Can a Big-Box Supermarket Create ‘Liking’?


HEB Texas

Most readers here know that one of the six principles of persuasion proposed by influence expert and recent Pubcon keynoter Robert Cialdini is “liking.” Liking can be established by displaying shared attributes – we both went to the same college, we both have Siamese cats, etc. But can faceless companies generate a similar reaction?

My answer to that rhetorical question is, unsurprisingly, “yes.” A key part of Apple’s success over the years, I think, is due to their exploiting a shared social identity with their users – see Revealed: How Steve Jobs Turns Customers into Fanatics, written while their late CEO was still with leading the firm.

The latest example of a profound liking effect for a company using some of the same interpersonal approaches described by Cialdini is the Texas supermarket chain, H-E-B. At, I wrote The Smartest Supermarket You Never Heard Of about a variety of brain/behavior-oriented strategies employed by H-E-B.

That post turned out to be my most-viewed article to date at Forbes, and produced a flood of comments. Other than a handful of San Antonio residents who apparently resent the expansion of an H-E-B property in their downtown area, the commenters were almost universal in their like (or love) for H-E-B.

We’re All Texans!

While having stores in just one state might be seen as a disadvantage for chains with regional or national aspirations, H-E-B turns their Texas exclusivity into a huge advantage by constantly showing off their Texas heritage.

It probably doesn’t hurt that Texans exhibit an unusual level of state pride.

In the Forbes post, I showed a panoply of Texas-themed products and promotions. Many, many products are labeled with Texas imagery or a particular location in Texas, from Houston to Hill Country.

Not long after I published that post, I ran across one of H-E-B’s biggest Texas promotions yet, a two-week long “Texas Fest” featuring, you guessed it, even more Texas-themed products than usual.

H-E-B never misses the opportunity to hammer home the fact to their customers that, “We’re like you, we’re from Texas.”

Doing Likable Things

Beyond establishing their shared social identify, H-E-B goes out of its way to do likable things. I detailed their sampling and other strategies in my Forbes piece, but the other day I discovered yet another way they pamper their customers. On a rare early-morning stop at the store, I was desperate for coffee and stopped by their cafe to buy a cup. I was fishing some bills out of my wallet when the associate behind the counter told me, “Help yourself, it’s free. It’s right there, the cups are next to the pots.”

Of course, the featured brews were H-E-B products. Beyond the goodwill points this scores for H-E-B, serving customers a free hot beverage is yet another brain-oriented strategy. In Heat Up Sales – With Coffee! I quote psychology professor and researcher John Bargh, “Physical warmth can make us see others as warmer people, but also cause us to be warmer – more generous and trusting – as well.” (The caffeine boost can’t hurt, either!)

Get Liked: Find Your Shared Attributes

Your business may not be able to exploit Texas-sized state pride like H-E-B, but chances are you have attributes you share with your customers. Is there a geographic identity? Are you fellow car enthusiasts? In a one-on-one sales setting, you can almost certainly find multiple things you have in common.

Even if you are working with a diverse customer base, you may find your products offer a point of common interest. Or, failing that, broadly shared attributes (say, you are a dog lover, coffee aficionado, or outdoor sports enthusiast) may work with a portion of your potential customers. And even for the ones who don’t own dogs, the photo of you and your adorable pooch will at least humanize you and your company a bit!

  1. Shawn Collins says

    I really like H-E-B and the Texas themed products. Their Texas shaped tortilla chips are entertaining and tasty.

    As a testament to their loyalty, we’ve got an H-E-B a few miles from our house, and a couple years ago a Randall’s was built right in the neighborhood. There were discussions on neighborhood Facebook groups about how people shouldn’t shop at Randall’s, because it was a California company, and how they should support H-E-B and their Texas roots.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Interesting, Shawn. In nearby Lakeway, there’s going to be a huge new H-E-B not far from an existing Randall’s. Some residents expressed concern that the new store had been approved without evaluating the possibility that the older Randall’s unit might go out of business, leaving a big vacant store! I doubt that would happen, but it shows the perception of the two brands.

  3. You make some good points here. I think many businesses misunderstand “liking” because of the preponderance of “Like” buttons on the web. They seem to think that “liking” is about customers saying they like the business. But, as I explain in my new book “Click.ology: What Works in Online Shopping” (you might like to put it in your bookshop…!), liking is a two-way thing. We like people because they like us. So, for a business to get people to like it, firstly it must demonstrate that it likes its customers. This involves a whole range of psychological factors including sharing the same interests, but importantly also demonstrating that the business is clearly dedicated to the specific needs of the shopper. Online, the engagement time is less than three seconds – and as you know there are neurological studies showing decision-making brain activity within 560ms of seeing a web page. That means in order to demonstrate you “like” your online customer, a business needs to have highly focused content that is tightly specific. Your supermarket example can demonstrate shared interests to a wider group of people as people are engaging over several minutes. Online, with a few seconds, the shared interest has to be shown immediately – this is a massive error being made online by vast numbers of businesses. It is worthwhile remembering that even though online retail has grown substantially, 96% of all shopping is still done in real world stores. Furthermore, over 95% of all online shopping is done in three or four websites. The vast majority of online businesses are not working well online because they are using offline methods of demonstrating liking, which do not work online due to the dramatically reduced engagement time.

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