Cupid is coming this week. Stores have heart-shaped boxes of chocolates stacked to the ceilings and the price of roses has trebled. But here’s what I’m wondering: Will your brands be getting any love on Valentine’s Day?
This question came to mind after I read the new book by Brand Illumination president Tim Halloran, Romancing the Brand: How Brands Create Strong, Intimate Relationships with Consumers (Jossey-Bass, 2014). Halloran begins the book with a story from his time as a brand manager at Coca-Cola. He was watching a focus group through a two-way mirror when a member of the group, a woman in her late 20s, held up a can of soda.
“I drink eight of these a day,” she said. “It is always with me, no matter what happens. It was there when my boss gave me my promotion last week. It was at my side two months ago when my cat died. It got me through it. I start and end my day with it. It’s never let me down. I can always count on it. To sum it up, it’s my boyfriend…Diet Coke.”
Leaving the health considerations aside (my doctor’s head would explode if I told her I drank that much of any kind of soda), this consumer’s relationship with a brand is clearly based on more than a cost-benefit analysis. “This was preposterous, wasn’t it?” writes Halloran. “We can’t connect with products the same way we connect with people!”
But of course we can. Research by academics like Jennifer Aaker and Susan Fournier suggests that brands can have personalities, and consumers can have highly emotional relationships with them just like they might with a significant other. In Romancing the Brand, Halloran explains how marketers can create such a relationship using an eight-stage approach that starts with “know yourself” and ends with “breaking up and moving on.”
This sounds like it has some Svengali-esque potential to me. So, I asked the author whether his book could be used as a pickup manual by manipulative marketers.
“I don’t see how,” he replied. “Consumers are smarter than ever and they’re calling marketers on any messages that don’t align with what they know is true. They won’t tolerate a Svengali brand.
Consumers won’t tolerate a Svengali brand.
“If marketers are going to develop relationships with consumers, they need to recognize that relationships must be beneficial to both parties. The strongest interpersonal relationships exist when we build each other up and make each other feel special. It’s the same thing with brands and consumers.
“The strongest brand-consumer relationships exist when marketers truly understand consumers—their hopes, dreams, desires, and fears—and identify how their brands can meet consumers’ functional or emotional needs in ways that are different, better, and special,” Halloran continued.
“More importantly, it is critical to meet these needs in an authentic and honest way. The Radio Shack commercial that just ran on the Super Bowl is a case in point. Radio Shack was brutally honest. By using the line, ‘The '80s called, they want their store back,’ the company told consumers, ‘Yes, we know we were horribly outdated, but check out our stores now and see what we’ve done.’ That might be intriguing enough to get people to revisit Radio Shack. But if they go to a store and it still screams the 1980s, or there is nothing there of interest, the brand will be dead to them.
“Marketers who think they can get away with Svengali-esque shenanigans are going to get called out by a smart consumer base and that will destroy any chance for brand romance. To create a strong relationship, marketers must treat consumers like romantic partners—with integrity and respect.”