About 25 years ago, a simple yet compelling proposition was introduced into the world of branding by a group of academics, with Susan Fournier at the forefront: People form relationships with brands like they form relationships with humans. The idea took both the academic and corporate worlds by storm, with hundreds of articles and books published, and brands everywhere starting to think and talk differently about customer relationships.
Because marketers love to think that their brand can be as important as a human in somebody’s life, and because it follows from the theory that the more human your brand, the more likely people will want to form relationships with it, seemingly every brand has gotten the memo to try and “be more human.” After all, the evidence seems clear: Whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa learning to whisper, Warby Parker’s upbeat conversational tone at every touch point from the website to the box their glasses arrive in, or Google’s April Fools' Day pranks, the cool kids’ success seems to prove that the more human your brand, the more customers will flock to it.
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And clearly, there is something to this — not only do original academic studies on the subject show this, but every year the increasing role of authenticity and recognizing and rewarding loyalty to customers is shown. As is the importance of speaking in a human way and taking them seriously in your communications. In fact, just in 2016, 86 percent of consumers said their brand loyalty is primarily driven by likeability, with 83 percent stating trust.
Why is it, then, that building long-term customer relationships — especially with that ever-elusive creature, the millennial — still seems to be the Holy Grail, desired by many and achieved by few? Why have customers recently been heard urging brands to “quit trying to be my best friend?” Is it because of that much-bemoaned millennial fickleness and inability to commit? Or is there something else at play?
I’ll wager to say that most brands are just bad partners. From bad apologies (VW, I’m looking at you) to surprise price hikes masquerading as the customer’s best interest (Spectrum — or should I say Time Warner Cable? — you know this is you), to outright abuse when they think no one’s watching (think United), there’s no shortage of brands lacking key characteristics that would distinguish any good human relationship from a doomed one — honesty, vulnerability, fessing up to your mistakes, listening no matter what.
And just like when it comes to the actual humans in their lives, millennials are (thankfully) empowered enough today and have sufficient options out there, thank you very much, that they just have no reason anymore to stay in a dysfunctional relationship. With 40 percent of millennials not even feeling taken seriously by brands, you might just want to start taking a good, honest look at how your brand is stacking up as a partner — or risk being ghosted.
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Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in brand relationship theory. It’s just that like so many great academic concepts, it has fallen prey to that time-honed but ill-advised practice of companies taking the parts that suit them, while disregarding the rest. Instead of creating meaningful relationships and adding value to people’s lives, they are making customers feel like the only woman in a crowded bar. It’s not just about acting like a human: it’s about figuring out how to be a good partner to them – "in sickness and in health" (notice how sickness comes first?).
So, what can you do to make your brand a better partner?
Start by understanding your customers — and who’s missing in their lives.
According to research by IBM, only 22 percent of customers think brands understand them (even for their favorite retailers, it’s only 37 percent). And yet there’s no way around this: Just like in a human relationship, not knowing who they are (and by this I mean knowing what they truly care about, not just their age and the size of their wallet) doesn’t bode well for a long-term commitment.
Take the time to get to know your customers — but don’t just stalk them (a little is ok, too much is creepy). As soon as you can, give each and every one of them a reason to want to engage with you and tell you about themselves — on social media and in real life. It’s what Burberry did back in 2009 when it introduced Art of the Trench (before there even was Instagram). Or Dove, with its “#mybeautymysay” campaign. Different approaches are right for different brands, but the first step is always to clearly understand your customer to determine what relationships they are missing.
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Determine your brand personality and what type of partner your brand can be.
Just like with human relationships, and as every academic article on relationship theory will point out, there are multiple types of valid brand-customer relationships. And that’s a good thing — not every brand can, or should, be the “fun-loving best friend”; once you have ten of those, it actually gets a bit exhausting (see that Racked article). Instead, reach into your brand DNA to understand where your personalities complement each other, and what role your brand can, authentically (buzzword alert!), play in their lives. So for example, Mint isn’t a fun best friend — it’s a motivating financial coach to a busy life navigator. Patagonia is an inspiring activist role model for ambitious impact-seekers –– you get the picture. If you get this right, they might even want to introduce you to their friends and family.
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Now comes the key: Actually, truly own that role, especially in bad times.
Out of all customers who had a bad experience with a trusted brand in 2015, only 28 percent said that the conflict was resolved very effectively. Ouch. And just like you’re likely to distance yourself from a friend who weirds you out by acting like a totally different person every so often, 73 percent of consumers are likely to switch brands if a brand provides inconsistent levels of service across departments.
But, there’s much more to this: Whenever I ask clients in a workshop to share their most customer-centric experiences with a brand, inevitably, 90 percent of their answers are about brands handling a bad situation well. The true customer champions have understood this: That just like a human, it’s when the honeymoon phase is over and the going gets tough that the true nature of a relationship reveals itself. That’s when the strongest bonds are formed. And why Zappos and Amazon focus most of their customer service efforts after the sale has been made. It’s also why their service reps don’t read from scripts.
It’s in these tough times that most brands fall short. Many seem to subscribe to a distorted version of the mantra “there are no problems, only challenges,” failing to acknowledge a problem they’ve caused, and then alienating customers by not owning up to that failure (think former Lululemon CEO Chip Wilson’s body-shaming debacle and subsequent inadequate apology). Or, maybe worse, they pretend their failure was actually a decision consciously made in the customer’s best interest.
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Publicly admitting and dealing with failure in the humble and honest way we would expect from a good partner seems to still go counter to most corporate instincts. In the worst of such instances, you can almost see managers congratulating themselves on “turning the situation around” in a meeting room somewhere, when really all they’ve done is left customers feeling tricked and unheard. (Incidentally, that danger is also why making a brand “human” requires empowering people to problem-solve at every level of your organization).
It’s well documented that failures are a key opportunity for brands to build loyalty (think Domino’s pizza turnaround), and that customers will tell others about a positive turnaround experience — and that they will waste no time dishing to their friends about a bad one. And yet, still so many brands neglect the facts, while continuing to wonder why customers don’t want to commit.
Don’t make the same mistake. Or if you have, start owning up to it now. The next time you give your customers a reason to be unhappy, don’t wait to hear from them or pretend it was all in their own best interest. Don’t react only when they’ve embarrassed you by airing the dirty laundry on social media. Instead, understand what matters to them. Set your organization up to be able to listen to what they have to say. Keep your promises. Respect their boundaries. Own up to your mistakes. Every now and then, surprise them with a present — just because. Celebrate successes with them. Make memories together. Comfort them when they’re down. And please, don’t creepily stalk them if they leave. Just be a partner they want to stay with in the first place.
If you want committed customers, start taking relationships seriously. And that means embracing honesty and vulnerability like a human, too.