Are you dating your customers or are you just pals? Understanding Consumer-Brand Relationships

If you’re familiar with Craigslist infamous personals section, then you’ve heard of missed connections and casual encounters.

If not, well, you can probably piece together the context (or go find out for yourself).

A picture of a Craigslist missed connections ad

Craigslist missed connections – Sometimes we have no idea how uncomfortably close we are to a relationship.

One thing that decades of studying has proven is that brands and consumers enter in real, often long-lasting relationships with each other. Every reverberating molecule and atom of your business molds this relationship, and because of this, it is critical to understand the nature of the relationship between your brand and your consumers.

What kind of relationship do we, the brand, want to have with our customers? What kind of relationship are customers actually engaged in?

Understanding Your Consumer-Brand Relationship

A popular framework in the study of brand relationships relates consumer-brand relationships to our everyday relationships. Marriages, best friends, acquaintances, even flings are all ways that we can look at the brands we represent. This gives us a familiar setting to assess the quality of relationships we’ve formed with consumers.

Made popular by prominent brand researcher and professor, Susan Fournier, breaking down brands in this manner makes it easier for us to understand brand consumer relationships on an easy-to-relate level, while carrying a myriad of insights as to the strength of our consumer-brand relationship quality.

Better understanding your brand highlights strengths, threats, weaknesses, and opportunities (SWOT TEAM) that influence the entire business.

Look at it this way, few businesses want their customers viewing their brand as a casual encounter, and no business wants to end up in the missed connections section of Craigslist. The question is:

Which relationship type does your brand fall in?

A map of brand relationships

Another study conducted by Susan Fournier, et al. Map of Brand Relationship types. (click image to see related article)

The 6 Factors of Brand Relationship Quality

The study of brand relationships often borrows from what we know about interpersonal relations. We can apply much of our own knowledge (intuitive or studied) to the brand relationship field, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of significant differences.

The types of relationships brands have with consumers all contain the 6 factors of Brand Relationship Quality (you might sometimes see 7 factors):

  1. Interedependence – the degree that the relationship is woven into the fabric of our daily lives
  2. Love/Commitment – the level of affection we have with the brand, and how much we are willing to go through with each other as a result
  3. Partner Quality – summed up by these 5 questions:
    1. Do they take care of me?
    2. Do they listen to me?
    3. Do they make up for mistakes?
    4. Can I rely on them to do what’s best for me?
    5. Do they respond to my concerns?
  4. Self Connection – the degree that the brand connects and defines ‘who you are’
  5. Nostalgic Attachment – The level of sentiment you feel for the brand related to past, personal memories.
  6. Intimacy – Simply put, how familiar we are with the brand’s history, as well as how well consumer and brand know each other.
A picture of a three-legged race

Is your consumer-brand relationship interdependent?

Finally, the other thing to keep in mind is what bonds you together with the brand? Is it an emotional bond based on feelings such as liking or obsession? Or is it purely a functional bondI scratch your back, you scratch mine?

11 Types of Consumer-Brand Relationship Forms

Marriage Partner – “Til death do us part”

A picture of the wedding from A Princess Bride

“Marriage…”

Brand relationships can mirror marriages. They are intense, extremely emotional bonds. These close partnerships are for better or for worse, richer or poorer, sickness and in health, and assumed lifelong relationships.

Just like a real marriage, a consumer-brand marriage is notably high touch, high maintenance. And again, as we see in real life, divorces between tightly connected brand and consumer are ugly, costly affairs.

Forgetting anniversary dates or getting sent to the doghouse for using up the last bit of toilet paper and not changing it, [*or insert anyone of these endless examples* (NSFW - language)] is a relationship threat just as present with brands, they just manifest less tangibly. Brands that have intimate relationships with their consumers can also easily get called out for any number of missteps that convey that you haven’t actually been paying attention- or worse, that you just don’t really know them as well as they thought.

A brand needs to hit on all 6 factors of brand relationship quality, but at this level of committment, the brand relationship is the business. Thus, if right for the brand and consumer, can be highly rewarding.

Best Friends – “You’ve Got a Friend In Me”

Sherlock Holmes & John Watson, Bert & Ernie, Fred Flintstone & Barney Rubble, Frodo & Sam – classic illustrations of why the best friend is prime real estate in the brand relationship landscape. Who doesn’t want a best friend? Who doesn’t want to be considered a best friend?

A picture of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson from the BBC series 'Sherlock'

Besties!

As with any close friendship, it takes a lot of care and effort to achieve BFF status. As a brand, you have to actively listen, be open and sometimes even candid, ask and reciprocate, and especially be reliable and dependable.

As with any best friend, if you can’t keep secrets and be trusted with sensitive information or try to change the other to be someone they are not, you’re gonna have a bad time.

In that light, it’s amazing how a brand such as Facebook tries and fails to be seen as a friend in the public eye, but a brand such as Google is able to establish a much friendlier consumer-brand relationship when both of them are in the business of your personal business (i.e., your personal data/privacy).

