Can Brands and People Really Have a Relationship?

Photo by Unsplash

Photo by Unsplash

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.