To be relevant, become family … or at least a friend!

jerry By Jerry Johnson

Over twenty years ago, an upstart phone company (MCI) launched its “Friends and Family” campaign. The program, which could contain up to 20 MCI names, gave customers a discounted rate for calling those “friends and family.” It was an immediate success.

We know because it was modeled by just about every other competitor, including AT&T, who implored us to “reach out … reach out and touch someone.” The someone that they invariably referred to was a grandmother, aunt, sibling or spouse. That is, reach out and touch a friend or a family member.

TodPersonal_Relevanceay it is hard to find any company that doesn’t have some “friends and family” promotion campaign. They take various forms, both online and offline, but the desire is always to be able to tap into someone’s “inner circle” and have them market your product or service to their “friends and family.”

Why were these campaigns so successful?

In part, because contrary to popular wisdom, we are not a “me” culture. We are a “family and friends” culture. Yes, the libraries and best selling lists may be lined with self-help books and advice on how to find personal meaning. But in a recent study, What Americans Value, we examined that element – finding personal meaning – and tested it against a battery of other things people found personally important in their lives. Those included money, meaning, love, health and recognition.

What towered over every element was friends and family. Not only that. What personally mattered most to people was “caring” for friends and family. That is, it wasn’t just the abstract notion of attachment to a clan or a group or a bloodline. It was the idea that we find personal meaning in nurturing and caring for those who matter most to us.

Our study suggests that while we may be a “me” culture on the outside – obsessed with our status, our looks and our oh-so-fragile egos – the more powerful driver of relevance is found in nurturing, specifically nurturing friends and family.

So the interesting question to ask is “who is family?” It could be mom and dad and the family you grew up with. It could be your “office” or “work” family. It could be that “family” that you see everytime you go to yoga class or play golf.

Indeed, the phrase “they’ve become part of the family” may be the most coveted phrase for anyone. It is a phrase that drives personal relevance. Because in becoming part of the ‘family,” one has the possibility of becoming more important than self – you become the object of affection and support for an entire group.

There are plenty of lessons here for marketers.

First, avoid the extremes of the completely introspective and self-indulgent. While they clearly strike a chord, it is a chord that is easily trumped. Our study shows the power not only of family but also of caring and compassion.

Second, avoid the other extreme of the global fantasy. While we may “like to teach the world to sing in simple harmony” – we’re much more focused on making sure the ones closest to us, our “family” or “clan,” is protected and cared for.

Finally, figure out how to make your brand, product or service part of an existing “family.” That family need not be the traditional nuclear family. It could be a social family, a work family, a sports family. This is why we have “official sponsors.” “Official sponsors” have the opportunity, over time, to not only sponsor the family but become intrinsically identified with it. Perhaps ever more powerful, show how your brand, product or service enables someone to better care for their friends and family. How does it improve their lives, protect them from harm, expand their joy.

And there is where things begin to stick. Because that is where you get at the heart of being personally relevant.