Build Your Brand as a Relationship

Originally published in Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchek and Cara France in May 2016. 

The way we think about brands need to change. In the past, they were objects or concepts. You had a relationship with a brand. But in this social age, brands are the relationships. By defining a brand’s particular kind of relationship, companies can create greater engagement, differentiation, and loyalty.

To understand this new mental model for brands, it is helpful to see how the concept has evolved. A brand started out as an identifying mark. Cattle owners would “brand” their cattle to indicate ownership. We can still see the “brand as object” model in the American Marketing Association’s definition: “Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” In this view, a brand is something applied to what you make.

In the next wave, a brand shifted from a feature to a perception, from an object to an idea. Al Ries and Jack Trout capture the essence of this model in their classic book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. They define a brand as “a singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect.” In this view, a brand is not something you make, it’s something you manage.

The most recent wave focuses on brand as experience. Sergio Zyman, in The End of Marketing as We Know It, says: “A brand is essentially a container for a customer’s complete experience with the product or company.” A brand is not something you manage over time. It’s something you deliver in the moment.

Our experience working with innovative companies indicates they are redefining not only how their brands are observed, perceived, and experienced. They are also redefining the very nature of the relationship they have with their customer.

If the first three waves were brand as objectidea, and experience, the next wave will be brand as relationship.

The way to put “brand as relationship” into action is by defining the respective roles and responsibilities of the company and customer. The default brand relationship is provider/consumer. It’s a simple relationship that is one-directional and asymmetrical. The company provides the product or service, and the customer consumes it.

Brand innovators tend to create different kinds of relationships. Instead of transactional and one-directional relationships, the roles are more collaborative and reciprocal.

For example, in the hospitality industry most brands operate with the roles of host/guest. It’s one-directional, asymmetrical, and transactional. Airbnb has disrupted that model. With a mission of “belonging,” Airbnb has cultivated a neighbor-to-neighbor and citizen-to-citizen relationship on a global scale. It is reciprocal, symmetrical, and collaborative.

In the taxi and livery industry, cabs and limo services have operated with the roles of driver/passenger. Again, it’s one-directional, asymmetrical and transactional. Uber and Lyft established differentiation by introducing new roles along two dimensions. The first is a shift from driver/passenger to friend/friend. For example, Lyft passengers are encouraged to “sit up front” as if they were getting a ride from a friend. According to Kira Wampler, CMO of Lyft, “Our original tagline was ‘Your Friend with a Car’ which served not only to describe the human, peer-to-peer experience we delivered with Lyft but also to differentiate us from other private driver approaches.”

Another new brand role is entrepreneur/supporter. Uber encourages potential drivers to “build their business” on Uber. In both these cases, the brand relationship is more reciprocal and personal. As Amy Friedlander, Head of Experiential Marketing at Uber describes it, “Working with Uber is about our drivers’ needs, whether those needs are to have a fully flexible schedule or earn extra money. Uber is a platform that fits their lifestyle, not the other way around.”

In the airline industry, innovators have also redefined the brand roles. The established players like United and Delta have operated with a brand relationship of flyer/passenger. But Southwest broke the mold with singing flight attendants and a relationship that might be described as “fun friends.”  JetBlue, with its free snacks and mission of “Inspiring Humanity,” has a “human-to-human” relationship.

Virgin America went in a different direction, creating a brand relationship that is a cross between the hip friend and host of the party. The relationship is perhaps one reason Virgin customers are so upset by the sale of the airline. As one Virgin fan said, “I think of Alaska [Airlines] as more of a friendly aunt.” The sale is like someone busting up the party and telling everyone to go home.

The concept of brand-as-relationship also helps explain the rise of well-established market leaders. American Express redefined the relational roles of its industry from card issuer/card holder to club/member. Disney redefined the relational roles of amusement parks from operator/rider to cast member/guest. And Starbucks redefined not only the role of the server from waiter to barista, but the role of the coffee shop from restaurant to community hub.

Those familiar with brand archetypes may see some similarities to this approach. The difference is that in brand archetypes, the focus is on the attributes of the brand. But in the model proposed here, the focus is on the relationship that people have with Nike. As an archetype, Nike is a “Hero” brand because of its focus on victory. But Nike’s brand roles are best described as coach/athlete.

Marketers have an opportunity to redefine brand roles in every industry. Media has been defined by broadcaster/viewer for decades. Health care has been defined by doctor/patient. Education has been defined by teacher/student. In each of these industries, there is an opportunity to create a new relationship based on co-creation and collaboration.

To get started, think about the relationship people have with your brand today. Frame your answer as social roles. For example, if you are a health care provider, you probably have a brand relationship based on doctor/patient. Now think about other kinds of relationships outside your industry. For example, in health care there are aspects of teacher/student (to educate), coach/athlete (to motivate), or guide/traveler (to navigate). Be sure to consider roles that are symmetrical, like friend/friend, neighbor/neighbor or co-creator/co-creator.

Another strategy is to work backwards from the kind of relationship you want to have. Think about the value and benefits of your product. Then imagine the human relationships that would provide the same type of benefits. Nest thermostats, for example, automatically adjust the temperature to your liking, and their smoke detectors calmly direct you to safety in the case of a fire. Instead of the usual role for a device maker of manufacturer/buyer, Nest has created a brand role of being part of the family, looking out for you in an attentive and protective way. “Instead of thinking about George Jetson’s ‘smart home’ we imagine a home that is humanized and takes care of the people inside it and the world around it,” says Doug Sweeny, CMO of Nest.

Finally, look for ways to shift your brand roles from one-directional, asymmetrical, and transactional to reciprocal, symmetrical, and personal. These roles will bring to life your strategic narrative around a shared purpose. If today’s brand innovators are a guide, the result will be greater engagement, differentiation, and loyalty.
 

Thanks to my co-author, Cara France, CEO of Sage Group,
and the members of the Marketers that Matter community.