On being well liked

Studies suggest that likability is the key driver of advertising efficacy, outperforming all other measures as a predictive metric, so, why don’t more brands aim for being liked — a much more realistic goal than being loved.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman believes that being well liked is the most important quality for achieving success in sales:

“Be liked and you will never want. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer.”

For Willy, it’s important to be ‘well liked’ by everyone, especially by people to whom you are trying to sell things. The play’s narrative belies Willy’s beliefs, since he is losing his job and his customers see through his obsession with image. But what if he was right, after all?

Loman’s insights into salesmen would seem to apply to advertising. He says his ultimate satisfaction would be to be ‘remembered’ and ‘loved’, which is how we often assess advertising. But all success is a function of being liked. Indeed, this description of sales seems especially apposite for advertising and brands:

“Walk in with a big laugh. Start off with a couple of good stories to lighten things up. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it — personality always wins the day.”

Innumerable studies suggest that likability is the key driver of advertising efficacy. The classic Advertising Research Foundation’s Copy Research Validity Project tested 35 ‘pre-testing’ methodologies and concluded that one measure, namely likability, outperformed all others as a predictive metric:

no single measure is adequate to calibrate all advertisements; certain measures are more appropriate than others for particular objectives; and that ads that are liked generally outsell those that are not.

The importance of being well liked doesn’t only apply to advertisements, it ladders up to brands.

Being liked seems a more realistic goal than being loved, which too many agencies promise can be achieved by toilet paper or toothpaste. Being liked is, of course, different from being ‘liked’ on Facebook.

Accenture’s Brand Love Index (launched in 2016 but not continued) suggested that “brand love is a science — and [they] have the formula” but for all the otiose statistical methodologies behind the study, which ‘created an algorithm’ to ‘explore feelings for brands’, the most loved brands are overwhelmingly familiar: Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Microsoft.


Regardless, perhaps the behemoths who now monopolize our experiences of media, commerce, content and community aren’t a useful north star for people trying to market shampoo.

But can’t advertising be very successful and still unpopular at the same time? Irritation advertising exists and (unfortunately) seems to work, especially for brands trying to drive recency for infrequent purchases.

Most annoying ads in the UK

Insurance and its comparison sites spring easily to mind, be it GoCompare! (voted most annoying ad of the past 15 years in the UK) and the MoneySuperMarket ads, the most complained about this year. Repetitious, annoying ads, at high frequency, cut through and build top-of-mind awareness, the key objective for a once-a-year purchase.

OK, so advertising can be unpopular and successful — arguably, it’s the wallpaper in between, neither liked nor disliked, that fails to generate any impact — but can brands be both unpopular and successful?

Most hated companies

By survey, Comcast has been the most hated company in the US for years, but its core business is a functional geographic monopoly thanks to aggressive lobbying and its share price performs well accordingly. It may be hated by employees and customers, but it is well liked by politicians and investors. This is key because being well liked can apply to different stakeholders that impact businesses dramatically.

Ask Uber. As Russell Davies pointed out in a prescient Wired article in 2015, Uber bought into the disruption playbook of behaving badly to get results. It treated regulators, drivers, the media and even customers with a lack of empathy bordering on contempt:

“But over the long haul, you need some goodwill in the bank. That sustains a price premium and gets you through bad times. There will be bad times.”

Just being an excellent executor solving a problem isn’t enough.

“It’s not just markets and efficiency, there’s also what people perceive to be decent, and regulators and politics and ‘public opinion’.”

Despite preferring the Uber application, my dislike for the company drives me to use Lyft whenever possible. Despite Londoners clamouring, Uber has just lost its licence in one of its biggest markets. Despite building the world’s most valuable unicorn, Kalanick was forced out as CEO and is being sued by his investors. Maybe he should have listened to Willy Loman and tried to be a bit more likable.

Ultimately, of course, Willy Loman dies and here is another reminder for brands, because being likable isn’t enough, if no one pays any attention.

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.

So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid.



And for more on how brands buy, earn and use attention, check out my book Paid Attention.

Developed from an article originally published in ADMAP.

Hello! I'm Faris. I'm looking for the awesome. Founder/Genius Steals. Itinerant Strategist//Speaker. Author of Paid Attention.

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