The science and research behind brand-consumer relationships

Research by Susan Fournier changed all of that. Her groundbreaking paper, Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1998, showed that people did have relationships with brands. Very close and intimate relationships that mirrored the intensity and range of emotions found in person-to-person relationships.

Today, this theory is such a given that most marketers don’t think about it much. But it’s worth revisiting the science and research behind brand-consumer relationships every now and then. It will help you do a better job of developing deeper and more meaningful connections with consumers.

Fournier is still considered a leading thinker on this subject, although newer studies have influenced the idea as well. She begins her article by stating that, from an anthropological point of view, it’s not that strange that consumers personalize brands. People have a tendency to anthropomorphize or humanize objects and institutions. It’s how we relate to everything around us, even brands.

Once a consumer has forged a relationship with a brand, it can be extremely influential. “At their core, relationships are purposive: they add and structure meanings in a person’s life,” Fournier says. “The development of personality depends in large part on relationships forged with others… Meaningful relationships can change self-concept through expansion into new domains or reinforce self-concept through mechanisms of self-worth and self-esteem.” Fournier presents three case studies that clearly show how people, to some extent, make purchasing decisions based on life experience and define themselves by what they buy.

So how does a brand establish and maintain a relationship with consumers? The most important thing to take into consideration, Fournier says, is the quality of that relationship. Things that make consumers feel like they have a quality relationship with a company (or anyone else, for that matter) include deep feelings of love or passion toward the brand; an inter-connectedness and dependence on a company; and intimate memories or knowledge of the brand.

An aspect of developing a quality relationship that’s increasingly important in today’s world is that consumers want to feel there’s some type of reciprocity in their bonds with brands. They don’t want to feel that their relationship or communication with a company is one-sided. When they give loyalty, they want to receive something back. When they speak, they want the company to hear them and respond. It’s no wonder that social media and experiential marketing are so popular in today’s marketplace.

More recent research published by the Harvard Business Review also shares some important insights into how and why consumers forge relationships with certain brands. One of their more interesting points is that the majority of consumers – 77 percent, to be exact – don’t really want to have relationships with brands. They want something from the brand, like a discount or an exclusive offer, but they don’t really want to build a long-term relationship. Instead, what they want to know is that a company shares their values. If it doesn’t, they may not patronize the firm at all.

“Of the consumers in our study who said they have a brand relationship, 64 percent cited shared values as the primary reason,” the study reports. “That's far and away the largest driver. Meanwhile, only 13 percent cited frequent interactions with the brand as a reason for having a relationship.”

That’s another reason social media and experiential marketing are so important for companies today. It’s easier and more memorable to share values through these mediums than it is through, say, radio, television and print advertising.

We talked earlier about the importance of establishing quality relationships with consumers. According to the Harvard study, it’s important not to confuse quantity with quality. They link to a study with some nice statistics to argue their point, but since this is an article about relationships, we’d like to use a more personal example.

Say you just when on an amazing first date with someone. You might be excited to receive a text message or two from them the following day. But if they send you texts, emails, flowers and boxes of chocolate, you’re going to break up with them before the relationship even gets started.

The same is true of relationships between consumers and brands. Research and science prove that when it comes to communication, fewer quality interactions go much further than a lot of spammy interactions.

The two studies mentioned above are great resources if you’re interested in learning more about the science and research on relationships between brands and consumers. Another source worth checking out is the TED Radio Hour’s “Brand Over Brain” episode. It explores how brands influence people’s minds and hearts with the goal of getting them to buy their products. Presentations by Morgan Spurlock, a well-known documentary filmmaker, and Rory Sutherland, the vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, provide some great insights.

If relationships between consumers and brands are similar to relationships between people (and studies definitely show that they are), it stands to reason that many of the things that make marriages and friendships work apply to making brand-buyer connections work. An article called Here’s How a Happy Relationship Works, According to Science, has some good suggestions.

Happy couples have five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions. They regularly share complements, show their appreciation, do nice things for the other person and recall fond memories (now you know why Facebook is constantly sharing “memories” with you). They do things together and spend plenty of time talking.

Experiential marketing is a great way to personally connect with consumers and do many of these things. If your brand is looking to use the science behind relationships to strengthen your connection with consumers, event or live marketing is definitely a strategy worth investigating. If you need help figuring out how to get started, we’d love to speak with you. Give us a call or send us an email today. We promise we won’t inundate you with texts, calls, flowers and chocolates.