Yep,  you read that right. And by no means am I dissing the sensitive and crucial work done by hostage negotiators.

I watched a few episodes of ‘Flashpoint’ a little while back, and was caught up by the way Sgt. Greg Parker poured himself into every negotiation, his primary focus on listening before making demands.

Then I found this article on hostage negotiation techniques and was surprised to find that the five key points to an effective negotiation are almost identical to good branding.

Here’s the five-point list:

  1. Active Listening: Listen to their side and make them aware you’re listening.
  2. Empathy: You get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel.
  3. Rapport: Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you.
  4. Influence: Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action.
  5. Behavioral Change: They act.

Each of these steps correlate to stages in the way that we can develop and promote our brands. Why do these steps work? Because they resonate with the deep, primal aspects of being human. We want to be listened to, understood, to create connections and take action.

Who’s the ‘hostage’ here? It’s your client’s trust, wallet and time. Your brand is the crisis negotiator, and your job is to secure the hostage-taker’s attention long enough for them to lower their defenses and take interest in what you have to say.

Make the wrong step, and you could lose them. Do it right, and it’s the best possible outcome; you don’t win a crisis, you actually make a new friend who will help you with the next situation.

What is Branding?

Too often in developing your company, you put in crazy numbers of hours and overtime trying to get it off the ground.

More often than not, inventors get so focused on grinding out the gears, building the finest flexible wing and tailoring in-flight seats, that they forget they’re building an airplane. The core reason for an airplane is to fly people somewhere. But there’s an additional core; to enjoy the journey, use the airline again, and encourage their friends to use it.

Working too hard, or without focus, can  cause you to lose sight on what your branding really is, deep down.

Branding is a message, your message, expressed through elements like logos and copy. It’s branding that crafts a distinct voice for your service, so that when someone sees your visuals, or your effects, they remember your story.

Branding is not your marketing. Marketing is what you do with how your brand interprets your service or product or any need-fulfillment.

Branding is not just what you look like. It’s far more than the placement of your logo, your slogan and how you integrate your color scheme.

Branding is everything that you are, everything you want to be, everything you say about yourself, and everything your visitors say about you.

Brands are like persons.

And people relate to your brand the way they do to another person. That’s why you have stop sweating the details, and focus on the overarching pieces of your brand story.

1. Active Listening

Listen to their side and make them aware you’re listening.

Everyone hates the know-it-all. At least, no one wants to be friends with the snob who has all the answers, and doesn’t pay attention to anything you have to say.

It’s the same in hostage negotiations. The first stage is to defuse the situation and show that you’re actually, actively listening to what they have to say, that you’re not dismissing them. Making that connection on a personal level gives them a reason to pause.

A good brand, and a good company works hard to cultivate an attitude of attention and listening before suggesting any answers. It’s only by listening that we learn, and we can’t really help anyone, or convince someone that they need our product, unless we’ve taken the time to learn about their needs first.

Doing your homework ahead of time saves stress on everyone and every stage of the brand process. Talk to your clients before you sell them anything. Ask them where they’re hurting, why they’re making this or that decision, and what they’re currently doing to deal with it.

Read through comments and threads by your target audience, see what their complaints are. Learn from other people in your industry about what’s working and not for them.

Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Often when people talk to each other, they don’t listen attentively. They are often distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else.

2. Empathy

You get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel.

Behind the scenes in a crisis situation, investigators and analysts work fast to uncover anything they can about the hostage-taker and the victims. Anything they can learn about history, influences, background or recent events is critical material to the negotiator. It helps them to understand what’s driving the hostage-taker’s decisions, and why they’ve opted for such drastic measures. More often than not, their actions stem from a source of unmet pain or real desperation.

Your brand doesn’t exist unless it’s answering a need. Unless you have a clear understanding of that need, you won’t be able to write or talk coherently about it.

The good news is you’ve done loads of hard work, and you’re armed with all the leads, information and research you’ve done. The battle is almost half over.

Your service or product is answering a real need. Those are always the kinds of products that do well.

Inventing something you think the world will need shows that you haven’t done any listening. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t sell.

Unless you can empathise with your client audience, you’ll never be able to truly make a connection. You won’t be able to show that you know what they’re talking about, and how you’ll be able to help them.

3. Rapport

Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you.

Now that you’ve shown that you understand why this hostage situation is happening, and worked hard to defuse the tension and try not to overwhelm with ego or aggression, the hostage-taker is in a position to lower their defences, and perhaps start to trust you.

For branding, this kind of rapport can translate into seeing your ad, liking your sign, or clicking your promotion to learn more.

If they did, then kudos. It’s working. They’ve taken an initial step toward you, allowing themselves to trust you with a tentative, timorous interest.

