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The Relationship Revolution: Where Branding Is Heading in 2021

November 27, 2020


The Relationship Revolution: Where Branding Is Heading in 2021

There are two ways of looking at transactions, especially B2B transactions. The first is to see any transaction as about a commodity. Someone needs a product, you sell the product, they buy the product from you.

The second way is to see transactions as being about relationships. Someone buys from you because they know someone who works for you or they interacted with you on social media or they met you at a conference once.

For a long time, the business world has thought of transactions as about commodities. But what’s becoming more plain is that relationships play a very key role. And they actually might be even more important than the product itself.

That insight seems to be supported by several trends in the marketplace right now. This revolution has been brewing for a little while, but it seems like we could see it break wide open in 2021. Here’s what that could mean for us as Marketers.

Relationships Take Center Stage

Like I said, these two theories of transactions have been around for a while. Commodity focus has dominated our thinking: people will buy a thing when they need it. The question for brands has been about how to create a perceived need for whatever they sell.

The product “sells itself” in this thinking. If someone needs soap and I sell soap, they’ll buy from me.

All right—what if there are other soaps out there? Well, people will buy “the best” soap. That could be the soap that gets grease and dirt out the best. It could also be the cheapest soap on the shelf—the most affordable choice. Or it might even be the soap that smells “the best.”

We can already see where relationships might start playing a role here. You might think any of these characteristics—smell, power, price—are “objective.” The customer who wants the cheapest soap will buy the soap for $1.99, not the one for $3.99.

Yet the consumer’s decision-making is more complicated than that. They might not think only about price. They might think about value. Sure, the $1.99 soap is cheapest, but if it doesn’t do a good job at getting stains out, it’s not worth the money! The $3.99 soap does a better job of getting stains out, so it provides more value and is worth the extra money. It provides cost-savings in that you don’t need to rewash your clothes or go buy new ones after you spill coffee on your shirt.

What about the best scent? That’s subjective. I might love the smell of lavender, but someone else can’t stand it. So our emotions come into play here.

And it’s emotions that form the basis of relationships. I think this soap has “the best” smell because my mother also used it. I have great memories of helping her fold the laundry or crawling into bed with fresh sheets as a kid.

Now my judgement of what’s the “best” soap is tangled in emotions and relationships. My mother trusted this brand of soap. I trust her judgement, and I also have good memories of doing laundry with this soap.

I already have a relationship with the soap brand. There’s nostalgia; there’s happiness and maybe safety too. And there’s trust as well. Suddenly, I’m not buying soap—I’m buying a whole bunch of emotions.

The New Role of Relationship

In the past, my “relationship” with my soap brand was unidirectional. I bought the soap and used it, or I stopped buying it and switched brands. If there was a major problem, I could to get in touch with the company via phone or letter. I might find a coupon or see an ad.

It’s easy to see how we could overlook the importance of relationships in that environment. People either bought your soap (voting for it) or they didn’t (voting against it). If a bunch of people stopped buying your soap, you might think you need to switch something up.

The Internet has changed the way our customers relate to us. Now they can follow us on social media and talk to us any time they feel like it. It’s so easy to get in touch—email, text messaging, phone calls, webchats, Twitter, and so many more.

So now we have conversations with our customers—real, spontaneous conversations. We don’t need to call in a bunch of people and do a survey (although that’s helpful too). We can ask them what they think, or they can send us a message to give kudos for excellent customer service.

What this does is put relationships front and centre for us. Before, relations between brands and customers were largely hidden. Now we can now see the conversations our customers are having.

Even Google gives us insight. What are our customers searching for? What questions do they have about soap or coffee or our brands? Before the Internet, we had no way of knowing what people were saying about us or what questions they had. Often, we had to reach out and ask—or even guess what our customers’ “frequently asked questions” were.

Shifting the Focus to the Social

With the Internet has come a renewed focus on how people don’t buy products. They buy brands or experiences or values. A case in point is Google itself—the search engine giant’s name has become synonymous with search. It’s also synonymous with innovation and a few other things.

Yahoo! and Bing and Google all offer a very similar product. So what influences which one you use? Often, it’s the perception that Google delivers the best results. Google has a long history of tweaking their algorithm to do just that—often paying attention to search user expectations to deliver “better results” in the way we expect them.

You can look at recent developments. Google now indexes mobile-first, because more people conduct searches on their phones. The search engine giant also demands pages load in less than 3 seconds. Why? Because we’re impatient and will click away from a site that takes “too long” to load (that’s about 3 seconds). We don’t like slow-loading sites, and neither does Google as a result.

Google’s willingness to pay attention to what we want and expect in search results feeds back in to the idea that Google delivers the best results. Bing and Yahoo! use different algorithms with different weights to certain factors. Their results are different—not necessarily worse.

But people trust and believe in Google, so they turn to Google. And Google responds by paying attention and making adjustments.

So people are “buying” the Google brand every time they hit “search." They’re buying trust, loyalty, satisfaction. They could switch to Bing or Yahoo!, but they don’t. And it's not because Google’s product is “better,” but because the brand has created trust and confidence that lead people to believe it’s better.

And Google’s done that by entering into relationship with its users. It listens to what they want (even by crunching the numbers), then tweaks the algorithm to give them more of that.

So, what does this prove? It means we have to focus on the social dimensions of customer buying decisions. They’re not buying a product because they need it. (Google didn’t exist 25 years ago, and we all managed to get by!) They're "buying" because they have a good relationship with the brand.

This Applies in B2B as Well

What about B2B? As much as we like to think B2B transactions are rational and detached, they’re just as much about relationships.

And it’s likely this trend will continue, especially as Millennials move into positions of power in companies. Millennials and Gen Z have embraced the idea of relationships with brands. They’re skeptical of us, sure, but they also want to give us their undivided loyalty. If we can prove that we’re worthy of their trust, then we’ll get that—and their business.

Their propensity for this in their personal lives is going to carry over to their work lives too. And we already see this—we do business with people we have a good relationship with. We might believe they have the best product—like we believe Google has the best search engine. And if they respond to our needs, they may very well have “the best” product!

Our brands go beyond the products or services we offer. They also provide plenty of other intangible “commodities”—like trust and confidence, especially if they offer creative solutions.

So, where does this leave Marketers? We need to focus less on our products and stop thinking about transactions as being about those products. People are buying so much more from our brands—even in business contexts. More than anything, they’re “buying” a relationship with us, one that provides us with a two-way street. We can strive to keep delivering more of what our customers want from us and they can deliver more feedback. Together, we grow!

So as we head into 2021, we need to focus more on relationships—and that means thinking about why our customers buy from us. What are we really offering them?

That question is often answered by turning to our most loyal customers. So, like always, we need to start with the why!


Here to inspire!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing is inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles I have written to inspire others.

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