Wednesday, August 29

Branding Threads: How People Connect To Brands

Author Geoff Livingston wrote a great thought piece on brand relationships that might make you think. He said customers don't care about our online brand conversations. And mostly, he is right.

Why should they? Most brand conversations are being developed for the brand, not the customer. Many brand conversations, including offline word of mouth, don't happen with the brand as a participant anyway. And brand trust needs considerable reinforcement from peers to be believed. 

His point isn't to dismiss online engagement, conversation, and activity outright. It's merely a means to remind brand managers and marketers that short-sighted social media without integration won't do much to enhance the brand relationship outside of a few online loyalists, assuming the brand has any.

What struck me as especially savvy about his piece was how much more thought needs to go into how businesses approach social media (especially if a company keeps its social media efforts isolated from the broader spectrum of marketing, advertising, and public relations). It made me wonder who really owns the customer relationship? It's not always the brand. 

How branding threads are created and who owns the relationship. 

I have an appointment this week with my dentist. About a month ago, the practice called me to reschedule my appointment because my hygienist no longer works there. I was surprised to learn it. 

I was surprised because this hygienist and I had formed a relationship. We were partners on a project; the project is my teeth and gums. But this week, she won't be the person working on the project.

Of course, this relationship didn't always exist. When I first chose this practice, I did it because I wanted the best practice available to replace a practice that had broken its brand promise (and our relationship) after 20 years.

The decision to try the new practice was made based on its communication (which is how I found them) and reputation (online and offline recommendations, reviews, and news). All of it constituted a brand promise, even statements or opinions that might not have been their own.

The practice has exceeded the brand promise over the years, including one surgery. I trust the doctor implicitly. So why is there some trepidation about the upcoming visit? Easy.

My routine visits were scheduled on Fridays and the doctor didn't work on Fridays, the brand relationship was left to migrate from the practice (and doctor) to my most engaged point of contact — the hygienist. She earned it. 

None of it was intentional. Like many good employees, she created multiple threads to strengthen the connection whereas the practice (like most brands) maintained a singular connection (the ability to deliver on its brand promise). After three years, she knew me and I knew her. Beyond a casual interest in our respective families, the real deal was that she understood my project goals and could meet them.

There are finite possibilities to strengthen a one-thread connection. 

The point is simple enough, much like I commented on Livingston's original piece. There are finite brand possibilities associated with transaction-based connections. If you want to strengthen a relationship between a customer and a brand, then more threads need to be established beyond the transaction. 

If you don't, then the relationship could become diluted or migrate as more weight is given to other relationships — like a hygienist or perhaps other customers or maybe a news report and public outcry. Sure, those things could jeopardize the strongest brand relationship too, but maybe not to the same extent if the brand relationship is reinforced from multiple communication streams and third parties.

In other words, engagement can work but that assumes it is the right kind of engagement. If it only consists of a direct response message, then the relationship isn't strengthened. And, like many online connections are made and reinforced, those relationships can migrate to the individual making them if there is no other point of contact. Interesting stuff, these fragile brands.
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