David Jones

Social Media and Brand Relationships: The Big Lie

By: David Jones | April 7, 2014 | 

Social Media and Brand Relationships - The Big LieBy David Jones

By now we’ve all heard that building relationships with consumers through social media is the future of brand marketing.

The logic makes sense: The closer my brand is with its consumers, the more loyal they are, the more forgiving they are, and the more likely they are to become advocates marching in my word-of-mouth army.

Hard to argue with in theory, but does the logic hold in practice?

Are Relationships in Social Media a Lie?

Adam Kmiec from Walgreens put it bluntly on his personal blog,

Relationship-building is the single biggest lie being purported right now.

Giving this school of thought credence is a 2012 study in the Harvard Business Review that revealed an overwhelming majority of consumers don’t really want a relationship with a brand. But the counter-argument is supported by other studies that state that consumers do indeed value relationships with brands.

It’s enough to make you turn in your social media license and write pop-philosophy books.

So which is it?

Relationships Aren’t the Answer

The problem is in the language used.

“Relationship” is kind of a creepy term and would certainly turn a few people off. The word is very personal and denotes a closeness few of us are comfortable sharing beyond a chosen few people in our lives.

Brands, I’m sorry, it’s not you. It’s me. I just don’t like you in that way.

If you still don’t quite believe it, ask a teenager if they would like to have a relationship with their teacher. They’d more than likely say “Ew, no. Gross.”

But the truth is they already have a relationship with their teacher. They just don’t consider it a relationship, in the traditional definition of the term – or want to think about it that way. Ever.

So, how can you have a relationship without having a “relationship”?

What we’re talking about here is a “close connection.”

On the relationship spectrum, it falls somewhere between “I’ve heard of you” and “I can’t live without you in my life.”

It’s the same feeling you have about your hometown or your current neighborhood. I feel good about my connection, but I don’t want to marry the street I live on.

I’d hazard a guess that should Harvard Business Review go back and ask the question, “Would you like to have a close connection with a brand?” the results would swing wildly to the positive.

Sometimes this connection is purely emotional, other times it’s purely transactional, and other times it’s completely utilitarian. But, for most brands it’s a mix of all of these.

Finding out how your community perceives your brand, what they value, and what they want from you is always the first step in creating a social presence that connects.

Create a Close Connection With Your Audience

Let’s put semantics aside and get down to operations.

Successful brands that use social well to build connection with consumers follow a similar approach that great brands have used since social media was literally ye olde word-of-mouth.

As you’d imagine, top brands in social are and were top brands long before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. We’ve boiled down their approach to a framework any brand can use to build close connections in their social channels.

We call it CRAVE: Consistent, relevant, accessible, valuable, and emotional.

Consistent: Be consistently awesome all the time in how you act, look, sound, deliver. Never settle for average or easy.

Relevant: Stay in touch with what your audience cares about and talks about, and find ways to become part of those conversations.

Accessible: Find your human voice. Even if you are anonymous and behind a company logo, sound and act like a person. People want to connect with other people in social.

Valuable: Know what your community wants and expects from your brand, and give it to them. This could be entertainment, help, status, or prizes. Knowing why your community values your brand gives you the opportunity to deliver, and remember to throw in some “surprise and delight” once in a while.

Emotional: Brands create emotional bonds. Find your truth, understand your emotional center, and create connections that have heart based on shared ideals.

Don’t get caught up in the binary argument over whether or not customers want relationships with your brand.

Instead, focus on creating positive brand experiences to which your customers and prospects feel connected.

About David Jones

David Jones is owner and CEO of Social Lab, working directly with brands, organizations and their agency partners to develop internal social media capabilities, create social media presences with purpose and collaborate on social-by-design campaign ideas. Jones has spent over two decades working with leading agencies, including BBDO/Proximity, Critical Mass, Hill & Knowlton and FleishmanHillard, and has developed holistic social strategies, executed social media marketing campaigns and provided internal training for organizations that include MolsonCoors, Nike Canada, PepsiCo, Bayer, Motorola, HP, Visa, the Ontario Government, WorldPride Festival and the Sandra Schmirler Foundation. Jones has been a blogger, podcaster and speaker on the intersection of PR, advertising and media since 2005. You can find his blog at davejones.ca and some of the papers and presentations he's authored on Slideshare.