It’s important to remember that interdependence and self-connection have the potential to fade out at times for brands in this type of relationship, especially as consumers (i.e., individuals) change throughout their lives. Two keys to this are:

  1. maintaining intimacy with consumers so that the brand can change in parallel with customers
  2. focusing high on relationship quality factors, honesty, and reciprocity in order to develop a high level of affection and commitment

Rivals – “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Rivalry is the ominous figure on the other side of the friendship coin. Whether it be the Celtics and Lakers, Batman and The Joker, or Mac versus PC rivalries are a potent consumer-brand bond. In fact, based on a survey of 150 people, rivalries are actually stronger and more intense than best friends, parent child relationships, and on par with marriages!

Click here to view the brand relationship map in reference (sorry, I’d include the image here, if I could)
A picture of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner

Eternal rivals

Now, a rivalry can be an unintentional relationship, especially considering classic brand rivalries such as Coke and Pepsi; sometimes it is just a result of selling highly similar products, but establishing yourself as a rival can also provide benefits.

This is especially great for brands that are ‘the little guy’. The presence of the little guy can create the perception that the big brand is a bully, and in result create a lot of animosity. We all love a great underdog story. This is just one way to tap into a powerful means of creating intimacy, passion, and self-connection.

It’s simple emotional physics, my friend!

Of course, towing the line, not becoming the ‘villain’, and avoiding involuntary rival relationships are all major risks, thus you can look at this as a high risk – high reward relationship identity.

Parent Child – “My momma always said…”

Forrest Gump on the bus stop bench

My momma always said…

Just like you’re born into family, a parent child relationship is a brand that you are born into. You are brought up with it as an integral part of your life. Love, intimacy, nostalgia, and self-connectedness are ever present.

This is a hard brand relationship to nail down. Should a brand be expected to change with its consumers? Might it alienate them by doing so? If the relationship is less functional, then what is more important: product/service or brand identity?

Disney is a consummate example of the parent child relationship. When most of us say the word, “Disney,” we shuttle and loop through a roller coaster of emotions in an instant. That’s the power of the brand. The power is also part of the risk.

Personal example: in college, I stumbled across a much belated sequel to a favorite Disney Channel original movie. Upset, I wrote a rambling, yet emotional blog post detailing how I felt about Disney at age 23 versus how I did as a child.

How did I feel? Well, let’s just sample one of MANY paragraphs so drenched in hyperbole that I can’t help but laugh when I read them now:

What are we left with? Soulless celluloid, alive but not living. It eeks onto our screens and into our minds and hearts, as if it were exclaiming, “feed me!” Our children and parents of all ages are feasted upon by the living dead until their soul, too, is devoured and a thirst for anything more than over-processed, synthetic marketing campaigns of arts and entertainment abandons us and never returns.

WHOA!

I’ll admit, at the time I was being intentionally ridiculous, but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less sincere. As evident, a perceived lapse of integrity or a rebellious period can be very costly.

In parallel, the parent child relationship can lead to customers who don’t just last a lifetime, but for generations!

Fling – “What happens in Vegas”

Yes, brand relationships can even be likened to flings. These short-term, often one off experiences are more emotional than functional, and often rely on impulse.

A picture of the What Happens In Vegas cover art

Besides illustrating the point; also a really bad movie

A fling doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Say you’re competing with a brand that has marriage or family quality consumer-brand relationships; sometimes a fling is going to be the only shot you get. Plant the seed, and if your product is good enough and branding hits on what the consumer is looking for, a fling can actually develop into a longer lasting relationship.

Many brands employ tactics to induce flings. Samples, time-based trials, and money back guarantees are marketing tools that are employed that in an effort to induce a ‘fling’ with a customer (or a courtship). Who knew branding could be so scandalous?

Odds are, a brand isn’t setting out to be a consumer’s fling, but a brand can build new relationships by being smarter and more sensitive than the competition.

Teammates – “The whole is greater than the parts”

Teammmates are more or less an involuntary relationship. At best, we can influence who are teammates are, but in most cases, we rarely choose them.

What makes a good teammate? It depends on the team, of course. You not only want a teammmate to be the best at their role, but be strong in ways that complement yourself (as a consumer or brand). You’d prefer to be friends, but it is secondary to the sum of the relationship being greater than the parts.

A picture of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen

Scottie Pippen, not only a great player, but the glue of the rest of the team.

Partner quality, interdependence, and intimacy go a long way in creating a relationship that makes the consumer feel that the brand is there to bring out the best in them.

As we see in the sports world all the time, being a great teammate is just as hard as being a great player, but often more important. A great teammate allows brands to be low touch, even distant at times, but intimate enough in the things that matter to read minds!

Business Partners – “What’s in it for me?”

Business partners are a lot like a teammate with almost all the emotion sucked out.

We engage in business relationships because we need something, and know the other person (brand) can get us what we need. Get in, get out; transactional relationships.

