When a dog named Gus who belonged to a woman named Anna Brose died unexpectedly, she contacted Chewy to ask if she could return an unopened bag of his food. What happened next is a lesson in leadership, customer service, and how powerful social media can be--especially when you're not attempting to use it for your own gain.

Here's what every marketer--and every business leader--can learn.

1. A small human gesture can have a big impact.

Not everyone has pets, and not all pet owners feel the attachment to their pets that Brose obviously felt with Gus. For those of us who do, the grief of losing a pet is something we know we'll experience multiple times because the lifespan of most pets is much shorter than that of humans. That grief isn't always recognized in our society, so to a mourning pet owner, getting recognition for that grief means a lot.

In the responses to Brose's tweet, many pet owners said that they had also received flowers and/or condolences from Chewy, and a surprising number also posted images of the artwork Chewy had sent them from photos of their pets they'd shared. One said Chewy had helped them out, intervening with UPS when prescription pet food was badly needed during a snowstorm.

One shelter employee jumped in to say that the shelter frequently received donations from Chewy customers who, like Brose, had received a full refund for a purchase along with instructions to donate it. I think it was especially meaningful to Brose to get a personal message from the person she spoke to, but it wasn't just one individual reaching out, but rather Chewy's corporate policy. That policy is very, very smart.

It's also worth noting that it's been Chewy's policy from its earliest days, as co-founder and former CEO Ryan Cohen explained to Inc. when Chewy went public in 2019. The point wasn't to get a lot of good social media. The point was to create superfans.

2. Nothing beats the power of superfans.

How could Chewy--a company started on a shoestring and competing against the likes of Amazon and Walmart--afford to send flowers to every bereaved customer it learned about in those early days? Because its founders recognized the incredible power of having superfans. Superfans are customers who feel so emotionally connected to your company that they will promote it to their friends and social media followers even without your asking them to do so. Think Apple or Harley-Davidson for example. Superfans can help your business grow and help sustain it when times are tough as well.

Some people who responded to Brose's tweet said they were Chewy customers for life. Others said they were impressed by her story and would give the brand a try as a result of reading it (which millions of people have likely done by now). How do you think the value of that emotional connection stacks up against the cost of a few bouquets of flowers?

3. You can't compete on cost and convenience alone.

Chewy, which was acquired by PetSmart in 2017 and is now a public company, has pretty deep resources these days. Even so, it's unlikely to win customers over with lower prices or greater convenience when you consider that its competitors are companies like Amazon and Walmart. It's pretty hard to beat Amazon on customer service as well.

Most pet food, treats, and other branded pet products are exactly the same no matter where you buy them. So for a pet retailer to survive against competitors like these, it needs something more. This is why I'm calling this not only a lesson in customer service or marketing, but also a lesson in leadership. It's Chewy's identity, built one interaction at a time, as a company that truly cares about both its customers and their animal companions.

It's working. One person tweeted this to Brose: "They're hugely popular... I drove past a FedEx truck with the back doors open, and it might as well have been a Chewy truck... every box in there had the logo on it..."

There's a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. (Interested in joining? Here's more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.) Many subscribers are entrepreneurs or business leaders, and they tell me how big a difference it can make to build this kind of emotional connection with their customers. Are you using that power of emotional connection in your own company?