A lot of conventional marketing focuses on creating brand awareness, instead of brand connection. Brand awareness is like throwing flyers out an airplane, hoping that someone will find one somewhere.

This style of thinking emerged from the growth of the great, faceless, economic empires that dominated much of the twentieth century. Before that, business operated on a local, communal, and often on a more personal level. In trying to reach more ‘consumption units’, production was standardized, models developed to handle mass distribution, and a rapid disconnect set in between the moguls at the top and the consumers at the bottom.

Today, the 21st century is truly coming into its own as our ability to connect, weigh in and provide influence online is changing the economy. Our lives online has globalized the community and relationships that we used to enjoy in the smaller villages. Brands can no longer act with impunity; the most successful ones show that they listen to individuals, take action quickly and work hard to keep their trust.

Building and maintaining that rapport is key, and that’s what brand connection is. Think of popular brands today; AirBnB, Starbucks, Apple. They each have a distinct ‘feel’ and culture. They have each created their own relationship with their users.

That relationship started the day they found a problem that needed fixing that only they could handle in their unique way. They didn’t airdrop ‘awareness’. They found ways to get it into the hands of the people who wanted it most.

As you can see, that kind of model is guaranteed to have a high ROI.

4. Influence

Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action.

In this hostage situation, perhaps they’ve lowered the weapon, and they’re agreeing with you that this doesn’t have to end this way. There’s always a choice to things differently, without anyone getting hurt.

As you can see, getting to this stage is a hard road for any brand. But if you’ve done it right, all parties involved will be happy to keep going.

You’ve proven to them that  you understand the need, you feel the pain, you’re just as angry as they are, or just as committed to sharing that joy with others. You’ve done this firstly by getting to know their needs, and then building your communications around clear statements that show you understand.

Instead of leading your ads or your marketing with statements of your own awesomeness, you start by putting on their shoes and showing them that you’ve walked their mile too.

Impressed that someone empathizes with their needs as much as you do, they slow down an extra minute to hear what you have to say.

Granted, if you shout loud enough, or drop enough flyers, folk will also slow down to listen. But that’s not creating a relationship. They didn’t want to be there, and they’ll just as easily leave.

At this point, you’ve now created a dynamic where you can provide guidance, help or influence. You can show them that your product, your service, or whatever you offer is exactly what they need, or will fulfill an important aspect of what it is they’re trying to accomplish.

And that’s key. You can’t lose sight of a crucial fact; your brand doesn’t exist for itself. It exists to provide a service, to help your clients/users/patients do something that they need to do.

You’ve found a way to insert yourself into their story, into how they’re living their lives. If done right, they will no longer see you and your brand, they will only see how they will be able to accomplish an important goal. And they won’t be able to see a way to get there without your help.

You could be offering counseling, a flight, or a smart device. Folk do buy Apple because they’re buying into the culture, but more importantly, because Apple has become background noise to getting stuff done easily.

5. Behavioral Change

They act.

With trust gained by listening, and a rapport created through empathy, the negotiator can influence the hostage-taker to change their minds, and hopefully defuse the situation safely.

Everything you’ve done has been to get your users to this point; to provide them with enough material and inspiration to choose you, choose your service.

It’s always a big deal for a brand to have a client choose them; an internal dialog has been completed inside their minds where they’re convinced you’re their answer.

As a sale, your work is done.

As a brand, you’re never really done.

Now that together you’ve built a relationship built on trust and rapport, why should it die? Here’s where it’s better than a hostage negotiation, because ideally, you’ve made a new friend.

With your new friend, it’s time to start the next leg of your journey together. Where it goes, who knows. But it’s a friendship built on the same principles of listening, rapport, empathy, influence and action.

And this dynamic should go both ways. If you’re listening to your user base, then you’ll always be looking for ways to act in their best interests, provide them more options or better service, and continually refine your methodology.

If they’re listening to you and trust you, they’ll be using your help to change their lives, to improve their workflow or how they have fun, to deepen their ability to impact their environments.

A good brand doesn’t stand apart like a statue in the town square, disconnected from daily life, projecting its own values and ideas over the heads of everyone walking by. A good brand is a friendly shopkeeper who gets to know each person by name so that he can make them an offer they can’t refuse.

And there you go. Follow these steps and you’ll have rescued the most important thing in the universe. It’s not money. It’s trust.

In today’s media-driven, ad-lambasted and hyper-connected world, trust is the only currency worth trading in. Trust is an internal thing that inspires people to stop and listen.

And they’ll only listen if you can prove that you’ve listened first.

Header image Copyright CBS | IMDB

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