Branding

Build Your Brand as a Relationship

The way we think about brands need to change. In the past, they were objects or concepts. You had a relationship with a brand. But in this social age, brands are the relationships. By defining a brand’s particular kind of relationship, companies can create greater engagement, differentiation, and loyalty.

To understand this new mental model for brands, it is helpful to see how the concept has evolved. A brand started out as an identifying mark. Cattle owners would “brand” their cattle to indicate ownership. We can still see the “brand as object” model in the American Marketing Association’s definition: “Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” In this view, a brand is something applied to what you make.

In the next wave, a brand shifted from a feature to a perception, from an object to an idea. Al Ries and Jack Trout capture the essence of this model in their classic book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. They define a brand as “a singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect.” In this view, a brand is not something you make, it’s something you manage.

The most recent wave focuses on brand as experience. Sergio Zyman, in The End of Marketing as We Know It, says: “A brand is essentially a container for a customer’s complete experience with the product or company.” A brand is not something you manage over time. It’s something you deliver in the moment.

Our experience working with innovative companies indicates they are redefining not only how their brands are observed, perceived, and experienced. They are also redefining the very nature of the relationship they have with their customer.

If the first three waves were brand as objectidea, and experience, the next wave will be brand as relationship.

The way to put “brand as relationship” into action is by defining the respective roles and responsibilities of the company and customer. The default brand relationship is provider/consumer. It’s a simple relationship that is one-directional and asymmetrical. The company provides the product or service, and the customer consumes it.

Brand innovators tend to create different kinds of relationships. Instead of transactional and one-directional relationships, the roles are more collaborative and reciprocal.

For example, in the hospitality industry most brands operate with the roles of host/guest.It’s one-directional, asymmetrical, and transactional. Airbnb has disrupted that model. With a mission of “belonging,” Airbnb has cultivated a neighbor-to-neighbor and citizen-to-citizen relationship on a global scale. It is reciprocal, symmetrical, and collaborative.

In the taxi and livery industry, cabs and limo services have operated with the roles of driver/passenger. Again, it’s one-directional, asymmetrical and transactional. Uber and Lyft established differentiation by introducing new roles along two dimensions. The first is a shift from driver/passenger to friend/friend. For example, Lyft passengers are encouraged to “sit up front” as if they were getting a ride from a friend. According to Kira Wampler, CMO of Lyft, “Our original tagline was ‘Your Friend with a Car’ which served not only to describe the human, peer-to-peer experience we delivered with Lyft but also to differentiate us from other private driver approaches.”

Another new brand role is entrepreneur/supporter. Uber encourages potential drivers to “build their business” on Uber. In both these cases, the brand relationship is more reciprocal and personal. As Amy Friedlander, Head of Experiential Marketing at Uber describes it, “Working with Uber is about our drivers’ needs, whether those needs are to have a fully flexible schedule or earn extra money. Uber is a platform that fits their lifestyle, not the other way around.”

In the airline industry, innovators have also redefined the brand roles. The established players like United and Delta have operated with a brand relationship of flyer/passenger. But Southwest broke the mold with singing flight attendants and a relationship that might be described as “fun friends.”  JetBlue, with its free snacks and mission of “Inspiring Humanity,” has a “human-to-human” relationship.

Virgin America went in a different direction, creating a brand relationship that is a cross between the hip friend and host of the party. The relationship is perhaps one reason Virgin customers are so upset by the sale of the airline. As one Virgin fan said, “I think of Alaska [Airlines] as more of a friendly aunt.” The sale is like someone busting up the party and telling everyone to go home.

The concept of brand-as-relationship also helps explain the rise of well-established market leaders. American Express redefined the relational roles of its industry from card issuer/card holder to club/member. Disney redefined the relational roles of amusement parks from operator/rider to cast member/guest. And Starbucks redefined not only the role of the server from waiter to barista, but the role of the coffee shop from restaurant to community hub.

Those familiar with brand archetypes may see some similarities to this approach. The difference is that in brand archetypes, the focus is on the attributes of the brand. But in the model proposed here, the focus is on the relationship that people have with Nike. As an archetype, Nike is a “Hero” brand because of its focus on victory. But Nike’s brand roles are best described as coach/athlete.

Marketers have an opportunity to redefine brand roles in every industry. Media has been defined by broadcaster/viewer for decades. Health care has been defined by doctor/patient. Education has been defined by teacher/student. In each of these industries, there is an opportunity to create a new relationship based on co-creation and collaboration.

