Have you hugged your favorite brand lately?

Me neither. And I don’t plan to anytime soon.

After 3 years of writing this blog and almost 5 years studying social media, I still can’t grasp the idea of “relationships with brands.” Maybe it’s semantics. Maybe what they’re talking about isn’t a relationship at all. Maybe it’s brand loyalty, brand enthusiasm — even brand evangelism.

To me, a “relationship” is more intimate.

Relationships I reserve for people — real people who talk to me. And yes, I know that social-media consultants tell us dialogue is the key — more human contact with customers, distributors and influencers. More conversation. I get that, too, as it’s been a mantra of true public relations professionals long before the Web came along.

But isn’t it enough to produce a quality product or service? For me it is, and I suspect that’s true for many others.

My Subaru after a dusting of snow.

My Subaru Outback after a dusting of snow.

I’m enthusiastic about a handful of brands, but no one representing those brands ever calls to wish me a happy birthday. I like these brands, and could be called an “influencer” for all of them. But not a single person employed by any of these companies has ever “reached out” to me beyond a push marketing email pitch.

That’s OK, and here’s why:

Subaru. I’ve owned three and may soon be shopping for a fourth (no phone calls, please). Subies are reliable cars, they get decent gas mileage and can climb up snow-covered logging roads without spinning a tire. My son calls his ’99 Forrester (one of two we’ve handed down to our kids) the “Swiss Army knife of cars.” An apt description.

waveLeatherman Multi-tools. Speaking of the Swiss Army knife, the Leatherman has rendered it obsolete. My Wave (one of two Leatherman tools I own) serves as a knife, saw, file, pliers, screwdriver, scissors, can and bottle opener and more. If I keep pitching it, you’ll think I’m the reincarnation Billy Mays. Funny, but inventor Tim Leatherman doesn’t even know I exist. If you happen to read this, Tim, thanks for your genius.

Campmor.Com offers an almost infinite selection of quality outdoor products priced to sell — including the full line of Leatherman tools. Campmor gets the order right and ships it quickly. The website also lets you compare similar products by feacampmor_logoture and price, thus helping you make informed buying decisions. Campmor’s weekly specials are so good that I often buy stuff I don’t even need. I’m a gear geek, and this company understands my sickness.

All 3 brands offer the one thing that matters: Performance. They meet my expectations for quality and reliability, and each time they do, my purchasing decisions are reinforced. But their reputations aren’t built on regular 2-way communication. Campmor has a presence on Twitter, but doesn’t use it well. The Twitter id @subaru seems to be held by a squatter and @leatherman by a Chinese biker.

But does it really matter?

Some surveys tell us that customers want a deeper connection with the products they buy. How else to you explain enthusiast sites like “Razor Rap” or  “Little Rubber Shoes”?

Other niche products simply have passionate followings because of what they are. A friend pointed me to this site for the 2010 Ford Mustang — a car that has always touched drivers at an emotional level. (And the 2010 is hot, hot, hot.) Pay special attention to the “Mustang Stories” tab. These people hug their cars regularly, and Ford has known this since 1964.

I wonder if Ford customers feel the same way about the Taurus?

Few companies can afford to ignore social media. It’s important to listen and to respond when appropriate. But how far you go beyond basic engagement becomes a question of resources vs. ROI.

The jury is still out on that social media’s bottom-line impact. The evidence we do have is still largely anecdotal and very few organizations talk about SM programs that fail. Solid metrics will come in time, and those numbers may erase my skepticism. But for now, I remain unconvinced that a majority of customers or a majority of products need or want constant online engagement. And I say this as an “influencer” for all three of the brands mentioned in this post.

So to my friends at Subaru, Leatherman and Campmor, thanks for enriching my life. But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not be friends. Just keep making and/or selling great stuff, and I’ll buy it.

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22 Responses to Have you hugged your favorite brand lately?