A picture of Michael Corleone from The Godfather

“It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business”

A business partnership can be a great thing, especially if you’re just there to make the consumers life easier, but the risk is that you might be missing opportunity. What if a brand’s relationship with a customer is strictly business because they have no other options?

American ISPs are a great example. There is no loyalty. Why is it so much cheaper to sign up for a year of Comcast, DirecTV, Verizon, et al than it is to be a longtime customer?

The absence of loyalty amid competition leads to a war of attrition.

If your brand is in this kind of relationship, just be sure that you aren’t missing out on opportunity to build loyalty and commitment.

Compartmentalized Friendships – Filing Cabinet Friendship

Compartmentalized friendships are like your buddies you play pick up ball with at the gym, the other moms and dads you cheer with at all your kids’ soccer games, or that one person you don’t really see or talk to that often who comments and likes all your Facebook posts.

Instead of friendship, there is a more superficial ‘buddyship’. Brands in this relationship type have a very specific time and purpose with consumers.

There is no intimacy, no interdependence, and no expectations of partner quality. On the other hand, because compartmentalized friendships have such low involvment, you can establish them a lot easier.

A brand that focuses on this specific form of buddyship might not get the admiration of the most iconic brands, but makes up for either it in popularity or by residing in an ultra narrow niche.

An XKCD comic

A common theme when trying to venture out of compartmental friend conversation into the normal friend zone

Childhood Buddies – Andy and Woody, circa Toy Story 3

Nostalgia; the finest wine of all sentiment. Childhood buddies definitely rely heavily on the nostalgia. Nostalgia enables us to experience affection, self-connection, and intimacy that doesn’t exist in the present; as if we were channeling emotional ghosts.

Childhood buddies are interesting because you had to have a much stronger, active relationship in the past. Mascots and slogans are branding tools that help us identify with brands, but also form close friendships with these brands. When things fall to the wayside, When things fall to the wayside, these mascots and other brand components evoke the powerful feelings we once felt.

These relationships never really end nor sour, they just end up dormant.

A picture of 18 year old Andy with Woody and Buzz from Toy Story 3

With that in mind, as a brand, if you feel like you aren’t positioned as ‘best friends’, but would like be, investing in nostalgia and coming off as a childhood friend could be a great intermediary step to transition to a more involved consumer-brand relationship.

Because friendships rarely happen overnight.

Casual Acquaintances – “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?”

Awkwardness, we know it all too well. Few things are more awkward for us as individuals as casual acquaintances. How many times have we been out and about and ran into a friend of a friend, a classmate, or someone who works in the same building?

There’s no emotional bond, but you are intertwined in some way. There are no real ties other than smalltalk. A casual acquaintanceship is basically a step away from brand obscurity, and often results from a highly competitive market.

This isn’t to say that being casual acquaintances with your consumers is not awful, especially not in an impersonal industry where margins might matter above all else.

But.

The thing about all of our acquaintances is that it means there is only opportunity. Opportunity to create a substantial relationship.

Here is the real question for brands and consumers that are acquaintances:

What kind of relationship best serves us? How do we get there?

So maybe that was actually 2 questions.

Enslavements / Customer Master & Company Slave – “Your wish is my command!”

As touched on with business partnerships, enslavement is the worst outcome for strong, functional bonds.

A picture of Aladdin and the Genie

From Master – Slave to Best Pals!

Sometimes it is a risk with brands that have any form of a monopoly (local, regional, developing), or the first player in an emerging market. In a worst case, a brand can get stuck in a master – slave relationship despite any branding efforts. It is the risk of being under the microscope.

In some cases, entire industries carry this identity. For instance, take a look at the evolution of branding efforts of major oil companies. More than ever, we see them branding on being providers of energy, providers of solutions.

How much does doing great things matter in the light of a catastrophic crisis – especially when your product/services are essential worldwide?

The master – slave relationship is one that is derived from many factors such as negligence, short-sightedness, circumstance, and so on. A strong sense of the competitive and sociocultural environment is needed to mitigate the risk of developing this unfortunate type of relationship.

Of course, if we’ve seen it done in Alladin and Kazaam (yeah, I just went there), then that can provide at least some hope that we can take our brand relationships from the worst extremes to the best.

What is your Brand’s Relationship Type?

With all this in mind, what relationship type do you think your brand falls under? Even more important, what do your consumers think?

What about your competitors? If different, which relationship type do you think is most advantageous for your market?

The nice thing about breaking down relationships in this way is that everyone intuitively understands them. These basic relationship types can be broken down endlessly, but this is a strong starting point, backed by years of research by people much smarter than myself! Using this typology, translating the complex qualities, characteristics, and feelings that bonds brands to actual people is much easier.

A greater understanding better informs our strategic decisions and ultimately makes the brand and business stronger. As I said earlier, just make sure that your brand isn’t a missed connection!

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with friends and colleagues (compartmental friends )! Be sure to leave a comment and follow us on Google+ and Twitter!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *