building better brand relationships

reciprocal relationship

Most marketers know that relationships are central to building their brands.

But what does this actually mean?

We build a variety of relationships every day in our personal and professional lives, but much of this goes on subconsciously, and we rarely stop to think about how we do it.

Given this, it might help to take a look at how a typical brand relationship evolves, and the things we can do to strengthen and deepen its bonds.

The evolution of a relationship

From a marketing perspective, there are seven basic stages in the development of a brand relationship:

relationship evolution

[click the image to enlarge it]

Before we analyse each step individually, it’s important to note that relationships develop sequentially.

Although it may sometimes appear that relationships ‘jump’ some steps, the reality in such situations is that people simply progress through the intermediate steps in rapid succession.

Because of this linearity, it’s vital that marketers understand all the steps they must move their brands through on their journey to success.

In the beginning

It is possible for people to generate value for a brand before they’re aware of it, but this value is coincidental.

A ‘relationship’ can only begin when a person becomes aware of the brand.

Consequently, the brand’s first key task is to raise awareness.

That may sound glib, but it introduces a critical point:

Only in situations where people have never heard of the brand should we concern ourselves with building ‘awareness’.

Many established brands talk about the need to raise awareness, but it is unlikely that this will their most important challenge.

Breeding familiarity

In the early stages of a brand relationship, people may recognise only its most fundamental attributes:  its name, its logo, its packaging.

Many brands confuse this recognition for success, focusing all their resources on achieving the highest possible awareness, and so never progressing beyond this stage.

However, in order to create value, awareness must translate into consideration.

Positioning the brand

People will only consider a brand if they believe it can help them satisfy their wants and needs.

However, in order to develop this perception, people must first understand what the brand stands for.

Brands establish this through articulating a positioning and a proposition:

What the brand wants to stand for in a person’s heart and mind, relative to alternatives.

The most compelling reason why someone should choose the brand over alternatives

Developing a relevant positioning and compelling proposition are the most important steps in a brand’s evolution.

However, they only become valuable once the brand’s intended audiences and consumers understand them.

Communicating the brand’s core, differentiated benefit is critical; any brand that fails to do so will only ever realise a tiny fraction of its potential value:

relationship journey interrupted

[click the image to enlarge it]

(You can find more on differentiation in this post).

Reinforcing relevance

Once people understand the brand’s positioning, the next task is to ensure that they understand why that positioning is relevant to their wants and needs.

Although this often happens in tandem with the previous step, it does not happen by default.

Furthermore, the brand can still establish relevance at a subsequent point, even if people fail to understand its relevance straight away.

However, the only way to establish this relevance is by showing people how the brand makes their life better.

There are numerous ways to do this, but they must always focus on the audience’s perspective.

Strengthening the bond

Once a brand has demonstrated relevance, it has succeeded in fostering consideration.

The challenges involved in translating this into preference – i.e. progressing from relevance through to favourite – are broadly the same, but they depend on each brand’s specific context.

Because of this, brands should make extensive use of research to identify the specific barriers that hinder the brand’s progress.

Some of these barriers may be subjective, resulting from differences in individual taste.

Others will be more objective; for example, people may be satisfied with an existing solution, or it may be too much hassle for them to change existing habits.

However, enabling people to experience the brand’s benefits on more than one occasion will help to build a momentum that will make it easier to overcome both types of hurdle.

As a result, activities like ‘re-sampling’ – where sampling drives a subsequent experience rather than just an initial ‘taster’ – can play a highly effective role.

Unwavering commitment

‘True’ brand loyalty only occurs when people will accept no alternative: when they’ll leave a store empty handed if their chosen brand isn’t available.

Although the Cola Wars suggested such loyalty might be commonplace, the reality is that few brands ever achieve this kind of unique relationship.

The only way to build and maintain such a relationship is through two-way commitment – i.e. the brand must prove that it’s willing to give people back as much as it hopes to receive.

However, even if a brand reaches this nirvana state, its job is not complete.

Constant flux

Relationships evolve all the time.

The dynamics that exist between a person’s various relationships, and how their needs and desires change over time, mean that relationships function much like stocks and shares: their value can go up as well as down.

Get things really wrong, and they can also go bankrupt.

The only way to ensure that your relationships survive and continue to deliver the value you hope is to monitor their health on a regular basis, and to continue working at them, all the time.

And there’s only one way to do that…

All one-way?

As we saw above, the prospect of a relationship arises when one party becomes aware of the other.

However, a relationship only really begins when there is interaction – a relevant degree of give and take.

Without this reciprocity, the ‘relationship’ is nothing more than a one-way transaction.

Sadly, many brands are stuck in this transactional mindset: they operate like celebrities, building legions of ‘fans’, but remaining ignorant of those people except for their contribution to statistics.

However, in today’s hypersocial world, that approach limits a brand’s ability to progress to the deepest levels of relationship engagement.

People are increasingly demonstrating preference for brands that are active members of their communities, and cold, distant brands risk alienation.


If you want to build valuable relationships, you’ve got to draw people in deeper.

That involves giving people a good reason to increase their levels of engagement, and this is dependent on active participation and interaction.

Brands need to show people that they care, and that they’re willing to give back as much as they take.

In other words, we need to build partnerships.

1 Response to “building better brand relationships”

  1. 1 Brandhabits November 5, 2009 at 18:32

    Interesting post Simon. I like the segments of the stages of relationship. It got me thinking that this could be a valuable tool for segmentation. Devising communication strategy for customers based on their relationship with the brand.

    I’ve done this before based on a consumer’s relationship:
    Happy – potential to be happy with what the brand stands for
    Heavy – consumption of the category
    Loyal – existing relationship with the brand.

    It’s been very successful for me with other brands. Your model above could be used to evaluate the loyal part.


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