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Can Consumers Have Relationships with Brands ?

Recently, I read an article in Marketing Management Magazine titled “Can Consumers Really Have Relationships With Brands (I Think Not).”

It was written by John Dawes, the director of The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science at the University of South Australia.

Dawes writes:How do we feel about brands?

“I give little thought to brands [I use].  As long as they perform as I expect, I don’t think about them for more than a microsecond at a time.  While I buy and consume these brands, I don’t have any sense of a “relationship” with them.  I have relationships with people.  I don’t need relationships with beer, toothpaste or insurance brands, and neither do you.”

This is not a new argument.  But it is one that reinforces why I like to think of brands as stories instead of well, brands.

When I think of brands as brands and having relationships with brands, it’s easy to become too rational.  Specifically, I see a product or service that performs some function and is designated with a unique name and logo.  When in truth, the most important part of a brand is something that is not limited to what my eyes tell me is there.

Seeing Brands as Stories

On the other hand, brands as stories take me beyond their physical realm.  Like stories, brands have themes or messages that explain why they exist.  These themes get processed in the part of my head where reactions exist in feelings instead of words.  If I want to find the words behind the reactions they trigger, they get sent to another part of my head where they can be analyzed and deconstructed, much the same way I analyzed and deconstructed English Lit in college.   That’s why most stories just stay put without analysis.

However, if these stories stay parked too long, they will shrink in size or disappear altogether.  There’s only so much space in my head and lots of stories are competing for a share of my synapses.  Consequently, they must always find ways to justify their residence.

One of the ways for brands (as stories) to retain permanency is to help me to feel a need, a need that is more emotional than rational and one that is satisfied by helping me relate to what their story is all about.  The extent to which these brand stories do this is the extent to which they can stop fighting for space, largely because I do the fighting for them.  If these stories help reinforce my beliefs and values, if their themes become themes with which I can identify and to which I can relate,  they get to stay as long as they are meaningful.  Some become really meaningful.  Those are the ones that become causes that I advocate.

As such, and unlike Mr. Dawes, I do see how I can have a relationship with a brand, especially when I consider the potential beyond its functional benefits.  Soap is soap.  And most soap does what soap does, for instance.  But a beauty bar labeled “Dove” tells a story that is far different than one told by a product containing the same ingredients labeled “Walmart.”  And the former is one many, if not most, women are willing to spend more to own.

I might add that the story a brand tells and the relationship that exists because of it isn’t so much dependent on what I spend to make it mine.  Whether it’s toothpaste, beer, or laxatives, the physicalness of a brand, its functionality, or its performance properties merely describe the plot of its story.  Certainly plots are important, but the theme or meaning of the story is where relationships are formed and strengthened.  Because relationships are not in the eye that sees.  They are in the eye that feels.

In sum, brands as stories are accepted or rejected on the basis of how well we relate to them.  Buyers of these stories may not realize why they’re choosing one story over another.   But these stories do provide hard to articulate themes that we unconsciously choose to associate with—enough to justify the prices we pay to make them our own.

These stories do the talking for us when we want to adopt symbols that show who we are.   And they satisfy our very human need for self-identity.

However big or small, significant or trivial, each story told is one we are free to vote for, ignore, or reject.   I’m not sure how Mr. Dawes might see it, but to me, marketing is really the art and science of accumulating the most votes among competing storytellers.

This post was contributed by Jim Signorelli, CEO of eswStoryLab Marketing and author of two books on “StoryBranding.”

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About Jim Signorelli

Jim Signorelli is the CEO of esw StoryLab Marketing and the author of "StoryBranding" and, most recently, "StoryBranding 2.0," two books that use the logic and structure of stories and archetypes to help brands arrive at authentic, meaningful, and profitable brand identities.

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