3 Ways to Deepen the Relationship Between You and Your Customers

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Do you recall that scene in your favorite rom-com when the couple decides to take the relationship to a deeper level? As a society, many of us are taking that next step with the relationships we have with brands. We are moving past the functional aspect of choice for the products and services they provide and are choosing brands on a far more emotional level based on what they stand for. In essence, we’re moving from purchasers to believers.

One motivation for this change is to fill the void left by institutions (whether governmental, financial, or educational) and companies that don’t treat people right. These entities have given our lives stability in the past, but many are now embroiled in scandal, fraud, or gridlock. We’re collectively more anxious and even lonelier, especially the younger generations. 

So it’s no wonder that companies are now ranked based on weighted measures such as how they treat their workers and customers, their environmental impact, their community support, and their human rights records. And it’s not surprising that “purpose-led” brands enjoy more resilient relationships with people. Gen Z is entering adulthood as the most anxious generation on record, but is also eager to find reasons for hope. In fact, 84 percent will actively promote a brand that stands up for something they believe in. 

The Way Forward

In one notable rom-com, the guy stands out in the rain with a boom box blasting a song that has meaning for both of the people involved. Metaphorically speaking, that’s what companies must do to forge meaningful relationships with customers. But to start, brands must understand and share peoples’ values and take a meaningful place in their hearts and minds. They must be clear about their principles—who they are and what they stand for.  

Here are three ways to go about doing that: 

1. Be real. Sixty-two percent of people say they want to work with brands that are authentic in everything they do. But for brands, being true to themselves can be more challenging than it may seem.

McDonald’s provides an instructive example. Seeing that Americans wanted healthier food, the fast food giant redesigned its menu to focus on healthier options by marketing salads and wraps alongside its iconic hamburgers.

It failed spectacularly—losing 500 million orders over a span of five years.

It turns out that we do want healthier food…we just don’t want it from McDonald’s. The brand’s identity just didn’t align with its business decision, and people saw right through it.

McDonald’s launched a successful recovery based on reclaiming its brand identity; it took what people already loved about the brand—cheap, flavorful burgers—and made it better, switching frozen to fresh meat. The reinvented burger has been a hit, from both a taste and business perspective.

2. Take the lead. Almost 90 percent of Americans think we’re too divided as a country, and 60 percent say that brands can help bring people together. This reveals a startling insight: looking around us, we see our bedrock institutions that have given our lives a sense of stability, like government, schools, religion, and civil society, as ineffective, paralyzed, or even broken.

For brands, this means a riskier landscape where they are being asked to take a stand at a time when everyone has different points of view, and no single approach will be right for everyone. As Gillette’s recent #MeToo-inspired commercial recently demonstrated, there will be both passionate supporters and vocal detractors.

At a minimum, this means brands will have to go beyond thinking about functional attributes like product, price, and features—and clearly communicate their values.

3. Show that you get them. Eight-eight percent of people say digital ads are more intrusive today than two to three years ago; today’s consumers have a desire for greater space, and more trust, in their lives.

Some brands react to this by curating environments that don’t pressure people to buy on the spot but, rather, create a memorable experience that may lead to a sale in the future. There can be a direct relation between the brand and the experience, as with hotels that allow guests to experience products in a real-world setting. There can also be a less direct connection between the brand and experience, as this example of a luxury carmaker’s exclusive restaurant illustrates. 

It can also come through with brands’ choice of spokesperson. Multinational brands are investing more in influencer marketing, and many are turning to everyday micro-influencers with fewer than 10,000 followers on social media. This approach has strong potential—micro-influencers are seen as far more genuine than other endorsers. (However, brands should be careful not to create a perception of “stealth marketing,” which strikes many as unethical.)

Brand Success Through Shared Values

In most rom-coms, the couple had to get to know each other beyond the romance period. They need to meet the family, be accepted by the beloved pets, show that they share the same values, and so much more. And then, they inevitably find love and settle down together. 

Brands, too, are no longer a casual acquaintance that fulfills a functional need, but a meaningful partner that makes life more rewarding for the person and the brand. It’s a major shift from our traditional, transactional notion of the relationship between brands and consumers. Today’s brands that meet high public expectations, demands, and desires are connecting with people on a deeply rooted emotional level, ultimately evolving the relationship from transaction to interaction. And whether the outcome is happily ever after or just a more positive partnership, brands are building connections for life.

Ivan Bojanic is senior integration architect at Gongos Inc. Nancy Walter is integration architect at Gongos Inc.

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