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Won’t You Be My … Customer?

Lessons on authenticity and connection from Mr. Rogers

By Rachel Fox

“It’s through relationships that we learn best and grow best.”

Some lessons are evergreen. In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, beloved PBS television host Mr. Rogers taught young children to look for the helpers in times of crisis. This message was most likely something they never forgot—it was comfort and wisdom for children in a time of chaos in an adult world. This was one among thousands of lessons taught by Mr. Rogers that are just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago, when he first began his program, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. His words left an indelible mark on children for decades—and given today’s executives were likely raised on these lessons, it’s no surprise they’re as effective in business as they were in childhood.  

Mr. Rogers’ gift for communicating with children began in 1954, when he signed on to join The Children’s Corner, a live weekday television program on WQED in Pittsburgh. Rogers initially honed his craft behind the scenes, producing, composing music, and making puppets for the show. In 1966, he stepped in front of the camera and launched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. With it, a cultural icon was born.

Rogers knew that to reach his chosen audience, children, only one approach to communication would be effective: storytelling. The messages Rogers conveyed over three decades of television resonated with his audience—and their parents—because of how he connected with each viewer individually, the types of stories he told, and because he was his true self throughout it all. Brands today face audiences who are as attention-starved and as fickle as the children Rogers reached so effectively, and he provides a model for those seeking to ask: “Won’t you be my customer?”   

Authenticity matters

Every one of us longs to be in touch with honesty … I think we’re really attracted to people who will share some of their real self with us.”

Mr. Rogers attributed his success to his authenticity. Rogers was defined by his drive to understand and connect with children. He approached each episode of his television show with empathy, acceptance, and kindness, and in doing so made the emotions and circumstances growing up accessible and digestible. Converting audiences into brand evangelists requires the same authenticity of purpose and genuine connection.

For a company, authenticity means being true to its values, and sharing them through a story that’s uniquely its own. Being genuine puts people at ease and makes them more receptive to ideas—or brands. Positive psychology expert Abigail Mengers concludes: “Data supports the connection between authenticity and well-being, as well as the human desire to stand out from others. Because of this, it seems that openness and acceptance must be encouraged on a broader scale.” Brands want to come across as an open, trustworthy friend, who also offers value unique from everyone else. Maintaining both qualities is the key to being authentic in business, and must be embraced not only by the organization, but by the employees who move it forward.

Authenticity empowers employees to feel more connected to their work community and loyal to the organization’s purpose. This creates more job satisfaction and engagement, and in turn helps attract and retain high-quality talent. Henley Leadership Group founder Dede Henley notes, “Considering that highly engaged employees will go the extra mile to strengthen your competitive advantage, being more authentic as a leader is critical. It’s the first step in fostering a culture where employees can be their true selves at work.”

For a brand, communicating its values and its unique story are what attract customers. Akin to Rogers’ techniques for connecting with children, using the psychological principals of storytelling will motivate an audience to take action. These principals, including empathy, inspiring motivation, and influencing through social proof, all fuel authenticity and inspire brand loyalty.

The right story can persuade anybody

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”

By 1969, it had already been established that Mr. Rogers was an excellent communicator. He made kids feel as though they knew him because of the way he connected through his television show. Explaining what to expect at the doctor’s office makes it a little less scary to a child, and using puppets to disarm the confusion of feeling angry makes it easier to cope with emotions that seem insurmountable.

But when PBS’s funding—and very existence—was in jeopardy, it took Rogers just six minutes to prove he was capable of persuading adults, as well.

After two days of Senate subcommittee hearings, presiding Senator John Pastore was unimpressed and uncompelled by testimony to continue funding PBS. What amounted to a sales presentation on PBS’s features and benefits—a trap many businesses fall into while trying to attract customers—fell flat with its audience. And then Rogers spoke. It took him just six minutes to change the mind of the impatient senator from Rhode Island, who, prior to the hearing, had never before seen or heard of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Senator Pastore was clear in his opening comments that he did not see the value in educational shows like Rogers, and was inclined to defund them.

Then, using the power of story, Mr. Rogers secured $20 million—and a future—for PBS by telling a short, compelling story.

What took six minutes in 1969, now must happen in 15 seconds. In order to keep a customer interested for those 15 seconds, they have to care about what’s being said. The way to do that? Make a connection. Rogers’ testimony was presented in a calm, slow cadence, yet was delivered with precision and focus as he appealed to Senator Pastore’s emotions. Pastore goes from cynicism to delight as Roger earnestly states, “This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’”

 After that, not only did Rogers win the $20 million in funding, he gave the gruff senator goosebumps. Just as Mr. Rogers appealed to emotions by bringing back a flood of childhood memories Pastore most likely repressed in adulthood, the stories brands tell must resonate on an emotional level.

No matter what a company’s product or service may be, they must make an emotional connection with their customers to win business. This is true whether the company is B2B or B2C, as the people at the receiving end are just that: people.  “The goal of advertising is not to convince people, or make them think something,” according to Pixar veteran Matthew Luhn, whose story credits include Toy Story and Finding Nemo, “It’s to make them feel something. And for engendering emotion, there’s no more powerful tool than the story.”

Anything can be accessible to a wide audience

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

Just two days after Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in 1968, Rogers, still in the first year of having a national audience for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, produced a special episode that explained assassination to his young viewers. For the first time in television history, children were being exposed to—and explained—complicated adult issues. Over the following years, Rogers regularly took complicated topics, like divorce and the death of a pet, and synthesized them for children to understand. He trusted his audience—and they trusted him back.

When a business fosters trust with its audience, it becomes accessible to a larger market. Yes, a mass-appeal product has to have a certain utility to a large group of people, but assuming that’s the case, the brand must empower the masses to embrace its advancement. When companies do this in business, their audience pool tends to widen. When a company educates, engages, or enriches their audience with knowledge that doesn’t directly correlate to its bottom line, it’s opening up new avenues for consumers. The reciprocal relationship between accessibility and trust will always help a business grow so long as customers recognize the consistency and value of the company.

In each episode of his show, Mr. Rogers gave his full attention and spoke to children as if they were the only one in the room—and the most important person he could be speaking with. Authenticity, a compelling narrative, and accessibility ensured his message resonated, but it was his constant presence, in every sense of the word, that earned him the platform to leverage his other approaches. Being present, mentally, physically, and emotionally, is the foundation of building a successful relationship with your customers. Audiences are keenly tuned into whether a brand is fully engaged or not, and the presence Rogers brought to his audience is an admirable benchmark to set as a company.

Today, 89 percent of companies compete on the aspect of customer experience. There’s a major opportunity for businesses to disrupt their competitors by making their brand revolve around customer experience. More than anything, customers care if they can connect with the businesses they patron, and that means everything from reaching out when there’s an issue to being able to express their brand loyalty directly to the source. No longer is brand loyalty something that’s passed down from parents or swallowed up by a monopoly. If people are emotionally engaged and are taken on a fulfilling customer journey, businesses aren’t just creating repeat customers—they’re creating full-blown evangelists.

Customers are the ones who determine if a company delivers on its brand promise. If the company is engaged and evolves with its heroes, they’ll feel seen and heard—as if they’re the most important customer in the neighborhood.

Rachel Fox is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.