  • The whole idea of a relationship with a brand is fairly odd to me. I have relationships with people, but brands?

    You know, there is a little mom & pop pizza place near our house. We like the food and the prices are reasonable. Any guest we take there tells us it is the best pizza we’ve ever had. Over the years, we’ve gotten to know the owners a little. 

    But is that a brand “relationship?” I don’t know.

  • I tried to have a relationship with Victoria’s Secret. Still serving the constraining order… 🙂

  • Danny Brown  “constraining order’ << HA! Pun of the day!

  • There’s the key right there “But the truth is they already have a relationship with their teacher. They just don’t consider it a relationship, in the traditional definition of the term – or want to think about it that way. Ever.”
    But I don’t have this big problem with the semantics of it because I have always taken the term literally. I also don’t like traditional romantic relationships, so there’s that. 

    In general, it’s better to tell people to learn how to relate or be relatable than to get into a relationship. Loved the article.

  • ClayMorgan  I have a deep and monogamous relationship with Cool Whip so…

  • Tinu ClayMorgan  Ummm, I hope we’re talking about on top of a milk shake or a piece of pie!

  • bobledrew

    I’ve always found Labs very social. Not like those snooty poodles. But I digress. 

    I think the distinction you make is a good one, David. It’s not a realtionship – it’s a connection. Relationship implies a reciprocity that simply doesn’t exist in most situations. Connection is more accurate. 

    And when business is trying to do social, the difference between those two words and their implications can shape the way channels are chosen and managed. 

    Congrats on the new company.

  • bobledrew  If there is one thing I HATE it is snooty poodles, I’m mean sure you’ve got a nice haircut, but that doesn’t make you better! You butt smells just like the mangy mutt down the street. It’s a doggy, dog world out there and when it rains that manicured ball of fuzz on the end of your tail is still going to get wet. 

    Ok, done with my dog analogies for the day. Thanks for that opportunity.

  • I’m pretty sure “JUST BE AWESOME” applies here, doesn’t it?
    Just kidding. Too many “Experts” (present company excluded) tend to overcomplicate this stuff. Honestly, it’s mostly just hot air and flapping gums. Everybody has to be a “Thought leader” these days, right?
    Social is just one “Touch point”. As such, it needs to be consistent with all the rest. And it (all of it) should start with a clearly defined outcome. So, to take your proposition a step further, I would encourage business leaders not to start with “Social”. Start with strategy and think about how you can apply “CRAVE” throughout the organization. Let the business strategy drive everything from marketing to HR.
    For example, your “CRAVE” model can easily apply to product development as much as it does social.
    If your products are:
    –Consistently outstanding
    –Relevant to peoples lives or businesses
    –Accessible; as in intuitive, user friendly
    –Valuable in saving time, money, make lives easier, solve real problems
    –Emotional – As in people develop that attachment
    …Your job in social media is 1000% easier (and the opposite is just as true).

  • I love how consistency is number one! Don’t confuse your community, be the same thing everywhere you go!

  • Hi David, I enjoyed your post and your arguments.  The challenge as I see it, is agreeing on the right definition for the term ‘relationship’.  Because we’re talking about Social Media here, rather than search Google for arbitrary definitions of what people think relationships are all about, why not use the definition that comes from the study of Sociology?  After all, Social Networks, in the physical sense, are sociological constructs.  

    Now, I’m no sociologist, but from what I understand, a famous Sociologist, Mark Granovetter wrote an highly-cited research paper back in 1973 called “The Strength of Weak Ties”.  In it, he defines the components of a relationship in terms of strong and weak “ties” where a “tie” is a connection between two entities; i.e., people, computers, businesses, nations, etc.  The stronger a tie, the stronger a relationship. So there’s a scientific explanation for all of this.  And he goes on to define four components: 1. time: the amount of time two entities spend together, 2. emotional intensity or sense of closeness, 3. trust: intimacy or mutual confiding (in other words, transparency), and 4. reciprocity; i.e., you scratch my back, I scratch yours. 

    I do see some overlap between the scientific definition of ‘relationships’ and your CRAVE framework, to make it relevant in today’s terms.  I think it’s important to caution people about jumping to conclusions that brands can’t form ‘relationships’ with customers.  At the end of the day, it’s people who are representing the brands.  And if brand representatives (ie, employees, and customer ambassadors) focus on building strong ties with customers, I would argue that relationships (as defined by sociologists) can indeed be formed.  Am I missing something?