  1. Blair Boone says:

    Sure you don’t want your brand in your face all the time, but brands — the successful ones — engaged their customers long before online media made it easy to do so. Customers sent unsolicited letters and cards with testimonials to companies back in the 19th century and before. Smart companies responded, both with replies and with changes to their products and the way they marketed them. So “engagement” isn’t really new. People like good products and services, and they’ll do more than tell their friends. They’ll tell the company, too. Social media and other online/wired “tools of engagement” are just another way to do it.

    Of course, customer testimonials have always been a slightly tricky part of the “conversation” for companies and brand managers. Subaru might like you posting the picture of your snow-covered Outback in the rugged outdoors, but they’d probably cringe had you posted the one with the four dead deer strapped to the roof.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    We certainly don’t disagree here — I don’t think. Companies must listen and respond. I think I said that. But the rubber meets the road when it comes to performance of the product and the degree to which it meets our expectations.

    The post is really in reaction the many SM “strategists” who are seeking to turn the entire engagement process into an online discussion — growing from the Cluetrain Manifesto mantra about “marketing as a conversation.” Not sure we need that.

    SM is a great tool, but not critical for all products, and certainly not a place to shift the bulk of one’s marketing and resources. But that could change.

    Besides, if you don’t overspend on SM programs, you can afford a new Mustang. I should probably disclose that you were the one who turned me on to the new Ford site. Impressive, and engaging.

    And for anyone who wants to see 4 deer on the roof of my Subaru, they can check the X-rated section of my Flickr site. It’s called “Killing and Eating.”

  3. [...] Have you hugged your favorite brand lately? « ToughSledding toughsledding.wordpress.com/2009/09/15/have-you-hugged-your-favorite-brand-lately – view page – cached After 3 years of writing this blog and almost 5 years studying social media, I still can’t grasp the idea of “relationships with brands.” Maybe it’s semantics. Maybe what they’re talking about isn’t a relationship at all. — From the page [...]

  4. Blair Boone says:

    We do agree, and I think the point is every conversation has a beginning and end. Whether you initiate a conversation or someone else — a company or your cousin — initiates it, you don’t want the other person to keep yakking at you after you’ve covered whatever it is you were discussing. Your point is companies or anyone else shouldn’t constantly be yakking at you, and I agree. It’s the constant “conversation” espoused by some SM evangelists that’s annoying and detrimental to “relationship marketing.”

    So I should shut up now.

  5. Andy Curran says:

    There are blurred lines all over the place. Is it customer service or conversation? Sales pitch or relationship?

    Part of the deal is that any employee involved in marketing or selling a product is paid to plug it as often as possible. Social media is a new medium for them to use, and so they do because it’s part of the job. It doesn’t look like they’ll back off anytime soon.

    Based on usage alone, my top 3 brand loyalties are Kroger (I go there 3 times a week), General Mills (Fiber One), and Great Lakes Brewing Company (I’m trying hard to get them off the list!). Aside from Kroger’s monthly coupon emails and mailers, none of them really bother me with marketing material, probably because they don’t know I’m a customer.

  6. comradity says:

    I couldn’t agree more. No consumer goes to sleep at night and wakes up thinking about a brand the way a brand manager should and does. But it is hard for the brand manager to remember that.

    That’s why brands have convinced themselves that it is ok to “interrupt” personal conversations on social networking sites to make a pitch. Even if the conversation is contextually relevant.

    But, how could this ever be a good idea? Well it turns out it is not. According to BrandWeek, Branded Social Networking is not so effective: http://bit.ly/4zCZUx

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    Comradity’s comment prompts me to ad this.

    Yes, it’s a bad idea to interrupt conversations or otherwise muscle your way into the online discussion. But any marketer using social media responsibly is communicating with your permission. That’s how it’s done.

    Example: I use Twitter to promote this blog. I generally tweet each post twice over a 24-hour period. Some folks don’t care for that, and see it as shameless marketing for my site — or my ego. But they have chosen to follow my tweets, ergo, they have given me permission to send messages into their space. If I piss them off, they can click the unfollow button and I disappear.

    I’ve unfollowed a handful of social media’s leading influencers — all names you would know — because I got tired of them shilling for their books or websites. No big deal.

    So to the extent that our online engagement is permission based and reaching out to those who are truly interested in the brand — go for it.

    But it still comes back to the resource question. How much time and money are you willing to invest — and what is the ROI? Because you know the old saying: Content is king. And great content takes lots of time and lots of money to develop.

    For whatever reason, Subaru, a car that has many passionate owners, has decided it doesn’t need a wide array of SM tools to maintain that following. Ford sees things differently when it comes to the Mustang.

    Maybe Subaru needs is an Outback convertible with a Hemi!

  8. comradity says:

    Hey Bill,

    I follow you on twitter because I want to know what you are talking about. So please tweet what you post. But, your dog’s latest prank – not so much.

    Facebook is where I talk about my dog. If they push an ad about dog food I’m not interested. And I didn’t realize I had opted in for that. On Facebook, I know someone who is pregnant and talked about eating a lobster dinner. People (presumably friends of friends but more likely political activists) started posting all this nasty stuff on her page. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t think she opted in for that.

    Back to twitter. Comradity is my “business” account. And I only follow people relevant to my new media/marketing business. I probably should have signed my post with my name.

    Katherine Warman Kern
    @comradity
    http://www.comradity.com

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for the return visit, Katherine. All good points.

    Your first example about Facebook reveals a glitch in the privacy settings. I don’t know a lot about limiting who can or cannot post to my FB page. I do know that friends of friends can comment on things, as I see it daily. I suspect there may be ways to raise the shields on the “settings” menu to block out the undesirables. So far, I haven’t had the need.

    As for Twitter, I’ve have a number of people follow me after I mentioned a key word — one of them a “kayak” manufacturer, the other a distiller of fine “bourbons.” I’m fond of both products, and in each case, I followed back. One has turned into a semi-regular conversation, the other fizzled out when the whiskey maker lost interest.

    But when a Twitter user sends you a marketing-oriented @ message that all the world can see, that’s wrong. The porn sites have started doing that to me, and I swear I haven’t mentioned anything kinky on Twitter. Must be my devilish good looks :-)

    Not sure we can solve this problem. This blog, thanks to WordPress, has such a good spam filter that I no longer moderate comments. Askimet catches 95% of the dross. Twitter’s administrators disable the accounts of flagrant spammers and scammers, but it’s become THE platform of choice for the push marketers. When one follows me, I hit the block button.

    It’s getting to be work. If and when that chore becomes too onerous, I suspect we’ll all move on. Too bad.

  10. Stacy Wessels says:

    After only a few months of driving a MINI, I’m totally in love with the car and with the company. MINI does an amazing job of playing up the fun of driving one. Their brochures and manuals contain all the important info, presented cleverly. I can’t imagine Ford or even Subaru doing this much to make its customers feel special. As a Mac user, I had an inkling how it felt to belong to a club — the secret society of writers and designers who prefer a better computer. When a MINI customer drives a new Cooper or Clubman off the lot, they feel like they’ve just joined the “cool kids” clique. Based on my early interaction with other MINI owners, it works.

    I need to go hug my MINI now.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Stacy,

    I’m envious that you got a MINI. It fits into the same category as the Mustang in that it draws out the driver’s emotional side. I don’t know anything about MINI’s social media activities, an area where Ford has shown a lot of leadership. MINI is one of those “cool” products that might benefit from a more active engagement.

    I have to say, as much as I like my MacBook, Apple has not done a good job of public engagement. Apple users, on the other hand, engage one another all the time. As for the Mac being a “better” computer, I’m not convinced that’s the case. It’s just different than the PC, and way more cool.

    Still really pissed that my new MacBook came in a white case. No way you can keep it clean.

  12. Bill, I agree completely. There are quite a few products to which I am brand loyal, but I think an ongoing conversation with each brand would be tiring. How much could Tom’s of Maine really converse with me about toothpaste?

    The only reason I can fathom “friending” a brand on FB would be to get high value coupons, but that’s because I’m a budgeting nerd (okay, cheap).

    I was at a local PRSA event at which a case study of PSNH using Twitter was presented. Someone at my table said that PSNH should contact all of those that were active in conversations with them on twitter, make them brand advocates, etc. I shook my head. The last thing I want is my utility company cyber-friending me like that. It’s just not necessary, and detracts from what they should be using social media for–as one of many tools in their communications strategy.

  13. Danny Day says:

    I agree with you Bill. I think companies should just stick with creating good products and have good customer service. I don’t want a company in my face all the time. If I like the company, then i like the company, I don’t need to be friends with a company. I want to be friends with the people I interact with, not an organization. I do agree that social media is a good way to market a product though. Companies should use social media tools to get there product out to the public, but don’t use it to be “buddy-buddy” with their customers.

  14. Letty Velasco says:

    Hi Bill,
    We are living in a very competitive marketing world. With social media becoming more and more popular, and brands literally racing each other trying to reach more people, I believe brand loyalty is very important to a company. A person could have two identical products, and you know both of them well. They both offer same quality performance and same features, however one of them have had performed better in something like customer service, for example, and you made your decision based on something that is not performance. As a brand, I am not only going to make sure that you are happy with my product, but I want to keep your loyalty for life by knowing more about you. By wanting to engage I want to know what you like or dislike most about my product(s). I will keep all of that information in mind so I can keep innovating and offering a better product each time, and keep you, your family, and friends as loyal to my brand as I can.

  15. Cherie Kennedy says:

    I agree with what Blair Boone stated. When I was growing up, I’m sure it was in elementary school, our teacher had a write a letter to a company. Mostly stating what we liked about their product. Most companies replied back in a letter. They usually would include coupons. At that time it was very exciting to get a response back from a big company. With social media we get their response back much faster.

    One of Bob Conrad’s marketing students.

  16. Beth Harte says:

    Bill,

    I have hugged my favorite brand…literally. I don’t talk about this much online, but I will here to demonstrate, I hope, a point.

    Since I was 14 years old I have loved scarves and especially Hermes scarves (Corny, I know…it’s been a LONG time love affair!). Well, in a point in my life where I could actually consider buying them I stopped by their boutique. Anyone who shops luxury brands can guess what happened… I was greeted with snobbery. So, I popped onto eBay to see if anyone was selling Hermes scarves. Sure enough, there were! One seller had noted in her listing about joining an Hermes scarf group to learn how to tell a real scarf from a fake. So I did. That was in 2004 and it was an “old-school” Yahoo! Group. That group taught me more about Hermes than I’d ever learned from Hermes. I am still very good friends (on- and off-line) with a lot of the members even after all these years because we have bonded over a common addiction (yep! I said it.) and love for a brand.

    As with all social networks, there are influencers and these groups are no different (yes, they still exist and yes, there is more than one group). When an influencer mentions that they purchased a certain scarf or item, there is often a spike in sales for Hermes as group members seek the same or similar item (because people cross-post, there can be enough movement from all the groups to increase sales of particular items).

    Hermes knows about the groups and they know the brand enthusiasts/loyalists. Over the years I have become good friends with the team at my local Hermes, and yes, I have actually hugged them on more than one occasion (especially if they score me a scarf I wanted…like a replacement for the one I lost at SXSW). As they are representatives of the brand, that counts, right?

    Additional thoughts:

    1. Often a brand doesn’t actually need to be involved via social media to create a brand relationship. For me that happened via the brand evangelists that were using social media, but it was eventually solidified by the brand itself.
    2. It takes time to build a lasting relationship with a brand
    3. Not all brands are huggable (nor would we want to) and this example is FAR from typical, but it still proved to me a long time ago that social media was/is valid.

    I have intentionally left out certain things because I didn’t think them relevant… Is this a valid example? Would love to know your thoughts.

    Now that I have tarnished a luxury brand by making them personable… I’ll say good night. ;-)

  17. Bill Sledzik says:

    That’s a great case, Beth. Thanks for posting it. I wouldn’t know a Hermes scarf from one of my paisley red bandannas, but clearly this is a product that generates a good bit a passion among its users — not unlike the Ford Mustang.

    As you point out, not all brands are “huggable,” but when they are, social media can play and important role. Before social media, of course, we called these folks “opinion leaders,” not “influencers.” The communication changes are mind boggling, but the concepts have remained pretty much the same.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  18. jak says:

    I think we are talking 2 things here. 1. Semantics as you said, where evangelism is the real topic. and 2. relationship with the people that make up the company and/or the consumers of the company.

    When a community forms around a brand — relationships, whether sanctioned by employees or other fans, is a really powerful thing.

  19. Beth Harte says:

    Bill, not sure I would call these people ‘opinion leaders.’ Meaning, I don’t think it was a case of “this is my opinion that this scarf is beautiful or this Birkin is a must.” It’s a lot more subtle than that. (Or, am I taking the word opinion too literally?)

    As I said on Mark’s post it’s the perception that OTHER people get and some of the ‘influencers’ were put on pedestals by others…not themselves.

    For example someone would post “So excited, just picked up my new 35cm Togo Black Birkin. (photo).” (Is that opinion? No.)

    Inevitably, because this particular person has commented hundreds (if not thousands) of times on her in-store experiences, conversations with Hermes HQ, trips to Paris sales, etc., etc. She was put on a pedestal by others as an expert, one to follow/friend (for scoop, trends, upcoming items not in the US yet, etc), etc. And there are many of these people (just as there many folks who hoist them up on a pedestal…well, until they are in a position to be a leader themselves).

    Having known some of these people, they have NO clue that they are what we marketing/PR folks would call an opinion leader or influencer. They have NO clue that they are even on a “social network.”

    That’s what makes this interesting to me. We can hash about it all we want, but at the end of the day the average customer/consumer doesn’t understand that they are potentially being held in regard as an expert, influencer, thought leader, opinion leader… They just love what they love. It really makes me want to re-take that sociology class!

    My other point to posting this is that what we are seeing in the social media space is nothing new… My story here is over 5 years old. :)

  20. Mary Funches says:

    When companies stick to offering quality products and good customer service it does create a “relationship” with the consumer. My unbreakable bond with Taco Bell and Converse shoes have lead me to believe these relationships exist. They spark good memories plus I have always been happy with their service and products. I think its an effective marketing tool to use especially in a market with so much competition.Why not aim to be your customers best friend?

    One of Bob Conrad’s marketing students.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      And you talk about the brands you like just as I have about Subaru, Leatherman and Campmor. I agree with your assessment, Mary, but I guess where I disagree is with the “best friend” thing. My best friends send me emails and Facebook messages. And they phone often–even though I hate talking on the phone. I don’t seek that close a relationship with any brand.

      Could it be that I’m just not as passionate as I think I am? Maybe so. Consider Beth’s comment about the Hermes scarf. I have NEVER met an article of clothing that got me that excited — not even close. If my favorite brands did reach out to hug me, I’d push them away. I mean, I have this really hot lady at home :-)

  21. William Drake says:

    Hi Bill, I take a marketing class from Bob Conrad at TMCC in Reno Nv and he assigned you blog as a discussion topic. I think you have hit the nail on the head. An example for me is Nike. I weare many different brands of shoes but when it comes to any kind of athletic shoe I only where Nike. This is not because I have a special relationship with Nike where they invite me to dinner but becasue my fet are long and skinny and their shoes fit my feet the best and are very high quality. I don’t think it is realistic for companies to try an build a relationship with customers as I believe a real relationship requires human interaction. I hin it is possible for small businesses or stores to develop a relationship with the customer but not the parent company. When I lived in So. Ca. I developed a relationship with the Nike town on Wilshiore Blvd. in Beverly Hills because an employee would persoanlly call me whenever new limited addition shoes were coming out and if I wanted them he would set aside a pair for me as my size, 12, tends to sell out quickly. As long as I showed up and bought the shoes I said I was going to buy he continued to do this for me, but I never received a call from Phil Night regarding new shoes.

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