Can a Brand Really be Thankful?

Brands aren’t people. But this time of year, they love to pretend they are.

Matt Herlihy
Nov 21, 2019 · 5 min read

Whatever our relationship with a brand — as a consumer, customer, advocate, or all of the above — we’ve heard the phrase countless times: Thank you for your business. It’s become a response so perfunctory that it barely registers anymore. We only notice when it’s absent.

Many of us are much the same when expressing gratitude to our fellow humans. Our pleasantries are so automated, the sentiment carries little meaning. It often takes an occasion like Thanksgiving to wrest out a real profession of gratitude, in between bouts of gluttony.

Yet on an emotional level, gratitude is powerful. When experiencing it, even for a fleeting moment, we’re briefly incapable of feeling the darker forces often in our minds, from yearning to discord. We recontextualize our lives, reminding ourselves that what we have is enough.

When such a strong emotion is available, brands want to get involved. If they can be present in times of gratitude, they hope we’ll associate their wares with that feeling. Because they want to build emotional pathways in us toward their ultimate goals: choice and loyalty.

So particularly at this time of year — during the calm before the commercial storm to come — it’s natural for companies to express their own gratitude toward us, their constituency. But can a brand convey such a uniquely human expression in an authentic way?

It won’t be for lack of trying.

Brands are not human, you see — no more than the corporate entities they represent. But they want desperately to be treated that way.

They make promises, forge values, and evoke higher purposes. They craft a voice that’s relatable, create a look that fits our aspirations, and offer inspiring calls to action at every turn. They communicate with most of us more often than our loved ones do — sometimes, in a way that feels like they know us even better.

Intellectually, we know it’s an illusion. A brand is an avatar of a legal structure that’s designed primarily to sell us products and services. While it may personify a higher ideal that stirs our soul, the brand’s ultimate goal is transactional.

Yet even while we recognize the practical aim of brands, we still relate to them emotionally. Research suggests that most consumers respond to brands in much the same way that we perceive, judge, and behave toward our fellow humans. Which, of course, translates to the purchase interest and loyalty that companies crave.

To further complicate matters, brands are becoming more authentically human beyond the structures of buying and selling. While a brand itself isn’t a human, it is designed and brought to life by real people. Our interactions with them — particularly when receiving an in-person service — is a truly human experience. A brand may have devised it, but a person delivered it.

Behind the scenes, good brands work hard to instill a clear ethos in the people who represent them. They recognize that precise behaviors are essential for keeping the promises they make to their customers — a practice that’s not only good for their business, but critical to their survival.

So even while the brand remains an artifice, it becomes an engine for authentic human impact. And when an organization is disciplined about building and enforcing such behavior, it amplifies both its appeal and its reach. That soulless corporation may even become capable of a complex emotional expression that transcends the mere commercial.

Like, say, gratitude.

The beauty of true thankfulness is that it removes us from our inherent self-interest, even if just for a moment. It shifts our perspective away from ourselves and toward the good that surrounds us. Sadly, this is where most brands attempting gratitude fall flat.

The most common example is the purely transactional, when brands offer a modest discount as their “way of saying thanks.” Not only does that lack an emotional tug — it’s purely in service of making a new purchase from them. Hardly a glimpse of the greater good.

Even in grand gestures thanking their customers, most brands make it all about themselves. When Dropbox reached a 500-million-user milestone, it attempted gratitude through a slick infographic. “We wouldn’t be here without you” is a fine sentiment — until we’re subjected to a long scroll of how great the brand considers itself.

Some brands even stretch such gestures into multi-year campaigns, such as Honda Loves You Back. Again, it’s a healthy impulse to express mutual gratitude with your customers. But when the sole unifying idea is how beloved the brand itself is — and fan obsession is rewarded with further self-serving publicity — it can feel one-sided and artificial.

Conversely, brand gratitude can be powerful when it’s authentically aimed at the customer. One campaign by Canada’s TD Bank Group involved “Automatic Thanking Machines” that surprised customers with cash, gifts, and personalized messages of thanks. Sure, TD got plenty of good PR out of the campaign, but its execution arouses genuine emotional results.

So while Canadians may say “sorry” a lot, it seems they also pull off “thank you” quite well.

Perhaps the most effective way for a brand to convey gratitude isn’t a sales promotion or appreciation campaign. Maybe it doesn’t even require a holiday, or a special occasion of any sort.

True gratitude begins by respecting our time and getting the basics right, all year round. Hand-written notes are lovely, but most of us would trade them for the ability to reach a real person instead of a bot. Aligning with a cause is admirable, but we’d rather you invest more in products and services that deliver without fail.

Beyond our time, though, we want brands to respect our intelligence — and sometimes that means standing up for an idea that’s bigger than mere transactions. When Nike commits to self-expression through a controversial figure who embodies it, that means something. When Dick’s Sporting Goods curtails firearm sales in the wake of tragedy, it sends a real message.

Those moves aren’t explicit plays for gratitude, but they demonstrate that some brands recognize their often awesome power and equate it to responsibility. They show long-term attention to the right side of history, not just short-term earnings calculations. (And in these cases, the companies have found success on both fronts.)

Conventional marketing tactics may achieve an uptick in sales and publicity, but these weightier decisions can yield a far deeper emotional impact. They are not selfless, but they reflect a shared identity between brand and customer, grounded in real ideas. They transcend the purchase, creating a bond that’s deeper and more profound — yes, even more human.

Such strategies are not without their risks, particularly in times of division. But being a successful brand, like being a good person, often requires difficult decisions.

When companies choose to engage with the world on a more meaningful
level — in a manner that supports both their values and those of the people they serve — that conveys gratitude more than any promotion or campaign. That dissolves the boundary between legal entity and personal force. And over time, it earns a sincere response worthy of a fellow human being.

You’re welcome.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us made better by design.

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us made better by design.

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