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Consumers Do/Don't Want Relationships With Brands

A Snarketing post by Ron Shevlin, Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors

Do consumers want to have a relationship with brands?

On one hand, a research study published by the Association for Consumer Research says yes, and states:

“Consumers want to build a relationship with a certain brand when they regard the brand as beneficial or valuable to them. Thus, if consumers feel that they are getting a good value and are satisfied after initially using the brand, they want to build a relationship with it.”

On the other hand, a blog post on the Harvard Business Review site posits the opposite opinion. As to whether or not consumers want a relationship with brands,

“They don’t. Only 23% of consumers said they have a relationship with a brand. When you ask the 77% of consumers who don’t have relationships with brands to explain why, you get comments like ‘It’s just a brand, not a member of my family.'”

So who’s right? Both of them.

How can that be? It’s easy. They both define “relationship” to suit the view they choose to support.


The ACR researchers actually skirt the issue altogether, and assert that benefits+value=satisfaction=relationship.

The HBR bloggers, on the other hand, establish a condition that proves impossible to meet, that a relationship can only be akin to something we have with a family member.

This is an unfair condition. First off, our relationships with individual family members aren’t all alike. My relationship with my spouse if very different from my relationship with my children, which in turn is different from my relationships with my siblings and other further-flung family members.

And what about work colleagues? We often talk about having a “working” relationship with someone, don’t we? That’s nowhere the same as a relationship with a family member.

It’s hard to believe that only 23% of people told the HBR bloggers that they have a relationship with a brand. Really? There’s no brand you feel an affinity toward, or loyal to?

I mean, look, you really don’t want to be in the same room as me if I find out we’re out of my favorite cereal in the morning. Is that not a relationship I have with the brand?


There are two things going on here. 

The first is this annoying, never-ending quest on the part of marketing consultants and academics to “discover” the “secret” of customer “loyalty.” And to produce a list of the three (or five or seven) things you have to do to “win” that loyalty, and the ONE thing to measure. 

This is called Silverbulletitis which I define as:

A condition in which the sufferer expects easy answers and solutions to difficult problems.

As Ringo Starr once said, “It don’t come easy. You know don’t it come easy.” We shoulda listened to him.


The second thing is pretty annoying, as well: It’s marketing’s lack of established definitions. 

While the accounting world suffers from attempts to make the scientific creative, at least it has generally accepted definitions for its commonly-used terms, like assets and liabilities.

But not only can the marketing not define relationship, we can’t even produce generally accepted definitions for terms like market share and yes, even the term customer.

So, as a result, researchers and consultants go off, do research, and come to the conclusion they were predisposed to come to by simply defining terms the way they want to define them.


Whether you agree with me or not, I’m sure that won’t affect the relationship you have with this blog. Right?

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

All content © 2017 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.

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  1. I have to agree with HBR. In my experience, the “brand” is a stand-in or reference for quality. We know that things purchased from Walmart will be cheap and probably tacky; those purchased from Target will be cheap but not tacky. We know products purchased from Apple will be fully functional and kinda cool; we know that purchases from Microsoft will be buggy but they’ll eventually get it right.

    So, for me at least, a brand is the summation of my expected customer experience. As Kristin Zhivago puts it, branding is the promise you make; brands result from the promise you keep.

  2. Steve: I’ve got no argument w/ you regarding the definition of brand. But what about having a “relationship” with those brands? The HBR article sets up the premise that few people have a relationship w/ a brand because relationship is something that humans have between each other. The ACR study presumes, as do SO MANY other marketers, that, of course, consumers want a relationship. The problem here, as I see it, isn’t just in defining brand, but in defining relationship.

