Controversy thrusts brands and their leaders into the public spotlight. Here’s how they can win consumers’ hearts by personifying human attributes instead of playing the PR game.

Love them, hate them, never heard of them — chances are Porter Airlines has snuck into your newsfeed at some point over the last few weeks.

If passed by Toronto city council, Porter’s proposal to extend the runway and fly jets in/out of Billy Bishop Airport will expand the airline’s route network significantly.

Headlines have centred around Porter CEO Robert Deluce and a public relations war with residents opposed to a longer runway and the environmental impacts of jets. One community-led group, NoJetsTO, has garnered support and signatures from more than 14,000 Torontonians, arguing that jets will irreversibly damage the airport’s Toronto Island location. Following council’s April 1 decision, it doesn’t look like the issue will get resolved any time soon. Councillors voted unanimously to continue negotiations with Porter for at least a year.

Divisive issues and controversies shine a light on brand leaders in a way that consumers don’t see on an everyday basis. That new exposure to the people running a company actually presents a unique opportunity to demonstrate what a brand is all about — a key tool for establishing authentic customer loyalty, says Chris Malone, consultant, keynote speaker and founder of Fidelum Partners.

Divisive issues and controversies present a unique opportunity to demonstrate what a brand is all about — a key tool for establishing authentic customer loyalty.

Benevolence or Browbeating?

When it announced its plan to bring jets to Billy Bishop in 2013, the airline launched a special website to encourage consumers to get onboard. Through the website, 40,000 people have backed Porter’s plans online and more than 17,500 have sent letters of support to City Hall.

Last month, Porter created a Facebook poll on new travel destinations that prompted respondents to write their city councillor in support of the jet plan. Called manipulative by some, Porter argued the poll was simply intended to show people the benefits of the airport expansion.

But do the focus on short-term benefits and a push to put plans into place quickly leave consumers distrustful of Porter’s greater intentions?

Pulling Back the Curtain

As Chris explores in his groundbreaking book The Human Brand, people perceive brands as if they were tribes or social groups. The more we know about the leader of that group, the more insight we have into what we can expect from the rest of the tribe. How we see brand leaders interact with others gives us an indication of how they would treat as customers.

“When controversies happen, it’s an opportunity of a moment of truth where that executive gets thrust into the spotlight and we are going to see what they are made of,” says Chris. “This is an opportunity for people to see what Porter is all about: who is leading that group, what their priorities are.”

“This is an opportunity for people to see what Porter is all about: who is leading that group, what their priorities are.”

This is important because people are very sensitive to the intentions of others, Chris found in his research for The Human Brand, and we are hardwired to make decisions based on those intentions. Brands motivated by a higher purpose that keep the best interests of their customers – not profit – at its core are those that enjoy authentic brand loyalty.

People Over Profits

“It’s certainly reasonable for a company to expect to profit, but before we feel we can trust and become loyal to a company, we often want to see them demonstrate loyalty to us first,” says Chris. “We want to see: are you willing to put my best interests first and things that have no immediate benefit to you in the short term as a demonstration that you really do care about my best interests?”

“We want to see: are you willing to put my best interests first and things that have no immediate benefit to you in the short term as a demonstration that you really do care about my best interests?”

Chris points to the iconic example of Apple, which has consistently shown it’s not just about consumer electronics — it’s about thinking differently and changing the world. Google is another great example with its motivation to give access to the world’s information. Humans are driven to connect with a company’s ethos, its “why.”

Putting Consumer Interests Ahead of Shareholder Interests

Therein lies the key to navigating the tricky divide between shareholder interests and profit with what’s best for you customers and the community you operate within, he says. Brands that put the customer first and show their human face by being more transparent actually get far more in the long term than if they solely care about profits in the short term.

Brands that put the customer first and show their human face by being more transparent actually get far more in the long term than if they solely care about profits in the short term.

Domino’s Pizza is an excellent example of the power of showing a brand’s human side in the face of difficulty, says Chris. At a time when other companies were cutting costs and laying off employees to generate a profit, Domino’s reinvested in its product and launched a campaign to apologize for past mistakes. Televised during the 2009 NFL playoffs, the ads humbly invited consumers to give the brand another chance.

“Domino’s really showed vulnerability and humanity, which is unthinkable from a business standpoint but totally normal from a human standpoint,” says Malone. The response was exceptional and shareholder value has tripled in the last three years.

Porter’s Opportunity to Enhance its Reputation

Porter now has an opportunity to show its human face and start building relationships with those on all sides of the issue, says Chris.

While the big-bad-corporation-fighting-with-the-community-and-devastating-the-environment narrative is one heard time and again, Porter can flip that script by demonstrating that it’s willing to be balanced, objective and considerate of the interests of others.

“When we see a company like Porter act or conduct themselves in a way with another group, we take that as an indication of how they would treat us,” says Chris. “They have a real opportunity to actually enhance their reputation through this — the way they handle themselves could actually leave the opponents pretty respectful and supportive of them.”

“When we see a company like Porter act or conduct themselves in a way with another group, we take that as an indication of how they would treat us.”

Slowing the approval process down, being transparent and building relationships will successfully bring long-term success over short-term interests.

“I think they can say, ‘You know what? Let’s not rush’,” says Chris. “If (the expansion) doesn’t happen until 2016, it’s not the difference between 2015 and 2016 that makes a difference. It’s the fact that they’ll be able to do it for the next 10 or 15 years that makes the difference.”

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