Do people want relationships with brands? Um, we need to talk

Like romance: “relationship” is only a good word if you never have to say it…

Yesterday Mitch Joel wrote a though provoking blog post on this theme: do people want relationships with brands – and should that always be the point of social media business efforts? And while we agree with his general conclusions, web Beg to Differ is thinking it might be the question itself that’s the problem…

No! People aren’t looking for relationships with brands

Try this sometime. Ask any average human: “do you want a relationship with your brand of dish soap?” Which of these responses do you think you’ll get?

  1. They will question your sanity;
  2. They will laugh so hard that the latte they’re drinking will spray out their nose; or
  3. They will earnestly lean forward with a sparkle in their eye and say “oh yes, I’m quite passionate about my life-long commitment to Palmolive ™ Dish Soap – softens hands while you do the dishes!(tm)”

If you answered #3, congratulations, you are ready for a lucrative career as a brand manager – on a mystical planet where simple product choices change human lives in dramatic ways. In that world, the idea of building “relationships” with consumers sounds great.

But out here in human-land, it sounds a bit creepy. That’s because in human-land, the word “relationship” is not a word we associate with the products we buy, the services we use, or the brands we use to find them. “Relationship” implies humans relating to other humans – as humans, and equals.

Sorry brand managers, the shocking truth: brands are not equal to humans. Your customers actually own your brand in the same way they own their goldfish – and they will never care as much about your brand as you do.

But there is one thing your brand can do for humans…

People want brands to serve them

In human-land, we don’t have relationships with brands; we have expectations of them.

My Mazda is in the shop right now. And while I don’t think of having a “relationship” with Mazda – my car’s brand – I definitely have expectations of what Mazda as a whole brand should be doing for me.

I expect my Mazda (the car) to “Zoom Zoom” along. But when it breaks down, I call Mazda Roadside Assistance (a third party service), I visit Mazda online (a Web site) expecting answers about a potential Mazda (the corporation) recall, and then I bring it back to Mazda (my local dealer) and expect them to fix it. All the while, I expect Mazda (the people I deal with at all points) to be honest, helpful, and hopefully even cheerful.

So yes, there are human “relationships” involved.  But more important are my expectations: I’m the owner of the brand expectations I hold of Mazda. Mazda’s responsibility is to make me happy.

The new three R’s

So forget about relationships brand managers.  Here are the three “R” words I am looking for as a customer:

  • Receptiveness: be there when I need you, and be ready to listen to me. Help me get what I need and be clear, forthright, and honest with me.
  • Responsiveness: Serve me. Answer my questions. Change your service when you’re getting in my way.
  • Respectfulness: Treat me like the owner of your brand. Because that’s what I am.
  • 12 thoughts on “Do people want relationships with brands? Um, we need to talk”

    1. Interesting debate. I think you are talking about functional brands where customer derives rational benefit. The initial blog you refer to is talking about emotional brands where the customer pays a premium to align their identity with what the brand represents. Good example is harley davidson. An example of a hybrid (which I think is better) is starbucks – better coffee and a certain set of emotions triggered when you buy their products. – dannielle blumenthal, @thinkbrandfirst

    2. Good points Danielle, and nice to find another Canuck in the brand strategy headspace. I’m following you on Twitter now so hopefully we can connect there as well.

      But to your points, in my head I can’t differentiate “functional” from “emotional” brands as clearly as you seem to. In any human transaction there is always a “rational benefit” (functional) and something I’ll call the “rationale benefit” (the emotional / status / gut reason we use to justify a purchase). But neither of those benefits implies “relationship” to me, just different sets of expectations and a different level of service.

      I guess my main point in this was to tell brand managers to be a bit more humble when approaching their marketing. I don’t want to be friends with Mazda or Rogers or Starbucks. I want them to live up to the expectations they set in my head through their brand-building work.

    3. I generally agree that customers don’t want to have a relationship with a brand. Conversely, the brand doesn’t really want to have a relationship with the customer.

      Clorox doesn’t want to sit down in your kitchen to help you deal with your unruly 13 year old. It wants to sell you bleach.

      Last year I encouraged social marketers to build an ice cream truck.

      People don’t want a relationship with the actual ice cream truck. They don’t care how many miles per gallon it gets or the fact that it got a new paint job. They just want their Choco Taco.

      Sure, people will still want to align themselves with certain brands to establish a certain image. How the brand leverages that innate desire is where the rubber meets the road.

