Love and Branding

Treating Customer Relationships Like Personal Ones

Leban Hyde


Human beings are complicated creatures. We have wants and needs that guide us in everything we do. We have an amazing capacity for emotional connection with not only other human beings, but the entire world around us. And through this capacity, we often project human qualities onto non-human things, resulting in a sense of connection that mirrors our own human relationships. Companies that understand this and apply it across touchpoints and interactions develop stronger brands.

If brands want to have a better relationship with the customer, the dynamics of human relationships must first be considered. Nothing illustrates this better than our love lives. In the previous post Transcending the Transactional, I drew a comparison between dating and marketing. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the similarities between the personal connections we seek and the marketing strategies we embrace.

Dating: Personal Marketing

When people are in the dating phase, there are two types of connections that are typically sought after: physical and emotional. That’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, only that one tends to take priority over the other. And those priorities change over time.

Think about casual dating for a moment. When people are only interested in having “no strings attached” relationships, they aren’t thinking about the long term. They’re only thinking about the thrill of the moment — the short term. Oftentimes the connection is primarily physical — transactional.

Think about the way people portray themselves — the way they market themselves — when they are only interested in this type of connection. From the way they talk to the way they dress, they may not always be a true representation of themselves. Are they being honest with the person they’re interested in? Is that person being honest with them? Do they really love to cook, or are they just trying to impress the other person? Will they see each other after tonight? Those are the thoughts that influence the interactions.

Now think about when people start looking for “something serious” — they begin thinking about the long term. The connection becomes more emotional — relational. They tend to be more honest about who they are and what they need. They also take more care in evaluating their prospects. What does the other person do? What are their goals in life? Do they share the same values? The conversations around those questions are much deeper than the superficial talk of casual dating.

Marketing: Customer Dating

Reflecting on human relationships, think about some of the ways businesses approach their marketing. You may not be on the marketing team, but no doubt you have seen the results of those strategies as an internal employee. And you have definitely experienced their output as an external customer.

What are some of the reactions you’ve had? How often were you impressed? How often were you put off or even embarrassed? Why was that your reaction? From the language used in the copy and the visual design of the materials to the quality of the customers acquired, all are the result of the underlying strategy. A strategy that has an intended business goal.

So what is that goal?

Getting customers in the door with their wallets out is one thing, but getting them to come back is another. If the organization is only concerned with foot traffic and dollars paid, that’s a short-term goal — transactional. One-off transactions without regard for customer retention are the business equivalent of one-night stands (that smooth talker at the bar should come to mind here).

Think about the language being used in the materials. Big blazing calls to action yelling “TRY IT TODAY!” and “ACT NOW!” read more like “COME HOME WITH ME!” or “LET’S HOOK UP!”. It gives the impression that the transaction is all that matters.

Is this the message the brand really wants to convey? Just like in regular conversation, it’s not only what you say, but how you say it.

And it’s not limited to marketing. These are organizational concerns. The marketing could be well-positioned for customer retention, but how is the follow through? When making the pitch, the sales person was my best friend, my soul mate. If I have a problem with my purchase, will customer service be there for me? You may say all the right things tonight, but will you respect me in the morning?

Beyond Dating

Companies are in a perpetual dating phase. Customer acquisition is a necessary part of business, but it shouldn’t be the end goal. Shifting focus away from the seduction of the transactional and aligning more with the stability of the relational is part of brand maturity.

Think about some of the more successful brands in the market today. Target, Starbucks, Apple, and so on. Think about what products and services they offer and how they offer them. They could have easily remained in bachelor mode churning out one-nighters, but they didn’t.

What is Starbucks’ main product? A cup of coffee. Yes, there are various roasts and blends and yadda yadda, but at the end of the day, it’s just a cup of coffee. I give you a couple of bucks, you give me a cup of joe, transaction complete. But they thought past the cup. When you place your order, what does the barista do next? They ask you for your name, humanizing the interaction and making the experience more personal. And that’s just one of many examples.

At some point, a brand has to decide whether it wants to commit to a long-term relationship or stay an eternal bachelor (and eventually become that old guy at the bar). When ready to commit and invest in the customer relationship, the marketing strategy — and everything thereafter — must follow suit. That means thinking more about the connections brands seek and treating customer relationships like personal ones.

Special thanks to Kate Caldwell for pushing me to expand on the notion of dating and marketing. Also thanks to Elias Jones for proofreading (as always).