A recent Trendera study has found that 63 percent of consumers say they want to have a relationship with brands, so much so that they report that they’d like brands to treat them like friends. While we agree that today’s brands need to interact with consumers as individuals, this finding did give us a little pause. Sure, consumers interact with brands in ways that would have been inconceivable just a decade ago, but there is a distinction between brands interacting with you on your terms, in ways that resonate with you and brands treating you as their friend. To get some insights into this trend, we reached out to a Jay Palter, social networking expert and president of Jay Palter Social Advisory.
According to Jay, “The suggestion that a brand needs to be more personal and engage more like a person and human is not a new idea. I think it reflects an underlying truth about social networking, which is that people want to connect with people. Even if your brand is engaging as a person would in a more human way, it’s likely a person behind the mask of the brand. My view is different. I think businesses and brands in particular need to figure out how to tap into some of the personal brands and the humans that are animating the corporate brands. They need to figure out how to unleash the power of the employee advocates and learn how to have more voices within a company that are somehow reflecting the brand and connecting with people on behalf of the brand. I think ultimately that is where social networking is going, and it’s not really about having your brand act more human.”
The most salient point the study makes is that demographics are dead. Lifestyle preferences are a much better way to understand consumers in today’s environment. All boomers don’t act alike and all Millennials don’t want the same things, so the days of using wide swaths of generational generalities are over. This is a central point we made in our white paper, Why the Y: Millennials and the Generation of Innovation. While this pigeonholing surely happened to Baby Boomers and Gen X before Millennials, this maddening habit of lumping an age group together and attributing overriding characteristics and behaviors to the entire cohort means that brand marketers miss some really important distinctions that inform how they interact with consumers, and how consumers do or don’t interact with brands.
According to Liz Gray, Trendera’s President, in Adweek,
“The days of impressing consumers with targeted marketing based solely on demographics are in the past, marketing in 2015 is about treating your audience as fans, not customers.”
Liz Gray, Trendera’s President
But are fans really friends? Fans may show brand love, but that doesn’t make them a friend of the brand on a personal level, a distinction that is important for brands to understand. The last thing we want is a brand getting too familiar. We like the convenience of brands suggesting things based on our browsing preferences, for example, but there is a point when it can get a little invasive and creepy. In an era when data is gathered on everything consumers do online and off, there is a distinction between when a brand adds value to your life and when it becomes a stalker.
So if consumers are not really “friends,” what are they? Some brands call them “fans” and others call them “advocates.” But this focus on the consumer misses an important opportunity, according to Jay Palter. His approach focuses on brand ambassadors within the brand. “Organizations need to learn how to empower their employees to become engaged leaders in their social networks, in their communities outside of their business role or in the professional communities that are encompassed in their professional role. It’s a very challenging way of thinking and I think customer service is a leading application of it. There are lots of businesses with lots of other functions where individuals in the company will go out into the world and speak at conferences and represent the company in a variety of ways, and also represent themselves as individual professionals.”
In the era of connection, it would be a mistake for brands not to focus on interacting with consumers as a top priority. It’s easy to see how many brands may make the leap to treating consumers as friends, but that misses some nuances. Brands are not people. But, brands are made up of people, and that’s where the authentic voice from within a brand can spring. According to Jay, “I think it’s a very difficult prospect for many businesses, for many brands, to get their head around thinking ‘How do we present a common brand to the world through the voices of many individuals?’ There are all kinds of tension involved in letting people take off the brand masks and be themselves as corporate representatives. It’s not an easy road, but I fundamentally think social networking is challenging this notion that we can be brands that that act human. I think ultimately successful social businesses will have many people who are very skilled at representing an aspect of the brand within their networks.”