Relationship Brand Basics - Part 1

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Posted Jul 10, 2012
Susan Gunelius

What are Relationship Brands and Why Do They Matter?

Relationship brands are the most powerful brands in the world. They can come from any industry and are one step away from exploding into cultural phenomena. In my new series for AYTM, Relationship Brand Basics, you'll learn what relationship brands are, why they matter, how brands become relationship brands, and how to build relationship brands. You'll also learn from some of the best relationship brand examples, so you can get on the right path to turn your brand into a relationship brand, too.

relationship brand basics

What is a Relationship Brand?

A relationship brand is one that holds widespread appeal among consumers but still allows each individual consumer to experience the brand in his or her own unique way. Relationship brands have an inherent sense of belonging attached to them and innately tap into consumers' emotions. In other words, each customer experiences the brand individually, but at the same time, each individual like knowing that he or she is part of a larger group who experiences the brand together.

A relationship brand rises from a cult brand -- where a smaller, niche audience comes together to share brand experiences. Once the cult grows large enough and powerful enough with a large following of loyal and vocal advocates, it can become a relationship brand.

It takes time to develop a brand into a relationship brand. For example, the Macintosh brand didn't start out as one of the most powerful relationship brands in the world. In fact, the power of Mac as a relationship brand opened the doors to the broader Apple brand to become, arguably, the best example of a current relationship brand success story. Mac started out as a cult brand with a niche, dedicated audience of design loyalists. Those loyalists liked being part of the Mac audience. It gave them a sense of belonging as well as a feeling of going against the norm by not buying a more popular Windows-based PC.

Over the years, the Mac marketing strategy evolved to widen the appeal of Mac with the extremely popular Mac vs. PC commercials that directly targeted consumer needs, wants, and emotions in pitting the market follower brand, Mac, against the market leader. Suddenly, Mac became not just the designer's computer brand choice but the brand for every consumer who wanted to be part of the cool crowd, wanted to rebel against the market leader, and wanted to appease their frustrations with the market leader by switching to a brand that promised, "It just works," and according to loud brand advocates, lived up to that promise in every brand interaction.

The Mac and Apple brands demonstrate how well a long-term relationship brand strategy can work for market followers who are chasing market leaders. Stay tuned to Part 4 of this series to learn about more examples.

Why Do Relationship Brands Matter?

Relationship brands matter because consumers are emotionally connected to them. That emotional connection leads to brand loyalty, brand advocacy, and brand guardianship by consumers that manifest in the form of the most powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing. In fact, it's a form of word-of-mouth marketing that money can't buy. It grows organically, and the marketing team behind the brand just needs to nurture it by ensuring the brand consistently lives up to its promise and evolves to meet consumer wants and needs.

The high level of loyalty and advocacy that consumers have for relationship brands enables those brands to survive through any macro- or micro- environmental problem that might arise. That's a lesson that a brand like Toyota has learned firsthand. Despite a series of recalls in recent years that could have been disastrous to the Toyota brand, consumers believed in the brand so much that they knew Toyota would fix any problems. They're not just passionate in the brand, but they believe in the brand.

Relationship branding is a long-term strategy, and William J. McEwen, author of Married to the Brand, urges companies to think about relationships rather than transactions. Furthermore, relationship branding is not a stand-alone strategy. Instead, it's integrated into the brand's short-term marketing strategy as well where building brand value is always a top priority. The reason is simple. Relationship brands dominate consumer share of mind (rational), share of heart (emotional), share of life (individual experiences and experiences with other people), and share of wallet (purchases). When a brand owns those four things in a consumer's mind, it can't lose, and it will own a growing share of market for many years to come.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Relationship Brand Basics series where you'll learn more about how brands become relationship brands.

Image: Thomas Bush

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