      There are a number of brands with a high number of followers or fans but little engagement. I’d argue this is the norm and that a minority are brands are creating successful marketing campaigns through their social properties.

      1. Bravo on your blog post. The ice cream truck analogy is one that I’ll file under “grr, I wish I’d thought of that”(that’s a compliment).

        This is an awesome header that sums up the difference I was trying to get at in my post:
        “Conversations with products and brands are not social conversations”

        “Alignment” = good.
        “Loyalty” = great.
        “Relationship” = kinda crossing that ice cream line.

    4. Dennis

      Think you’re on to something here. Most certainly with CPG brands, doubt anyone really wants a true relationship in the traditional definition. But to Dannielle’s point – do they want a relationship with affinity brands? Still not sure I’d agree they do. It’s not that I want something from Harley, it’s that I want what I “believe” Harley gives me — freedom from conformity, coolness, etc. That’s an expectation I think vs a relationship.

      Now if you start talking travel brands like Embassy Suites, Hilton, Hyatt or American Airlines and Southwest — now I think you can start defining in terms of a relationship AND expectations or maybe expectations of the relationship 😉 but here I do want a relationship with these brands. I want them to see my loyalty and respond accordingly.

      Great post — got the wheels turning… will need to sleep on this one a bit.


      1. I realize that the deeper the level of engagement, the higher the expectations, and the more like “relationships” a person’s ties to brands become. Which is why I actually won’t stop using the word in my practice (full disclosure: I have a whole presentation where I tell brand managers to think about brand equity as a function of relationship).

        But yeah, I’m wrestling with it too.

        Any time you anthropomorphize a business concept too much, you run the risk of applying the same rules between the human and commercial spheres – which always leads to weirdness. Brands / businesses need to ACT more human (i.e. with integrity and authenticity), but they should never THINK THEY ARE HUMAN.

    5. Hi, Dennis.

      I saw Sally Hogshead present recently and she has a great way of looking at this question: “People don’t want to connect with brands; they want to connect with other people THROUGH brands.” I think that sums it up very well.

      I used to work on the Harley business (agency side) and trust me, people want a relationship with that brand. And in my experience, there ARE some brands that I actually do want a relationship with – but totally agree most “normal” people would not use the WORD “relationship”. They would say they want Harley – or in my case, Specialized Bikes – to respond to them and respect them. You do make a great point there, about speaking human instead of marketing. Nicely done.

      Me, I often also think about how a brand can 1) tell stories 2) create utility and 3) connect people. Logical extensions of the classic “brand ladder” of features, functional benefits and emotional benefits. But now, in 3-D instead of 2-D. : ) Very good chance I might be making sense only to myself here. WTH.

      Sue Spaight (@suespaight on twitter)

    6. Hello everyone.

      This is such an interesting issue. How messed up are we these days that we actually are discussing whether people want a relationship with Clorox???

      Unfortunately in my view we are totally, totally a messed up world and some (not all) people do want to have a “relationship” with a brand the same way some men want to have “relationships” with dolls rather than marry actual wives. (There was a National Geographic special on that – very interesting – mostly the men didn’t want to have to listen to the women talk 🙂

      I do think that the functional/emotional distinction is a useful way of breaking it down although to Dennis’s point brands should never actually think they are human. (they aren’t even when they try to be, sadly.)

      Another way of looking at it is the product vs. service axis. Product brands probably have less chance of the relationship (except for Harleys – aficionados seem to actually love the bike itself as well as the other bikers) than service brands do. Some brands sell both at the same time – e.g. a hotel is selling the service although technically it is selling a place to stay.

      At the end of the day the basis of the brand premium – I still argue – is the relationship, which is irreplaceable. Functional benefits can always be copied after the window of innovation has closed.

      So, so interesting.


    7. I happen to be reading this fine blog post while watching “Welcome to Macintosh” documentary on CNBC. Early Apple Computer employees were talking about the relationship they and others have with their computer. It was romantic; there were images of monitors in rivers and fields. I laughed out loud on the timing related to reading your post. Those geeks love their Mac.

      I reply now rather than last night because my Comcast was down. This does not happen often and the customer service is great in my experience so I believe I will maintain my relationship, I mean they will keep my business.

    8. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to find someone with some authentic thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for beginning this up. this web site is one thing that’s needed on the net, somebody with a bit originality. useful job for bringing one thing new to the internet!

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