilities of the LGBTQ community and caused a backlash. When you take one set of values, you always take the risk that someone has an opposing view.

Another good example of this backlash against values in recent years is when Nike came out supporting Colin Kaepernick as part of the "take a knee" movement. People were burning the products and making a big to-do online about how they didn't agree with Nike supporting him. But at the same time sales increased for Nike when they came out with this campaign.

It could just be that people were buying products so they could burn them, and that was driving up sales, but it shows that association with values can be very powerful despite the potential backlash.

Well, there are two aspects to it. The first is, as they say in PR, “Just spell my name right.” If you’re a brand that gets a lot of chatter about anything controversial, your sales are gonna go up. It was the same with the Chick-fil-A protests – the sales went up. That tends to be the case. Protesters are actually working against themselves because they're creating more awareness of the brand.

The second aspect is that sales go up because of the irrational advocates. Even if it's just a small number of them who say, “I really believe in this cause,” they’re going to go out of their way to buy that product. They're going to go into the store, and they're going to purchase those shoes and say, “These are the values I stand for.” It's a way of thumbing the nose at all those who talk down on their brand.

That’s a fine line to walk. It’s gotta be dangerous territory to try and engineer a situation like that.

It's very dangerous. If you enter into politics, you’ve got to be careful. As soon as you start picking a political candidate, you've already told half your customers you don't want them. I would prefer that, as brands, we stay away from divisive conversations. You're likely to lose a mass audience for your brand.

If you're a challenger brand, and you only need a small percentage of the population, maybe that'll work for you for a minute. But in the long run, you're gonna have to work your way through a lot of conflict, and that may not be where you want to put your energy.

Definitely. CMOs need to be aware of the context behind the causes that they're supporting. You might not think it's a political issue, but you need to do your research to make sure it isn’t.

Absolutely. You may presume that everybody feels the same way about a particular subject because all of your friends agree with you, but you’ve got to go out and ask the consumer. Your consumer audience is very diverse, and they have varied opinions on everything. And the more heated the debate is, the stronger their opinions are going to be.

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Harnessing the power of irrational advocacy

We've talked about some good examples of irrational advocacy and the pitfalls to avoid. Let's talk about best practices. What should people be doing to engender this kind of support if that’s what they want for their brands?

The first stage is to have a strong point of view on your brand's purpose. You have to have a clear internal understanding of where you're going and why. “Start with why” – Simon Sinek said it very well. You have to identify the purpose that drives you as an organization and make sure you have unity among your team. It has to be meaningful too; it's not just a poster you put on a wall.

Once you understand that “why,” now you have to think about how you're going to engage that in the community.

Let me give you an example. I know Chick-fil-A can be a divisive brand for some, but this is their reality. Dan Cathy and Truett Cathy of that organization said, “Don't sell the chicken, just love the customer. Go out there and love the customer, build families, and the chicken will sell itself.”

So that was the objective. The chicken was secondary to their marketing. When you understand your purpose at that level, and you're willing to sacrifice even your product sales for the sake of your purpose, that comes through in everything you do.

We were inspired by these values to create the daddy-daughter date night, where there was a candlelit table, and dads and daughters would meet for a chicken sandwich and a reserved fast food moment. Those moments became viral.

So you have to do a couple of things right. First, get your purpose right. Then, empower your team to follow up on that purpose. You have to tell the agency to do something to engage your purpose, and then that becomes a brand moment where the consumer is empowered to be your advocate with the tools you give them.

The tools are the event, the environment, and all the places you can photograph. All those moments are the symbols of this brand meaning, and they prove the brand purpose.

It's almost ritualizing people's associations with the brand, creating these shared practices they can all go and engage with. It’s similar to the people queuing up outside the store for Apple launches as well – it's a way to show that you support the brand in a certain way.

Ritual is a great word for it. All cult brands are started by cult leaders. Steve Jobs was a cult leader. He had his spiritual moment with some Buddhist monks, became a Buddhist himself, and applied his ideas and symbols around this belief system – it’s very religious. It's a different religion from Truett Cathy’s, but a religion nonetheless.

For Steve Jobs, the symbol of his religion was simplicity. It's one of the Buddhist belief systems that simplicity is a value, and so making things simple, pure and uncomplicated was important to him.

Now, if you look at the device he created, it’s so simple. It helps us do so many things, and he simplified a technology that had been very complicated. It used to be DOS-based code, and we had to go and understand and memorize languages. Apple made buttons you could click and brought us the mouse, and all these different things that came out of a spiritual quest.

They built a ritual out of a vision that we can make things simple. It's literally a religious quest when you're building a rational advocate following.

The power of a personal brand

It’s interesting that you brought up Steve Jobs specifically because both the brands we've been discussing, Chick-fil-A and Apple, have benefited from having clear figureheads as leaders. Chick-fil-A’s supporters love the brand’s leaders. People loved Steve Jobs when he was alive, and they haven't really connected with the leadership that followed.

How important is the personal brand behind these brands? How much do you need a face to connect to?

I would argue that Steve Jobs is still the face of Apple, long after he's gone. I'm one of the Steve Jobs fans, an irrational advocate. When my computer's not working, I often say it's because Steve Jobs died. We say it all the time in our office because we were such followers of his. He was such a guru of the industry that it's not possible for anyone to follow in his footsteps and do what he did.

So yes, there's a face that goes with the brand, and there's trust in that person.

We couldn’t agree more, Dan. This has been a really great conversation. Thank you for joining us.

What does irrational advocacy mean for you industry? And are you taking steps to cultivate and harness it? Let us know, join the conversation with marketing leaders around the world on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel.