The Relationship Era

Why people fall in love with brands.

What makes people go steady with their favorite brands? Is it love, or lust? Or has it changed with the times over the past hundred years? We believe that there have been three great eras of marketing, and that the winning formula is different for each.

Let’s go back to the early 1900s, when mass production was new, and the telephone was still a luxury item. This is the Product Era. A time very much about informing people about products. An era where mass marketing matched the public’s need for mass information.

Jump forward 60 or so years and we see that marketing took a turn. With the rise of global competition and proliferation of brands, marketing geniuses (like Don Draper) understood that it was necessary to get inside the minds of customers to build the brand. Unfortunately, not all brands chose to do this authentically—they began to persuade and manipulate, using tactics such as promotion, discounting affiliation and novelty. These were the glamorous year for advertisers, known as the Consumer Era.

As the years passed, people grew more sophisticated and, yes, more skeptical. So, they naturally questioned the claims of brands. With the rise of the Internet, they began to do this in front of millions of others. Soon enough, the reputation of a brand was no longer in the hands of the marketing managers, but in the hands of the people. Enter the Relationship Era, where the winning formula is simple: authentic relationships come from building trust and transaction between brands and people.

Now besides the World Wide Web, what other forces brought about this shift in the way people see the brands they use? There were four of them:

  • Collapse of mass media
  • Rise of social connectivity
  • Increased trust
  • Increased transparency

In previous eras, brands helped shape consumer perceptions through mass media—that all changed with the rise of social connectivity. Mass media began to crumble. Brands now had to build trust and transparency with their customers, instead of spinning their messaging to encourage customers to purchase product.

To build real trust, a brand must be credible and demonstrate empathy and care for the people who interact with it. It must have clear values, so people with similar ideals can experience congruency with the brand. It is these factors—credibility, care and congruency—that make for a healthy relationship between a brand and a customer. Brands that offer reasonable products and services in a reasonable value exchange will have high levels of trust, and thus, a higher chance for transactions. This gives customers a chance to speak well of the brand to others—and we all know that word of mouth, amplified by social connections, is worth more than any other form of endorsement these days.

Our CEO, Doug Levy, and media personality Bob Garfield discuss these ideals in detail in their book, Can’t Buy Me Like, where they identify brands that are living their purpose successfully, such as Patagonia, Whole Foods, The Container Store and Zappos.

We’re proud of this approach to marketing and believe that a true relationship with someone—a brand or a person—has to be nurtured with trust and transparency in order to grow. And the next time someone asks you what it takes to make someone fall for a brand, you should be a little closer to the answer.