What our friendships can teach us about brand building

Do we choose our friends?

If you’re struggling for an answer, think back to your school days (hazy as they might be). Who we’re friends with changes constantly and loyalty to a friend or group takes time to develop. It’s rarely, if ever, 100% exclusive. Kids talk to lots of other kids, not just their close friends. They’ve got friends in other classes and other schools.

Research by Byron Sharp indicates that 100% brand loyalty, rarely if ever exists. Just as with kids, we buy from a variety of brands or businesses that we like (more on this later). For any given industry, the degree of loyalty shown over a given time frame is largely predictable and very hard to change. Sharp’s Double Jeopardy Law states that smaller brands get hit twice – they have far fewer buyers buying them slightly less regularly. Some people believe there are exceptions – including Marketing Week collumnist Mark Ritson, however this article tackles that head on and gives an in-depth account of why Apple and the iPhone follows this law just like other brands, products and services do.

So, kids don’t deliberate over to who be friends with. Instead they gravitate to others who they have something in common with and who like the same stuff. And this journey evolves.

What happens when kids fall out

This happens a lot. And when they do, one of two things can happen.

Either they’ll apologise to each other, and that relationship with continue stronger than before. Or they’ll end up hating each other, spreading rumours about how the other is pure evil.

This narrative reflects how we shape our perception of brands too. For example, as consumers we all know things go wrong. Wrong items can be sent, delivery dates can be missed, the wrong food can be served. Bad things happen – it’s how we react to these issues that’s likely to affect our longer-term relationship with customers.  Seth Godin summed this up nicely when he said “good customer service is authentic, not perfect…and is the sincerest form of marketing”.

Here’s another question.

Ever met up with a long-lost friend only for the conversation to flow and it feel like you picked up right where you left off?

 If so, chances are the two of you go “way back” and have many shared experiences and memories to draw on.

As with friendships, our brand preferences are shaped over the long-term. Our relationships are affected by our own judgements and actions, as well as those of others (our peers or reference groups). We align ourselves with brands we like and those that we feel a connection to. And just like those long-lost friends and are ability to reconnect, the depth of relationship and frequency of contact matter.

Communication can build awareness, affinity, and (eventually) trust. A lack of it leaves uncertainty and a vacuum into which someone else is likely to step.

Trust and friendships

If someone breaks our trust, we’re likely to make new friends. Sometimes, relationships can be rebuilt, but sometimes we find better friends elsewhere, people who share our interests and preferences and who value our mutual trust.

This is exactly how our relationships with brands and businesses work. It should come as no surprise then that many of the marketing models we use today apply these insights to guide our understanding of customer behaviour and brand development.

Whether it’s Ehrenberg’s ATR model, Google’s Messy Middle framework (which I’ve also written about here) or any one of a dozen others, brand awareness and the power of experience run front and centre in long-term marketing success.

Exposure and experience

First, let’s review exposure.

Creating brand exposure and awareness remains a core function of marketing (this hasn’t changed since the early days of the AIDA model) and both surrounds and informs the purchasing process – each nudge and prompt is marketing’s, and specifically advertising’s, soft power in this process.

Reach and frequency are vital – but so too is quality and effectiveness of message and creative (which if achieved often results in outperforming the competition).

This continuous process is slowly but surely raising brand awareness, and if done successfully, builds an affinity between the brand and target audience. The more relevant the message, and the more effective the promotional mix, the more successful the brand is likely to be.

This is what’s happening in the playground – kids take the smallest of cues and notice the tiniest of things to help shape their perceptions about the people around them. Body language, tone of voice, the words they use. Consistency, reliability, values – these all go into the melting pot of influences that determine our friendships. And who we buy from.

Second, experience, advocacy, and connection. Experience is just as important an influence and predictor of long-term success. Trust is built from positive experience; we’re building little bits of trust every day with the purchase decisions we make. Whether it’s a chocolate bar or a visit to a fancy restaurant, we enter a value exchange, and our expectations must be met. Either way, our experiences shape our future purchase intent, and the extent to which we’ll advocate about it to others.  

Silence isn’t golden

Have you ever ghosted a good friend? Not if you want that friendship to continue.

Whether it’s the occasional social media message, phone call or Christmas card, we find ways of staying in touch. Doing so keeps us involved and makes us feel connected, even if we can’t spend much time together.

Obvious, it is, and yet many brands and businesses don’t act this way. The Institute for Practitioners of Advertising (IPA) recommends a 60/40 split with 60% of a brand’s advertising focused on brand building and 40% on sales activation (this is meant only as a guide – there are other factors to consider). And yet both the IPA and Peter Field have consistently found brands falling far short of this benchmark (in favour of short-term sales). Worse still is that when things get tough during a recession, many brands reign in marketing budgets, viewing it as a “nice to have”.

According to ICAEW, advertising expenditure dropped 13% during the 2008-9 recession.

Brands and business, just like friends, must continue to communicate to stay engaged, relevant, and present – otherwise the relationship breaks down. And this doesn’t just mean talking to existing customers on owned channels with what’s been said before. That’s not how friendships work. People change. The context changes. The strongest brands keep talking to their audiences and find a new context in which they can stay relevant, enabling the conversation to continue. This builds the relationship, making it stronger over time and slowly but surely nudging and cajoling the audience towards brand affinity and preference.

This continual process is something Sharp (yes, the LSE Professor I mentioned earlier who states loyalty levels are pre-determined) talks about this in his excellent book “How Brands Grow”; developing on the idea that when we make decisions about what to buy or who to buy from, we do so from a list of preferred or accepted options that we curate over time.

Viewed in this context, wouldn’t it seem strange if a friend you’d not heard of for a year or more started calling you every other day, suddenly desperate to get your attention?

And yet this is the type of stop / start behaviour brands and businesses adopt. This is not long-term strategic planning but a display of keeping fingers crossed and hoping not to see a black cat cross the road.

A final thought…

In her excellent book, “Brand the change”, Anne Miltenberg describes brands as “being built like humans” – with a brand core (character, beliefs, and personality) that we experience rather than see, a brand identity (how a brand looks, acts and sounds) and brand interactions (where you and your audience meet).

This fits the narrative. All three aspects of a brand or business need to be maintained. It’s what we do as humans to maintain our friendships, so why should brands and businesses do any different?

Now is the time for brands and businesses to reflect on their own key audience relationships. How, when and crucially what will they communicate in difficult times. All very good questions to ask (and questions many marketers are already thinking about).

The lessons we can take from our own friendships can offer some help in finding the answers.

Photo of Jon Paget

Jon Paget, Senior Partner

Jon’s a former Marketing Director of the health tech start-up, Social-Ability. As a member of the founding team, Jon spent 5 fast-paced years creating and developing the brand and building marketing strategies as the brand went from new market entrant to market leader inside 3 years. When he’s not working, Jon is writing, travelling or cycling – often trying to do all three at once.


Marketing Growth Plans
Positioning & Differentiation

More posts you might be interested in

As well as our blogs, webinars and podcasts, you’ll regularly see us speaking at industry and sector events. Next up, we’ll be sharing our thoughts at…

Is content marketing worth it in 2024?

For years, Google has been the undisputed king of the internet, with businesses vying for a coveted spot on the search engine’s first page. However, the...

Read more

Stay tuned in

Sign up to get our latest content and priority event invites.

hbspt.forms.create({ region: "eu1", portalId: "25677717", formId: "ed88c21d-0a02-4f5e-9b4d-28c0028d62e8" });