09/11/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

What's More Important to Your Business?

What's more important to your business: deep behavioral analytics of your customers' every engagement with you, which are then fed with all the appropriate brand messaging linked to your ROI and internal processes, or employees who, in their own day-to-day behavior, act in compassionate, kind, caring ways toward your customers, perhaps ignoring the very analytics, ROI, and process that you think define your brand?

Bill Taylor asked that question in a post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, in a post titled "It's More Important to Be Kind than Clever." This is a must-read for all, as its message resonates way beyond business, way beyond technology and analytics, way beyond ROI, and way, way beyond how many look at branding. In fact, I believe the insight is core to our very existence as humans, and it's a message that gets lost in our frenetic, frantic belief that somehow digital social connectivity has changed the DNA of our deepest personal interactions.

Taylor shares a beautiful, simple story of a manager at a Panera restaurant whose seemingly small act of compassion toward a very sick woman delivered a swell of Facebook responses and the usual following swell of "expert" commentary on the power of social media and "virtual word of mouth" to boost a company's reputation. No doubt this mini-case will be used by some to justify marketing spending, and by others to "prove" brand power. But Taylor takes a counterview, suggesting that there is "the hunger among customers, employees, and all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents terms. In a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of compassion and connection that remind us what it means to be human."

I will go a step further. I can relate "liking" a company/brand itself to more than a commerce case and go back years and years to prove that point: Ever see the movie Miracle on 34th Street? Macy's, a U.S.-based retailer, latched on to the compassionate image and turned itself into the brand that represents the "true spirit" of Christmas, and some 150 years later it is still successful, with a new movie and a parade that is still viewed around the world.

However, the point here is well beyond branding. Of course, you can make the case that the Macy's brand encourages that kind of behavior from its employees, that its website is all about caring and little acts of the same, and that its marketing efforts are boosted by that behavior. But it is the employee that makes the difference, not the brand. And I believe we are all craving human acts that seem somehow revolutionary in their execution (think The Hunger Games: "They needed someone to set the whole thing in motion. They needed you.") that help us remember who and what we are: people, not postings in some social network.

It amazes me that so many still don't get it. As I have written before, social media and "virtual word of mouth" (as opposed to real word of mouth... come on!) exist because we are human, because our DNA demands it, because it is what makes us the species we are. Technology is just an amplifier and an efficiency mechanism. And brands are stories we tell and share. The best last; the rest fade into oblivion.

Panera was lucky. You cannot program compassion; you cannot create business rules for sympathetic response; you cannot make kindness a corporate program driven by ROI. You either encourage the right behavior or you don't, and you hope that you have hired the types of people who don't just represent your brand but the best that there is in all of us. Imagine what a better world this would be if the behavior of one wonderful person in a small store somewhere was viewed as SOP (standard operating procedure) for the human race instead of a major marketing coup (and personally I find the fact that it isn't to be a sad commentary on who and what we have become).

Two quotations to end today:

  • "One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion" (Simone de Beauvoir).

    Read as: Nothing has value unless we attribute value to the life of others.

  • "Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive" (Dalai Lama).

    Read as: Not even brands can survive.

The message? It seems pretty simple to me: Value is driven by human passion, not by digital contact.

So I thank Bill Taylor for writing this piece, and I thank my dear friend and teacher Sam K. for having called it to my attention.

What do you think?