Can't Buy Me Like: Why Companies Have To Romance The Same Consumers They Once Bought

Fifty years ago, corporations could hide behind spendy public image campaigns. Thanks to social media and the relationship era, they now need to actually walk the talk.

Connection is why we’re here. It gives purpose and
meaning to our lives.—Brené Brown, social scientist and author

Consider this simple experiment:

Type “I love Apple” into your search bar. You will get 3.27 million hits. If you type “I love Starbucks,” 2.7 million hits. Zappos: 1.19 million.

And “I love Citibank”? You get 21,100. AT& T Wireless: 7,890. Exxon: 4,730. Dow Chemical: 3. Out of 7 billion human beings, 3! Just to put that into context: If you type “I love Satan,” you get 293,000 hits. Now consider this: Citibank, AT& T Wireless, ExxonMobil and Dow among them spend $2 billion a year on advertising. Money, it turns out, really can’t buy you love. It can’t even buy you like.

The methodology here may not be especially rigorous, but the results dramatize three immutable facts of contemporary marketing:

  1. Millions of people will, of their own volition, announce to the world their affection for a brand. Not for a person, not for an artwork, not for a dessert but for a good or service. Congratulations. People care about you.
  2. Your brand is inextricably entwined in such relationships. If you were to type in “I hate Exxon,” you’d get 2.16 million hits—not counting the “I hate ExxonMobil” Facebook page. People are decreasingly listening to your messages, but that hasn’t stopped them from thinking about you and talking about you. And each of those expressions of like, dislike, ardor or disgust has an exponent attached to it, reflecting the outward ripples of social interaction.
  3. What used to happen in the privacy of your own boardroom, plants and C-suite is now extremely public and common currency on the Internet. People in glass houses shouldn’t do anything illegal, embarrassing, hypocritical, offensive, tasteless, vulgar, excessively greedy or otherwise incorrect—especially when getting caught being honorable and constructive has such benefits. Perhaps by coincidence, but most likely not, this sudden vast availability of information corresponds with a societal megatrend of judging institutions not only on their offerings but on their conduct. Thus, for the first time in commercial history, there is not just moral value but asset value in being a mensch.

This is the Relationship Era, the first period of modern commerce when your success or failure depends not on what you say, nor even on what you produce, but increasingly on who you are. And it isn’t hard to discover who you are. Just Google yourself. Take your time. It’s all there, in perpetuity.

Except for a handful of industrial juggernauts mainly removed from public view (including ExxonMobil, truth be told) doing business in the Relationship Era has many requirements. Ethical conduct. Seamless customer relations. Constant contact and cooperation with all stakeholders, including not just investors but also employees, suppliers, distributors and retailers, neighbors, governments and the society at large. It must be an all-pervasive imperative to earn the trust of all concerned—not as a means to gain advantage in a sale or negotiation but as an end in itself.

In bygone eras, trust was at best subsidiary to the all pervasive focus on increased sales and market share. And in the current environment, the degree to which consumer trust influences purchasing decisions has never been higher and is clearly rising. Yet, paradoxically, trust and transactions are independent variables. Only when you view them as such can you fully understand their relationship in true brand sustainability.

Meantime, let us nonetheless think about the value of trust relationships—versus the dependence on advertising and public relations to shape perceptions about a brand.

“It’s always been about the individualized relationship,” says Scott Olrich, CMO of Responsys, which provides relationship based marketing software for some of the largest brands in the world. “A century or so back, the local corner shop lived or died based on the relationships they built. As new means of mass communication emerged, companies used their increased reach to try to advertise their way out of that responsibility. But today every aspect of a company’s behavior is on public display. A relationship-first approach to every customer interaction has again become the imperative.”

Dealing with this new reality requires an entirely new mentality across nearly all areas of an enterprise, in which every function of business embraces the Relationship Era—but in consumer interactions most of all. The behaviors associated with the Consumer Era nowadays seem cold-blooded and opportunistic, like a swinger on the prowl in a bar. The Relationship Era approach has more in common with romance, or, at least, a human connection.

Excerpted from Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Bob Garfield and Doug Levy, 2013

Doug Levy is the founder and CEO of MEplusYOU, a leading strategic and creative agency. Bob Garfield is a media analyst and commentator and the host of NPR's On The Media radio program.

[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

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