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Brand Loyalty Is Not About Friendship

Good Thinking | June 29, 2016 | 2 min read

Of the many brands that you use, how many do you regard as a friend? Your dry cleaner? The fuel you burn in your car? Your most used credit card? Maybe a clothing line? Car insurance (“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”)? A mass merchant? How about a utility?

The fact of the matter is that only a small handful of brands create friendships with their customers. Lack of a friendship doesn’t mean lack of brand loyalty. Many times what develops over time is “heartless loyalty.”

As social psychologists describe it, there are two broad categories of human relationships: exchange relationships, in which we trade for mutual benefit; and communal relationships, which are based on mutual caring and support. Normally, you are supposed to have the former with people you do business with and the latter with your friends and relatives. But sometimes, brands try to blur the lines, insinuating themselves into your friend zone.

As Ann McGill, a professor of behavioral science at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, told the New York Times, “A number of companies stop trying to be businesses and start trying to be friends, but friends have obligations that businesses don’t.”

Companies – and their brands — are ultimately in the business of charging their customers for products and services. They are likely to end up violating the communal relationship norms with charges for services rendered intruding on the friendly nature of the relationship.

Smart brands understand where to draw the line between an exchange relationship and a communal one. An exchange relationship is based on a brand that understands competence, mutual good will and proactivity will create loyal customers. All profit when these components drive the relationship.

It also provides consumers an oasis where life is easier and fairer and predictably better, and doesn’t require them to look over their shoulders all the time to make sure they’re not getting ripped off.

That’s why the elemental brand plan plays such an important role in guiding brands. An organization must think through what message it’s delivering and various stages of the relationship and what consumer behavior they expect as a result.

As an example, don’t take satisfaction in simply having “friends” on a brand’s Facebook page. What matters is what those “friends” gain from being a friend. Are they the first to know about a promotion? Do they get coupons that aren’t available anywhere else? In other words, what is the brand exchanging for that friendship?

When you’re searching for ways to build brand loyalty don’t try and make friends. Do what’s necessary to build loyalty.