There is a shift that is occurring in business strategy, one comprised of many subtle and complex parts but with no single force dominating the change. It’s “shift by a thousand cuts,” and I believe we are at the inflection point, best represented by the current fad of business claiming to be “purpose-driven” and driving strategy based on that.
The historical way we have thought of brands, being positioned in a certain way vis-a-vis competitors (brand positioning), has served us well over the years. But there’s been a shift in how people are making decisions about what and how they consume. Brands that focus on building social capital (cultural positioning), as well as economic returns, are establishing the foundation for long-term sustainability.
The current trend among agencies, consultants, and pundits is around purpose. It sounds lofty, and there can’t possibly be anything wrong with focusing on a brand’s purpose for existing, right? The problem, as I see it, is there’s definite potential for it to be very self-centered and not customer-focused. Even when couched in such beautiful language as “shared values” and “aligned with ideals” it is usually 100%, completely, about the brand.
Along life’s journey, there are many traditional rites of passage. In this country, they often relate to the achievement of “The American Dream” ideal, the “ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.” We’re experiencing a “pivot” of The American Dream. A different version exists, and it’s a vastly different journey depending on your generation.
Marketing and branding professionals will often talk about the importance of the “relationship” between consumers and brands. I have to confess I have questioned if there can be a true relationship between a brand and a person. However, recent work has made me think differently about it. To start, consider the word under its most basic definition:
“the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people
are connected, or the state of being connected.”
So yes, technically, everything has a relationship with something else - be it economic, social, or even just by proximity. However, if we break this concept down further, relationships can be “transactional,” in that they are functional in nature, or emotional, like the bond we have with significant others, like friends, family, and partners. So transactional relationships are obviously possible. The real question is, can people have an emotional relationship with a brand?
A Bond Based On Trust
Emotional relationships are a bond based on trust, and a lot of social science research examines what builds this strong connection. It is an easy presumption that commonality - interests, personality, values, etc. - is the driver. However, according to psychologist John M. Gottman, one of the strongest predictors of trust is that of attention. He discovered that how people attended to each other, no matter what they were talking about, was the key. It was about giving the other person the type of attention they needed, a finding reinforced by Gary Chapman’s research on the concept of “love languages.”
Can Brands Be More Human?
So can we think about relationships with brands in this emotional way? Maybe not historically, where relationships tended to be transactional and one-way. But today, people are interacting and engaging with brands differently. They care less about the brand as a product (expecting basic quality and function), and more about identity, experience, and intention.
- What does using this brand say about me? My values? My intent?.
- What the experience of finding/buying/using/disposing of this brand?
- Does this brand have their customers best interests at heart?
This shift in interaction and engagement is largely due to the influence of social media, which enabled and accelerated the flow of communication not only between brand and customer but between customers themselves. By that very fact, our brands have had to become more “human” to communicate in that environment. Which then means that we should be thinking of the relationship in more emotional terms. Moreover, if we do, we can apply what we have learned from social science to brands. That if we make ourselves (our brands) focus on the type of attention consumers need, an emotional bond can result.
Relationships Are A Risk
It is a different way of looking at brand/consumer relationships, and there is a risk. Interactions are not always pleasant, and there are times when people are angry, irrational and confrontational. It makes much sense to be cautious and guarded in communication. However, as in any relationship, if there is resolve to be consistent, commitment to having their best interest at heart, and then trying to give the other party the attention they need, you will always come out of it stronger and better.
Sometimes you get an unexpected chance to pitch a fantastic company that’s outside your core target, and you just can’t pass it up. It's a mind-blowing, heart-racing, adrenaline-producing scrum and your team goes through a hero’s journey to achieve an impossible task. You push through, don’t sleep, and then end up giving an awesome, caffeine-fueled presentation. Secretly, you think you got it. Then you get the call that you weren't selected....
Most have considered the definition of local settled for a while, and there is an underlying understanding in the academic world of what that means. Local is so much more than geography; it is also cultural. Local means supporting the people in your area and considering the impact that your company (or brand) is having on their community.
A state of liminality during a rite of passage is the time of uncertainty - when an identity or role that was known and comfortable is left behind to make way for something new and unknown. In this first of a two-part blog series, Helena Ottoson explains the original application of liminal space and prepares you for the second post - understanding how to engage and interact with a brand's target audience that might be in a liminal state.