“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The powerful words of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who controversially protested against police brutality in America by refusing to stand during the national anthem, used by Nike in an advertising campaign.

Nike recently celebrated thirty years of their legendary ‘Just Do it’ slogan with an ad using Kaepernick, Serena Williams and a slew of other inspirational athletes talking about the power of self-esteem and belief. What’s remarkable is that at no point during the commercial did anyone mention their preference for Nike. They didn’t draw comparisons between Nike and its competitors. They didn’t talk about the soles, the weight, the structure, the quality. But they sold the hell out of those shoes. That’s the raw power of hitching the brandwagon to customers’ beliefs, feelings and aspirations rather than competing on features or price.

It’s not a new concept at all – Steve Jobs decades ago was tying the Apple brand to consumer emotions. Even today, when many electronics’ brands have significantly narrowed the quality and features gap between their own products and that of Apple, there are still crowds sleeping in front of iStores when a new model is launched. The marketing (and the product) has made us feel something when we’re holding the latest iPhone in our hands that we simply don’t feel with other brands.

After the Nike Kaapernick advert aired, Twitter exploded with angry tweets featuring customers burning their Nikes or cutting the Nike swoosh from their socks – a little bit silly, if you consider that these customers are spiting the brand by burning items that they’ve already purchased. Diving into such an intensely politicised space was a risk for Nike but one that the brand was willing to take. They not only generated a ton of free publicity but for every person who burned their Nikes, there were others positively drawn to the brand.

While Nike got it right, others get this kind of thing spectacularly wrong – Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad being the prime example. If you’re going to sell your brand based on your customers’ feelings, you have to understand them intimately. You have to know their aspirations, values, their language. You have to move closer to them.

You have to start by listening to your customers carefully. Finding out how they relate to your brand both functionally and emotionally.

Then you need to make sure that everything you do with your product works for them. At Gumtree we live our own brand. We use it in every way that we can. When we look for suppliers – from caterers to venues – we use our own site. We create incentives for staff to use the site, we urge employees to adopt and promote our own customers and their businesses. In the process, we’ve managed to fix errors we didn’t even know we were making. We scrapped innovations that we were spending time developing but our customers clearly didn’t care about.

It’s vital that you know what you stand for and what your values are. And to make sure every single employee knows, respects and implements their job according to those values. There can’t be any gaps.

You have to make sure your intrinsic and extrinsic marketing elements match up. You can’t simply tell customers how to feel, you have to engineer it by making sure that all elements – from the branding to the website to the signatures – match the promises and design of your above-the-line marketing.

Lastly, you have to deliver. Too many brands promote their ethics and values and are left red-faced when some of their actions that are contrary to their values are exposed in public.

If a customer ties emotion to your brand, they’re much more loyal and less likely to switch due to functional factors like price increases or shifts in the market. So brands can play on customers’ emotions but they should never overplay their hand.

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