To get started, think about the relationship people have with your brand today. Frame your answer as social roles. For example, if you are a health care provider, you probably have a brand relationship based on doctor/patient. Now think about other kinds of relationships outside your industry. For example, in health care there are aspects of teacher/student (to educate), coach/athlete (to motivate), or guide/traveler (to navigate). Be sure to consider roles that are symmetrical, like friend/friend, neighbor/neighbor or co-creator/co-creator.

Another strategy is to work backwards from the kind of relationship you want to have. Think about the value and benefits of your product. Then imagine the human relationships that would provide the same type of benefits. Nest thermostats, for example, automatically adjust the temperature to your liking, and their smoke detectors calmly direct you to safety in the case of a fire. Instead of the usual role for a device maker of manufacturer/buyer, Nest has created a brand role of being part of the family, looking out for you in an attentive and protective way. “Instead of thinking about George Jetson’s ‘smart home’ we imagine a home that is humanized and takes care of the people inside it and the world around it,” says Doug Sweeny, CMO of Nest.

Finally, look for ways to shift your brand roles from one-directional, asymmetrical, and transactional to reciprocal, symmetrical, and personal. These roles will bring to life your strategic narrative around a shared purpose. If today’s brand innovators are a guide, the result will be greater engagement, differentiation, and loyalty.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Cara France is CEO of The Sage Group, a firm providing marketing and consulting talent to San Francisco Bay area companies, and founder of Marketers that Matter. Follow her on Twitter @SageCEO.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

How Top Brands Pull Customers into Orbit

The most successful companies in business today have something in common. This trait doesn’t just make them better than the competition; it makes them fundamentally different.

Where traditional companies push out messages and products, these companies pull customers in. Instead of treating customers as passive targets, they treat them as active participants. Like the sun in a solar system, they create a gravitational field that pulls customers into their orbit. They go beyond customer loyalty to building customer gravity.

Consider three top companies with orbit strategies: Apple, Google, and Nike. Each has a different approach, but the result is the same: customer-initiated touchpoints between transactions, and the creation of value beyond just product. At the core of each orbit strategy is a platform or service, what might be called a Customer Gravity Generator. Apple has iTunes and the App Store. Google has its search engine and Gmail. Nike has Nike+ and NikeID.

These orbit brands are actively building new Customer Gravity Generators. Apple has launched its iCloud. Google created Google+. Nike just launched NikeFuel.

Orbit brands are organized differently than traditional companies. Traditional brands are like artillery. Their mantra is aim and fire. They spend their time sighting targets (through customer segmentation), calibrating trajectories (by optimizing marketing mix), loading ammunition (with messages and offers), firing their weapons (with marketing campaigns), and celebrating successful strikes (from sales).

Orbit brands are more like scientists building a supercollider. Their mantra is test and learn. They focus on understanding the physics of their market space (through customer behavior), create and improve their technology (on products and platforms), run experiments (for new benefits and services) and analyze the results (for customer engagement).

To get started with an orbit strategy, start by measuring the strength of your gravitational field. Customer satisfaction isn’t enough. You aren’t measuring how well you target and transact. You want to measure the attractiveness of your brand — how well you pull customers in, and how well they pull other customers in with them.

A good test of where you are on the push/pull continuum is your social media strategy. Are you using social media as a channel for delivering messages to an audience? If so, you may be stuck in the push mindset. Or are you using social media as a way to listen and learn, to create an authentic relationship, and to deliver value beyond the products you sell? If so, you are well on your way to being an orbiter.

Next, imagine how you might build your own Customer Gravity Generators. First, revisit the core mission or purpose of your company. Think about what would help fulfill that mission and complement the products and services you sell. There are any number of sources of value: data, content, stories, relationships, experiences, identity.

If you think that only technology companies can create orbit strategies, think again. Nike has created a series of gravity generators, including Nike+, NikeID, and NikeFuel. With each generator, Nike creates a different orbit. One for runners, one for shoe aficionados, and one for athletes. Nike+ is particularly good at building social gravity, as existing users pull in new users like moons around their planets.

You don’t need to be a product company. Vail Resorts, a ski resort operator, created an orbit strategy with its Epic Mix. Starbucks’ “third place” strategy turned its own stores into gravity generators for local neighborhoods. Retailer Sears Holdings — where I work — is creating concentric orbits: ShopYourWay.com, a social network for social shopping; FitStudio, a community for fitness enthusiasts, and Craftsman Experience, a media channel for do-it-yourselfers.

You can also start small. Have you seen the Samsung power towers at busy airports? Road warriors are always huddled around them, tethered via their power cords. Samsung used electricity to generate customer gravity, and this one literally pulls in potential customers.

There are lots of options for creating customer orbits. So next time you hear someone talk about targeting customers, ask yourself, “What could we do instead to create some gravity and pull them in?”


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.