Subject: What kind of relationship do you want with a brand?
The whole point of using story as a strategic marketing tool is to help develop a relationship between the brand and its audience. But saying that begs some important questions: What kind of relationship are we talking about? And what kind of relationship is even possible?
I was thinking about these questions as I was rereading Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely’s insightful and highly entertaining deconstruction of human decision making. At the beginning of the chapter on social norms, he describes what might happen if you offered to pay your mother-in-law a few hundred dollars in cash as an expression of your gratitude for a well-prepared Thanksgiving meal. The story is used to illustrate the difference between social relationships and commercial ones. The offer of cash—any amount of cash—makes the relationship a commercial one. Most relationships fit pretty clearly into one bucket or the other. In fact, presenting yourself as a friend when you actually have a selfish, mercenary motive is symptomatic of an unhealthy, perhaps toxic, relationship. And as Dan Ariely points out later in the same chapter, it doesn’t take much to subvert a social relationship, turning it into a commercial one, but it is a long, hard road to reestablish a social relationship once it has been undermined.
Brands want to have close relationships with their customers because it’s good for business. A customer who feels connected is more willing to pay a premium and more likely to forgive occasional lapses on the part of the brand. (Remember when the iPhone 4 was dropping calls if you held it a certain way? Steve Jobs called a press conference and said, “Don’t hold it that way,” and most Apple loyalists let it pass.) Loyalty is a quality we expect, to one degree or another, in all social relationships. In fact, loyalty is a defining quality of a good social relationship. But loyalty in a commercial relationship is kind of an odd duck. Why should you be loyal to a company that doesn’t know you, a company whose interest in you, as far as you can tell, is to make money by transacting business with you?
I recently heard a senior brand marketer describe the relationship he wants between his brand and its customers by comparing it to a strong relationship between good friends. But I think that’s a mistake, unless he’s the kind of person who is always trying to sell Amway products to his close friends at a backyard barbeque or routinely studying his friends to find out what they want so that he can be the one to sell it to them. Story theory suggests another model, however, which I think is much more useful:
Think about the relationship between your brand and its customers as if the brand were a character in a drama and your customers were the audience.
I know that the characters I encounter in a movie, a TV show or a book are fictional. But I willingly suspend my disbelief and begin to care about them if the story feels true and meaningful.
It is important to note that, in this metaphor, the brand is in a much better position to connect emotionally with its audience if it is the protagonist in the drama. An awful lot of brands, particularly CPG brands, do their archetype studies and end up defining themselves as some kind of helper or mentor. But here again, the profit motive gets in the way. A helper or mentor from a story who only gives his services in exchange for money is either a villain or a rogue who will later learn the error of his ways and begin to act more selflessly (think Han Solo).
Further, true helpers and mentors tend to be secondary characters. They don’t struggle, they aren’t particularly vulnerable, and they don’t grow. We may like Gandalf or Mr. Miyagi or Obi-Wan Kenobi, but we don’t identify with them; we don’t see ourselves in them. The protagonist, however, is the “point-of-view character”; we see the world through this character’s eyes, and identify with the character because he or she struggles with the same internal issues that we struggle with. Protagonists feel relevant and meaningful to us because we recognize ourselves in them and we learn from what they’re going through.
When Jim and I were still at the animation studio, we used to say that we knew an animated character was successful when we felt as if we could see it feel and think. A brand is just as fictional as an animated character, and a brand comes to life for me when I have a sense that I know how it’s feeling, what it’s thinking and how it is likely to respond to whatever the world throws at it.
So that’s our suggestion for how to think about the way your brand relates to its customers. Don’t imagine your brand as their helper, mentor or favorite aunt. All of those relationships seem fake if they turn out to be based primarily on financial considerations. Instead, think of your brand as a character engaged in a struggle that is meaningful and relevant to your audience. Your job isn’t to fake a close, personal relationship with your customers but to show them what you believe in and care about. Customers who share your beliefs will find your brand relevant (in fact, that’s the only useful definition of relevance for a marketer), and they may reward you with their loyalty.
I’d love to know what brands you feel loyal to and how you think about your relationship with them.