You and me: The Brand Relationship Theory

Do you love “the Office?” I do… In one of my favourite episodes, Michael Scott got herpes and wants to know who gave him the disease. He starts working backwards through his partners, chronologically. Michael Scott, being the man he is, instead of informing his past partners of his infection, he asks them relationship-related questions such as: “What went wrong? Did I make more of what we had than was really there?” You may ask “What does Michael Scott have to do with branding?” Well, everything, according to Dr. Susan Fournier’s brand relationship theory.

This is actually a decade-old theory. Professor Fournier conducted in-depth interviews with women to understand the relationships they form with the brands they know and use. At the end she identified 13 unique relationship forms, ranging from best friendships to flings. Later on, the same study was replicated with men and 15 unique relationship forms were identified. This is a breakthrough finding because it clearly explains why and how brands establish different emotional bonds with customers. According to Professor Fournier, relationships are purposive: they add and build meanings in a person’s life. Brands help us create, maintain or transition to our key roles in life. For instance, when you become an adolescent, or a parent your role in life changes. To cope with such transition, you surround yourself with brands that help you build the right personality.

Most brands make the common mistake of trying to build more passionate, intimate and committed relationships with customers. Relationship is a two-way street. As Professor Fournier stated, “for a relationship to truly exist, interdependence between partners must be evident.” You cannot force a relationship. It has to happen naturally. Simply laddering up the benefit does not suffice. The key here is to name your role in their lives. We all have relationships with hundreds of people in our livese. Not all of those relationships are built on high engagement. And that’s OK… For instance, I go to the same coffee shop everyday. I say “Hi” to people there, and occasionally talk about daily stuff. But it would be silly of me to try to make more of what we have than is really there by let’s say inviting them to lunch. Had I done that, I would be harassing them. Every relationship is different in its nature. If you try to build a more emotional connection with your customers without knowing the exact role you play in their lives, you risk being labeled as a “harasser.’ Unfortunately, that’s what most brands do.

Today’s actionable tip:  Try to see things through the eyes of the customers. You DON’T have to be his/her “best friend” unless you are granted that status. There is so much more you can do with a less intimate relationship, if you understand your role as a partner and act accordingly.

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9 Replies to “You and me: The Brand Relationship Theory”

  1. As a PR student, I had to write an assignment analyzing different types of campaigns. The campaign that captured my attention was “Will It Blend?” from Blendtec®, because the idea was original and simple. I think some of the ideas you wrote in this article apply to Blendtec® – the company established emotional bonds with its customers. It also built two-way communications with its customers by inviting them to sending recipes. What attracted most of my attention, however, was the way the CEO could have fun with the company’s product and could show that to customers. You talked about relationships being “a two-way street,” and I think this is the challenge that brands today have to be successful at. Blendtec® clearly is.

    1. Thanks for your sharing your valuable insights Marcella.

      I agree with you that Will it Blend? was a fantastic campaign. One of the easiest way to establish relationship is to use the power of humour. As you mentioned above, the company did a wonderful job.

      That said, I have not followed the Blendtec for a while. Eventually every campaign gets old. I suppose Will it Blend? too, get old. How did they keep the relationship alive? Do you have any ideas?

      On a separate note, I realized you wrote about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I think you might find this article relevant:


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