The HUMAN Brand: Warmth and Competence in the Workplace

Adapted from “The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies” by Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske.

The reality show, Survivor, has proven to be one of the most durable ratings franchises for the CBS network and has spawned an entire industry of “last player standing” reality show knock-offs. What accounts for these shows’ popularity? Perhaps it’s because Survivor and all its imitators offer us insights into the eternal, into the essence of being human, rooted in our prehistoric past.

Social psychologists have deduced that primitive humans developed a primal, unconscious ability to make two specific kinds of judgments with a high degree of speed and sufficient accuracy: What are the intentions of other people toward me? How capable are they of carrying out those intentions? Today, social science research tells us that as much as 82 percent of our judgments can be predicted by these two categories of social perception, which are known as warmth and competence.

We apply warmth and competence judgments in all our relationships, including those involving customers and colleagues. Beginning in June 2010, our collaborative research into warmth and competence has evaluated more than 45 companies and brands in 10 separate studies. When we applied warmth and competence dimensions to Coca-Cola’s customer loyalty model, the predictive validity of the model among Coke’s most fervent drinkers went up by 146 percent. We uncovered the direct correlation between customer loyalty to Hershey’s chocolate and awareness of the philanthropic activities of its parent company. Our studies also pointed to warmth and competence as a major factor in why Johnson & Johnson has been able to maintain its public reputation following several disastrous product failures, while BP and others have not.

The research also reveals that many major companies and executives are perceived as lacking in both warmth and competence, and offers striking evidence for why people hate banks, oil companies, and cable companies so much. The constant pressure for faster and larger profits has steered many companies into violating the normal amounts of warmth and competence we would expect from anyone we deal with.

Mass production, mass distribution, and mass media are all largely responsible for this state of affairs. Prior to the rise of the railroads in the 1880s, people knew their butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers by name. Modern marketing and advertising arose to acclimate people to buying manufactured products made by distant strangers. For more than a hundred years, producers have believed that the mass communication of features, benefits, and a pithy tagline would be enough to yield lasting customer loyalty, without actually having to deal directly individual customers.

But now the Internet, social networks, and mobile communications offer customers near-instantaneous power to pass judgment on how companies and their employees conduct themselves. This has created new expectations of social accountability from business not seen since before the Industrial Revolution. The only companies thriving in this new environment are those that put relationships with customers and employees first in all their dealings. Smaller companies such as Honest Tea, Panera Bread, Lululemon, and Chobani yogurt are beating out bigger competitors by building reputations for warmth and competence through online communications and direct community outreach.

If putting customers’ or employees’ needs before your own sounds expensive and unprofitable, it’s not. Sprint, for instance, in 2012 was able to pull off the highest single-quarter price hike in telecom history after investing billions in better customer service and training. Grocers such as Publix and Trader Joe’s are able to avoid issuing costly so-called “loyalty cards” because their high levels of employee engagement and customer service earn them industry-leading profits. When Domino’s Pizza launched a new recipe in late 2009, the CEO apologized in TV commercials that the old recipe hadn’t been very good. His honesty earned such high marks for warmth and competence that Domino’s in 2010 enjoyed the largest single-quarter revenue boost in the history of the fast food industry.

The question “The HUMAN Brand” should raise in your mind is not whether business people are warm and competent. It’s whether they’re perceived that way. Even if they believe they’ve demonstrated warmth and competence to others who are important to them, can they be sure others experience them as such? And what would they be willing to do about it if they learned otherwise?

In order to build a stronger reputation for warmth and competence, we recommend the following three fundamental imperatives for action:

  1. Become more self-aware. Companies and executives that genuinely desire the trust and loyalty of their customers and colleagues need to measure and manage the perceptions of their warmth and competence as diligently as they measure and manage their finances. We’ve created a free and simple tool at that can help with this by quickly and easily solicit anonymous feedback on how others perceive a particular company, brand, or well-known person from a warmth and competence perspective. The resulting feedback will offer you a much better understanding of the changes they will need to make to more reliably earn the trust and loyalty of others.
  2. Embrace significant change. Once they better understand how they are perceived, companies and executives must be willing to align their policies and practices with the warmth and competence expectations of customers. Even if customer or employee perceptions seem mistaken, companies must change their communications approach from one of control, defensiveness, and unresponsiveness to one of receptivity, understanding, and prompt attentiveness.
  3. Fundamentally Shift Priorities. Most of the customer loyalty and employee engagement issues that companies and brands struggle with are rooted in an excess focus on short-term results and shareholder returns. While shareholders deserve a fair return, profits aren’t sustainable when they come at the expense of customers’ best interests. Continued growth and performance requires a fundamental shift in priorities to ensure that all stakeholder interests are well served, especially those of customers and employees.

In this age when social media can make or break reputations around the world in a single day, our capacity to express warmth and competence is among our most precious assets. The most natural and sustainable way to achieve any kind of meaningful success—personal, professional, or commercial—is to earn the lasting loyalty of others by keeping their best interests at the center of everything we do. Doing so doesn’t require that we recklessly disregard our own interests. Rather, it recognizes that our success as humans has always depended on the cooperation and loyalty of others. In that regard, keeping the best interests of others in balance with our own is simply a form of enlightened self-interest.

Adapted from “The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies, by Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske.” For more information, visit

Chris Malone (Philadelphia, PA) is managing partner of Fidelum Partners, a research-based consulting and professional services firm that helps clients achieve sustained customer loyalty and business performance. As a consultant and keynote speaker, Malone has worked with hundreds of senior executives in organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to start-up and non-profits. He has more than 20 years of sales, marketing, consulting, and organizational leadership experience. Malone was chief marketing officer at Choice Hotels International and senior vice president of marketing at ARAMARK Corporation, and has held senior marketing and sales positions at leading organizations including the Coca-Cola Company, the National Basketball Association, and Procter & Gamble. Malone holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland at College Park and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Susan T. Fiske (Princeton, NJ) is Eugene Higgins Professor, Psychology and Public Affairs, at Princeton University. She investigates social cognition—especially groups’ images and the emotions they create—at cultural, interpersonal, and neuroscientific levels. She is author of more than 300 publications and winner of numerous scientific awards, including election to the National Academy of Science. Most recently, she has edited “Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in the Courtroom” (2008), the “Handbook of Social Psychology” (2010, 5/e), the “Sage Handbook of Social Cognition” (2012), and “Facing Social Class: How Societal Rank Influences Interaction” (2012). Currently she is an editor of “Annual Review of Psychology,” “Science,” and “Psychological Review.” Fiske has written two upper-level texts: “Social Cognition” (2013, 4/e) and “Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology” (2014, 3/e). Sponsored by a Guggenheim, her 2011 Russell-Sage-Foundation book is “Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us.” Fiske holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and honorary doctorates from the Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, and Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands.


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