What is brand evangelism? Brand evangelism looks like customers standing in line for hours to buy an iPhone (even when they have a perfectly good one from last year). It’s people talking and posting about their Apple products, Lululemon pants, or Patagonia outdoor gear as aspects of their personalities and identities—the way some people talk about their favorite team or musical group. Brand evangelism is when someone is so in love with your product quality, style, customer service, or values that they literally spread the good news about you every chance they get.
This is known as evangelism marketing, and it can be priceless. But earning that kind of brand trust and enthusiasm doesn't come without a lot of investment. So how can you create a culture of brand evangelists? Why do some companies have them and others don’t, and how do you become the next company to boast strong consumer-brand relationships? Some of it can be chalked up to luck, timing, and a certain je ne sais quoi—but customer loyalty is generally earned by employing smart strategies and building excellent customer experiences.
A customer can become a brand evangelist for a few different reasons. One reason might be that they find something about the product genuinely exciting. Or perhaps the product solved a problem—think about Marie Kondo and how she inspired legions to clean their homes by giving customers a method for decluttering. Alternatively, a company's service could be so amazing that it left the customer feeling like they actually forged a bond with your brand during the interaction. Often, evangelism happens because something about your company resonates with some part of the customer's own identity.
Brand evangelism speaks to a consumer’s identity
“Self-signaling,” a concept in behavioral economics, is when we take specific actions to reinforce ideas about ourselves. Each time we purchase a home cleaning product or a pair of shoes, or technology from a brand that represents something we admire, we reassure ourselves that we, too, share those qualities.
There are a few reasons that some people are naturally suited to brand evangelism.
Being a maven: A maven is someone who knows things others don’t—rendering them special. Unlike a brand ambassador, who may be incentivized by the brand to spread the word, a brand maven is intrinsically motivated because they like telling people in their social circle about new or exclusive things. Perhaps the maven has discovered a brand with amazing promotions only for loyal customers, or a brand whose products are perceived to be “elite” or “underground.” By being the first in one’s social circle to be 'in the know,' the maven's identity as an “early adopter,” who sets the trends rather than following them, is enforced.
Being discerning: People may become evangelists for a brand that is seen as clearly superior to others. This perception is enhanced when it seems the product is also scarce. In this case, the brand evangelist is doing others a favor by tipping them off before all the good stuff is gone but also signaling that they have discerning tastes.
Being values-driven: If a company is clear about its values, it is likely to attract evangelists with similar values. This is true whether the value is sustainability or frugality; conservation or conservatism. One of the early values-based companies customers evangelized was TOMS Shoes, which gave one free pair of shoes away to a child in an impoverished area for each pair a customer purchased. Now the company donates 30 percent of its profits for “grassroots good.” So a customer who evangelizes Tom’s shoes communicates who they are from a style standpoint and also their altruistic nature. Many more values-based companies have emerged in recent decades and for some evangelists, the opportunity to be associated with those companies is the key to their evangelism.
Who can be a brand evangelist?
Technically, anyone can be a brand evangelist but the most likely groups to evangelize your company include employees and customers.
Employees make great brand evangelists, if they are, in fact, in love with your company. You can incentivize employees to evangelize your products. But it’s far more effective to weave purpose and passion into the company culture. Here are a few ideas for how to do so:
- If it makes sense, make your product available for employee use so they love (and can help improve) the product—and not just the paycheck.
- Have a shared organizational purpose and live it in every facet of your organization from hiring to supply chain to storefront. Make sure employees engage with it daily in some way. Humans are meaning-driven and we’re likely to talk about what is meaningful to us.
- Listen to employee feedback about the company and product and incorporate that feedback into operations.
- Consider hiring or appointing a chief evangelist to keep brand evangelism an area of focus.
Employees have the opportunity to be an evangelist with friends and family, but also at conferences, employment sites, and other places where potential customers or hires might receive the benefit of their enthusiastic support.
Customers make the best brand evangelists. And you don't want just one—you want hordes. You want each loyal customer talking about your product with friends, family, and co-workers on forums, review sites, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (where regular media might see the discussion and begin to talk about you, too). Again, you can offer rewards for brand loyalty, but it's not the same as having brand evangelists do it naturally.
How do you create brand evangelists?
People do not become evangelists for companies, products, or services that don't stand out among their competition; they become evangelists for companies that do something differently. People became evangelists for Starbucks because, well, it was Starbucks. It was the chic, hipster, European coffee house for intellectuals and liberals that did things differently. Then Starbucks became so popular that it was no longer elite, which is when the mavens start looking for alternatives. Often, the alternative is to embrace things that are perceived as exquisitely common—dive bars, hot dogs. This set the stage for the battle between Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Founded 20 years before Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts had always been an everyman (or woman) donut shop. But starting in the early 2000s, Dunkin' decided to focus on growing its coffee business and went after Starbucks with a commercial about the “Fritalian” required at Starbucks versus Dunkin’s ‘good ol’ English.’ This was just the fodder that some mavens were looking for. Plus there were plenty of other people who just liked not feeling intimidated by a coffee place. The battle between the Dunkin' evangelists and the Starbucks evangelists still rages.
A company that currently has many evangelists is Rihanna’s Fenty beauty line. As stated by Vogue UK: “From unrealistic beauty ideals to the blatant lack of representation reflected in campaigns and product offerings, the beauty industry’s relationship with diversity was problematic at best. The messaging—essentially that “if you don’t fit an age-old Eurocentric ideal of beauty, you are not welcome”—was the white elephant in the room of a tone-deaf business. Fenty Beauty didn’t just address this, it blew the conversation wide open.”
If your product isn’t revolutionary, then something else—your marketing, your service, your packaging, your values—must be in order to gain brand evangelists and foster the consumer-brand relationship. It should address a felt need, an issue in the current zeitgeist, without jumping on the bandwagon.
Creating true brand evangelism at scale isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would do it. But putting enough time, energy, and focus on what truly stands out about your company, and what customers really love about your products or services, is a productive exercise, whether or not you become the next media darling.