  3. Lori Lambert says:

    Isn’t this an example of the industry not being in touch with the consumer? Yes, technically, I think consumers create a relationship with a brand, I don’t think consumers think in terms of “relationship” but more in terms of loyalty, as you said. Doesn’t the level of loyalty equate to the stage of the relationship you are in? Say you may come across a new flavor of potato chips in the grocery store and give them a try…You’re on a date with Chip. If you don’t like them, I won’t buy them again–no second date for Chip, no loyalty. If you think they taste good, you’ll buy them occasionally–you go with Chip again but also go out with Joe and Tom, some loyalty. If you love them, you will definitely buy them again and maybe even in place of the brand you were buying before–You’re dating Chip exclusively, total loyalty. However if the company changes the flavor a bit or God forbid, stops making the chips, you feel disappointed, let down or maybe even betrayed, Chip has changed not to your liking and you end the relationship, no loyalty. Yes, technically you have been through a relationship with the potato chip brand but consumers look at it more from a level of loyalty as opposed to what stage of the relationship they are in. I buy the same brand of deodorant every time, regardless of price and without comparison shopping. Ask me if I’ve built a “relationship” with my brand of deodorant and I’d say no. Ask me if I’m loyal, most definitley. Ask the 77% of consumers in the HBR survey if they are loyal to a brand and I’m sure you’ll get a different answer.

  4. I think it’s a mistake to equate brand loyalty or passion for a brand as a “relationship.” Consumers are associated with thousands of brands in different ways. To classify those associations (either positive or negative) as a “relationship” is a misuse of the word.

    For me, I’m defining relationship as some sort of interpersonal interaction that goes beyond simply interfacing w/the company’s product or service.There needs to be some sort of back-and-forth exchange for a relationship to exist in my mind.

    The only brands I have a “relationship” with are the B2B ones I need for my business. Otherwise, I’d say I don’t have one single relationship with a consumer brand. I love my G Loomis fishing rods. I’m a loyal G Loomis customer, and strong word-of-mouth advocate. But would I say I have a “relationship” with them? No, nothing anywhere near it.

    Simply being a fan of a brand isn’t adequate to establish a “relationship.” If that’s all it took, then there would be a million rabid fans having relationships with Justin Bieber.

  5. Well, let’s look to the good ‘ol webstermeister, shall we? Definition: ‘Relationship – the way in which two or more concepts, objects or people are connected.’ Gentlemen, start your engines.

  6. Hi Ron,

    Excellent as always! Bottom line is that to answer the question it doesn’t really matter what we (the company side) or consultants define as a relationship. It only matters how the Customer defines it, and how much he desires it, with what purpose. Because understanding that helps us design a better business model and service to support the Customer meeting her goals..

    Stop trying to define what you want/need it to be, start making it the way they want it to be!


  7. Lori: I would bet that for a lot of (if not most) product categories, consumers don’t think consciously about loyalty let alone relationship. I think this talk of brand relationship is the result of marketers overthinking and overreaching.

  8. FB: Couldn’t agree more that “being a fan isn’t adequate to establish a relationship.” But try telling that to the hordes of marketers out there. Oh wait, I AM trying to tell them that. It ain’t working.

  9. Elaine: You must not be a marketing person. Marketers don’t look terms up when they could just make up their own definition. 🙂

  10. Ha! coffee out my nose funny!

  11. Wim: I don’t think the issue is “making what customers want” as much as it is about measurement. Marketers seem to have this need to measure the strength of the customer…crap, I have to use the word “relationship.” And in the absence of strong financial measures, they seek out emotional and qualitative ways to measure that strength.

    You know, bullshit like “how likely are you to recommend us?” And then, regardless of whether or not that person actually ever buys anything ever again, we get to say s/he has a strong “relationship” because they said they would recommend us.

  12. I disagree with the WalMart tacky comment. Best Buy is closing several of it’s locations and WalMart is wasting no time pointing out those brands are available at their stores. I also disagree that consumers aren’t brand loyal. Perhaps not on everything – there are commodities, no doubt, but our lives are full of the brands we love and trust. From the cars we drive to the lotion we put on our faces.Consumers just probably cringe at that word “relationship.” Don’t we all? 😉

  13. Margie: I think I agree with you. I’m not sure anymore, because I’ve lost track of which side of the coin I was arguing for and against. 🙂

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