Relationships With Brands Don't Exist, But Shared Values Might

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I think it’s going too far to say people have ‘relationships’ with brands. That’s the language you hear a lot, but it only takes thinking about your personal experience with brands to realize this idea is a little overblown. Silly, even.

You have relationships with people. Not with products or services, even the most well-designed. Not with businesses, except possibly the smallest mom-and-pops. (And then you really have relationships with the familiar faces behind the counter, not the brand. The brand doesn’t know the names of your kids. A brand doesn’t have a brain stem.)

Mostly we gravitate toward brands for a few less touchy-feely reasons, even if we don’t realize it consciously at the time:

The brand stirs up nostalgia -- you know, like those cookies grandma used to let you gorge on when your parents weren’t around. It has warm and fuzzy associations.

Or it represents reliability and familiarity. It’s time-tested and it works. That could mean mundane products like a safety razor with 18 blades, or tech brands that always feel intuitive.

It’s an indulgence. Whether that’s a rare and decadent experience, a luxury you believe you’ve earned (a reward), or a way to temporarily relieve stress by pumping your brain full of sweet, sweet dopamine.

Often the brand identity and promise are just signifiers -- our way of telling the world that we associate with a tribe, a philosophy or a worldview. They reinforce beliefs we already hold, or are sometimes aspirational. They may look and sound like change we want to see in the world.

There are more reasons, no doubt, but none of them resemble real ‘relationships,’ if we’re honest about what we do. In the moment, they can be means to an end. Long-term, they can become a part of your personal identity, which we all construct day by day. Like how you cut your hair.

Aside from grandma’s candy, though, there are probably precious few brands you cared about at age six or 16 that you still passionately seek out today. Think about it. I can’t name one.

‘My puffy jacket gets me.’

That doesn’t mean a brand’s values are unimportant, necessarily. In fact, they may be the closest most businesses can get to having a ‘relationship’ with customers in any useful way.

A useful way, for the record, is one that persuades them to buy from you.

For instance, if you care about the environment, you care about your role in it -- and by extension you probably care about the impact your favorite brands have on it, too. The pollution from their supply chains. The causes they donate money to. Just look at Patagonia to see a brand’s values put front-and-center effectively. They’ve done pretty well, I’d say.

If you believe our cultural standards of beauty are harmful, or at least ridiculous -- that beauty can take many shapes -- then you’ll probably resent brands that perpetuate unrealistic fantasies, and choose something else, if given the chance. (As Kendrick Lamar so eloquently put it: ‘Sick and tired of Photoshop / Show me somethin’ natural’ ...)

Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign showed how ready many women were to have someone acknowledge this, and how they’d appreciate quality products that came without the judgmental baggage.

(CAVEAT: I don’t know if this accurately represents Dove’s values on the whole. I don’t use Dove.)

‘Nope, not buying it.’

It only works if it’s at least somewhat sincere, though. (Looking at you, BP … Facebook, take notice.) If it’s something your business or organization actually gives a damn about. (And hey — maybe that is just making delicious cookies you can gorge with grandma. Who doesn’t love cookies and grandmas?)

Because marketing messages only skate the surface of a customer’s experience. Your real values are also reflected everywhere else -- in the actual product or service, your packaging, your materials or ingredients, your processes, your customer service, your commitments to the larger community, your treatment of your own employees. Every moving part makes some kind of statement. That’s where ‘brands’ come from, not the other way around.

Resist the urge to tack on borrowed values because research told you that’s what your customers want to hear. A few may be fooled a while, but the rest will smell that funky bullshit the longer it’s flung in their direction.

Know why you exist, and show how your business embodies that. Explain why your customers should care enough to try it out. Then maybe use research to find people who think that’s great, and want what you’ve got.

If all else fails, be interesting or funny.

On second thought, do that anyway.

A great product or service is the minimum requirement, of course. That may be enough, for a while. Until another product comes along that works just as well. Plus has a brand that shares something in common with its customers … customers who think that’s a pretty good reason to buy their stuff instead, all things being equal.

To customers, you’re more like an extension or reflection of how they see themselves. What they need or value. Not an old friend they can’t wait to drunk-text this weekend.

So the only relationship you should worry about, really, is your relationship to your brand.