Recently, Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has been in the news for a variety of reasons including the Mi3 (their last model) being a smash hit, the company becoming the 5th largest handset maker in the world and most interestingly, becoming the target of ire for Apple fanboys around the world.

The last bit would come as a little bit of a puzzle for the uninitiated. You see, Xiaomi is a phone company that is unabashedly ‘inspired’ by Apple and its products. Its soon to be launched model – the Mi4 – is close to being an iPhone 5S clone, ditto with its new tablet and the iPad Mini. 

While Samsung ended up being dragged to court by Apple for patent infringements that it allegedly committed, Xiaomi is facing a trial by fire in the public arena even before Apple can consider a lawsuit against them. Thousands of irate Apple fans slammed the ‘blatant copying’ of the iPhone’s design and features in the Mi4, the similarities in Xiaomi’s CEO Lei Jun and Apple founder Steve Jobs’ sense of dressing, and the ‘One more thing’ slide that Jun dared to use in his recent product launch presentation.

This furor is testimony to Apple’s strength as a brand that not just inspires loyalty, but often inspires fierce protectiveness and fanaticism about itself among users. That is what true brand ambassadors look like. The best part? You don’t even have to pay them to defend your brand in public!

While many brands come close to brand loyalty, very few achieve brand ambassadorship from their users. The ones that do have some secrets that the rest of us need to learn.

1. A Product or Service That Is Worth Raving About

This is the most fundamental aspect of a brand that inspires mad mob mentality. Your product better be good enough for people to queue up outside stores for hours on end to get their hands on them, else all you’ll end up with is yet another customer, not a brand evangelist.

Nothing exemplifies my point better than the example I began with. Apple and its path breaking products have built legions of fans owing purely to their superior design, functionality and user friendliness. The iPod was not the first Mp3 player in the world, nor was the iPhone the first touch phone. But both products redefined their categories with their revolutionary design and user interfaces that left competition biting the dust.

2. Amazing, Write-Home-About-It Customer Service

Your product may be the bee’s knees, but if your customers are treated like they don’t matter, guess what? Soon your brand will no longer matter to them. Customer service begins with sound corporate policies but the final mile depends on your team. How they deal with the customer can make or mar the service experience.

Don’t leave your customer service to chance. Using project collaboration tools like WorkZone and a small-business CRM such as Zoho CRM, you can share detailed documentation with not just customer care team, but all your customer facing functions on how to deal with every possible customer problem. For snags and issues that are not covered in your service guides, allow your teams the flexibility the make judgment calls as per the needs of the situation. More often than not, they’ll not disappoint you.

With the cost of automated customer care systems pegged at 35 cents per call vs. a real customer care representative costing about $7.50 for an average call, most brands train their customer care reps to keep it snappy and short with their customers on phone calls. Zappos, however, is made of something else altogether. In 2012, Zappos made history with the longest customer care call ever. At 10 hours and 28 minutes, a single Zappos representative guided a customer through a complicated service problem and completed a successful customer service call that led to the sale of a pair of Ugg boots. Talk about dedication!

3. The Relationship Begins After The Sale

Many brands are just glad that a visitor converts into a customer and do precious little to make sure that they stay behind and keep coming back for more. A truly iconic brand however, understands that a sale is not the end of a customer-brand relationship; it’s the beginning.

Going back to Zappos for reference, a young man who had the shoes he bought on Zappos delivered to the wrong address, called their customer care for help. Needless to say, he was blown away by what he received. The customer care rep listened patiently to his problem (he was the best man at a wedding but had no shoes for the big day!) and agreed to send him a fresh pair via overnight delivery to the wedding location. She proceeded to upgrade the customer to a VIP account, giving him free shipping on all future orders. She then upped the game another notch: she issued a 100% refund on the shoes that were delivered wrongly and ended up with a customer who became a Zappos fanboy for life!

4. Go Beyond The Call of Duty

A brand that fosters fierce brand loyalty is one that takes its customers and their voices very, very seriously. This means that they don’t just get the basics right, they go beyond the expected and knock the socks off their customers, winning their approval for life.

British supermarket brand Sainsbury’s demonstrated how going beyond the call of duty sets apart the good from the great. Three year old Lily Robinson, on a visit to her local Sainsbury’s store, noticed that the patterns on their Tiger Bread actually looked more like the markings on a giraffe than a tiger. Lily wrote to Sainsbury’s asking them about this fundamental anomaly and pointed out that the bread should ideally be called Giraffe Bread.

Wonder of wonders... Sainsbury’s responded with a warm message acknowledging Lily’s observation and enclosing a complimentary gift card with the reply. The incident soon went viral on social media and the rest of the internet, prompting Sainsbury to go ahead and actually rebrand Tiger Bread as Giraffe Bread.


5. Learn Who Your Super Fans Are and Reward Them

It’s one thing to hope that all your customers turn into ardent fans of your brand and another thing to accept the reality that even the biggest brands in the business only have some many truly zealous fans. A smart brand is one that recognizes this fact, zeroes in on their ‘super fans,’ and provides them a megaphone to sing their praises.

Coca Cola does a fantastic job of promoting its super fans in various ways. Their unofficial artist in residence – Steve Penley – does stunning colorful artworks centered on Coca Cola and all its assorted imagery over the years. Coke showcases his work gleefully across the country. It even commissions Penley for bespoke art pieces for special occasions – talk about giving importance to a fan!

Besides Penley’s beautiful artwork, Coke invites fans to share their favorite ‘Moments of Happiness’ in the form of pictures and showcases them on a dedicated section on their homepage

6. Be Your Bad, Quirky, Gremlin-y Self

It’s good to go by the book and play nice with your customers. But it’s even better to infuse some personality into your customer interactions and let the quirky side of your brand show once in a while. It comes as a refreshing change and remains on customers’ minds much longer than you’d imagine.

Netflix encourages its customer care teams to be natural, as opposed to mechanical and scripted, in their customer conversations. This example of a hilarious customer interaction leaves behind an amused customer who has his problem fixed instantly while being converted into a Netflix fan in the course of a single customer service interaction.

Make Their Hearts Sing

Let’s be realistic. There are hundreds of thousands of brands in the world. Not each one stirs emotions in a customer’s heart. Not many have loyal customer followings. Even fewer have obsessive fans that will name their kids after their favorite brands (Pepsi, Ikea or Wrigleys, anyone?).

But achieving this mythical level of brand loyalty – where your customers do your selling for you – is definitely not impossible as exemplified by the brands we discussed. While there’s no saying what will be the next big thing that catches customers’ fancy tomorrow, it’s a great start to take a leaf from the books of these super successful brands and hope to spawn a few brand ambassadors of your own.