  • MarkOrlan  Great comment, and thoughtful addition.
    I guess for me, your point highlights why it’s not brands that have relationships with people, but people have relationships with people.
    As you mention, it’s the brand ambassadors that are creating the connection – if they leave, would the customer remain with the brand or follow the ambassador?
    Brands care about profits; people care about relationships. As it should be.

  • JackHumphrey

    Developing a relationship with a brand is like developing a relationship with a hammer.  Humans have relationships with other humans – not brands.  Not ever.  Not in any sense of the word.  Whomever is out there telling cold, dead, non-living brands to try having a relationship with their human customers is an idiot.  Worse?  The companies who listen to such idiots.

    People develop relationships with PEOPLE.  It is brain-dead simple.  Representatives of companies, like Robert Scoble, develop relationships with people FOR brands.  People don’t react in any meaningful way, ever, to a company (with any number of anonymous interns behind the keyboard) posting cutesy junk on their social stream.  Not in the same way a person with a solid following could generate.

    Give me a person vs. brand social media death match and I’ll win every time backing the human.  This should be something we’d never need an article to explain to us.  Either that or I have a profound grasp of the obvious where others do not.

  • Tinu ClayMorgan  Me too, Tinu. Me, too. 😉

  • great post! there is math proof to this. We visit a brand page every 6 days on facebook. but the average person likes 50+ brand pages. Do the math how often we come by and actually participate. And megabrands with rabid customers and crazy sales see them even less. Wholefoods, trader joes less than 1x every 2 years. Starbucks? 1x every 3 years.

    we have relationships with people not brands. ginidietrich has showcased her special baristas here. That is the relationship not with a brand.

  • AndreaBona1

    Good article, although I don’t think of the word relationship when I think of brands. However, as I was reading the article, the words brand loyalty kept popping into my mind. We talk about the brands we consumer because we have had a good experience, and we want others to have the good experience too.

  • DoctorJones

    Great discussion here.  There’s definitely a follow-up in the idea that people want relationships with people, not brand logos.  I’ve often used this very line with brands:  “People don’t want to talk to brands through social media.  They want to talk to people who work for the brands they like.”

  • DoctorJones

    LauraPetrolino You can find a lot of fractured experiences out there based on the size, scale and global nature of brands. It’s not easy to be consistent and sometimes it’s so heavy-handed that it actually stunts the human touch that’s also required.  It’s a very fine balance in social and one of the hardest things to get right.

  • DoctorJones

    JonAston  Couldn’t agree more.  It always starts with what you do, not what you say you do.

  • DoctorJones

    bobledrew  I’ve always enjoyed your dog puns.

  • DoctorJones

    belllindsay Tinu ClayMorgan  I think this part of the conversation should be part of Spin Sucks Pro…just say’n.

  • KyleAkerman

    DoctorJones JonAston  And WHY you do it 🙂

  • Danny Brown  OK, I just had to tweet you on this topic. 🙂 -barrettrossie

  • David, this post reminds me of what Wieden+Kennedy co-founder David Kennedy said back around the time Mr. Zuckerberg was born:  “Our job isn’t to make ads, really. It’s to make a connection between our client and the customer.”  To me, connection has always been the magic word. Connections can last forever. In relationships, someone is going to let someone down eventually. Especially when they’re an artificial construct, such as a brand.

  • Ann07

    Interesting argument. 

    I enjoyed reading this article. Even I, myself don’t want to have a relationship with my teacher, but the truth is, its already there by simply becoming his/her student. 

    You’re right by using the term “close connection” and I got your point. I also like the acronym C.R.A.V.E. you used. This is a great way to help us easily remember the tips on how to create close relationship with our audiences. Thanks for being specific in this argument. 

    I learned a lot from this post.

    Btw, this post was shared on Kingged.com

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  • Really seeing the Emotional / Relationship Marketing focus across the blogs nowadays. This was well done, and I saw another one by Brooke Ballard and another by Steve Goldner.

    Then Ken Mueller wrote one where he expressed the difference between building community and building a “sense of community”. If brands focus on that “sense of community” then they will strike the right balance of relationship…more than “I’ve heard of you” and still less than “you are creepin’ me out!”

    Didn’t David Lee Roth have a relationship with his teacher…I think the clock is SLOOOOW?

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