What relationship is right for your brand?

The idea of a brand having a relationship with consumers is one thing that differentiates it from a mere product. But what sort of relationship is right for your brand? From our experience on over 200 projects in multiple markets, there seem to at least six different types of brand relationship, that I describe below. These six form a sort of continuum, from less to more deep, but not a hierarchy: level 3 is not necessarily more effective than level 4 for your brand, for example. Rather, what is important is creating a relationship that is relevant, authentic and executed consistently over time. After all, we don’t trust someone who shifts his relationship stance with us all the time, do we?

Level 1: Relating through IMAGERY

Possibly forming the largest set, these brands project an aspirational image through advertising, hoping to attract people to their world through the power of their imagery. Categories like fashion, perfumery, luxury etc. typically use this approach, almost asking, “This is my world, won’t you come in?” But many brands from everyday categories also try to use this approach.

Key watchout: the risk here is ‘image wrapper branding’, where a brand offers an attractive emotional world but doesn’t back it up with a great product. This might work in some fashion categories (e.g. that $100 Gucci t-shirt is made in the same factory as the $10 one from Walmart) … but it is unlikely to be effective in everyday product categories. Image-based branding also needs serious investment in design and production values.

Level 2: Relating through BENEFITS

These brands don’t just rely on “who am I”, going further to show “what I can do for you”. They devise compelling rational & emotional benefits and further support these with credible reasons-to-believe. From Heinz selling the thickest ketchup, to FedEx promising overnight delivery to Ponds promising blemish-free skin; the list of brands on this approach is also very large.

Key watchout: a key challenge here is to tell a product story in a way that is emotionally compelling and highly distinctive. For example, Bertolli created an imaginary world of robustly mischievous elders in Italy to communicate the idea of ‘Enjoyable longevity’ in a highly memorable series of executions.

Level 3: Relating through VALUES

Whether it is Benetton talking of a world ‘sans discrimination’, Body Shop standing against animal testing or Ben & Jerry’s making ice cream that addresses social issues, brands are increasingly ‘planting their flags’ in an issue and shouting about their beliefs. By consistently sticking to these values through thick and thin (read sales pressures), these brands can create distinctive associations that attract their own unique constituencies of users.

Key watchout: even if you lead with your values, you need to also deliver a great product to keep people buying. Ben & Jerry’s has a social mission, but also a product mission about producing amazing ice cream. Its this ‘double whammy’ that works for the brand, captured in the brand idea, “Joy for the belly and soul”.

Level 4: Relating through PURPOSE

This level is closely linked the previous level on values, and is the new rage, particularly for consumer goods brands. Simon Sinek’s famous TED video urging us to focus on ‘why’ rather than ‘how’ or ‘what’ has inspired many brands to go this route. And data from Jim Stengel’s book Grow suggests that going beyond the functional to improve everyday life can indeed be good for business. In a 10-year growth study of 50,000 brands, the 50 highest-performing businesses were the ones driven by ‘brand ideals’.

Key watchout: for this approach to work, the purpose itself needs to be relevant to consumers, fresh to the category and credible for the brand that owns it. Some wonderful examples include ‘Real Beauty’ from Dove, ‘Dirt is Good’ from Surf/Omo and ‘Eat Local’ by Hellmans. Care is needed not to loose sight with the product though, as we posted on here in a blog about Airbnb.

Level 5: Relating through CULTURE

A step beyond Purpose is to build a distinctive culture that invites consumers to participate, creating a ‘movement’. Harley Davidson’s HOG (Harley Owners Group) program has thousands of bikers ride out every weekend in groups, embracing not just the openness of nature, but also the tribal experience of oneness. Red Bull creates such a consumer culture through sports. For example, ‘Flugtag’, a sport they invented, involves hundreds of participants who compete trying to fly manmade flying objects without engines. Each Flugtag event attracts over 80,000 fans. Red Bull builds large online communities, and each piece of content gets rave views from a few thousand people up to many millions.

Key watchout: creating a culture that invites participation requires your brand to be operating in a category that lends itself to this sort of movement and needs serious investment. Red Bull and Harley Davidson are ‘lifestyle’ brands that invest time, talent and money in creating compelling experiences people want to participate in; Red Bull has over 100+ marketing people in the UK alone. 

Level 6: Relating through a SHARED CULTURE

These brands go a step even further by building a world where the same culture attracts consumers AND pulls in employees. The Geek Squad appeals to people who want to be recognised and celebrated for being just that, geeks! Home Depot in the USA is known to employ its most ardent DIY customers who flock the store often to buy stuff. Increasingly, brands like Lush, Trader Joe & Innocent are creating worlds where the external promise & internal culture of the brand blend into one seamless experience.

Key watchout: this is the most demanding level of all. It means making the whole of your organisation brand-led, from top to bottom and across every function. It means making your recruitment values-based, not just skill-based, focusing on bringing people who buy into your culture 110%

What does all this mean?

You have a choice in designing how you connect your brand with consumers. Moving towards Level 6 means planning for a lot more consumer ‘investment’ in the brand; be it through conversations, suggestions, co-designing, crowdsourcing etc. Done well, such increased involvement can increase brand appeal at relatively low marketing cost, although it does require investment in people inside the business to manage these programs properly. And it also opens your brand up to the risk of consumer backlash if you don’t keep up your end of the relationship bargain consistently.

And whichever route you take, make the choice explicit and be consistent in how you stay true to your commitments.