Relationship Status – It’s Complicated

In my experience as an advertising student and overall decent listener, one of the most common terms in any discussion on the purpose of social media in the advertising world is “relationship” and how social media is used to build relationships between brands and consumers. Now we can all admit that this is a much better explanation than to say that it generates sales, but I can’t help but feel uneasy on the broadness of the term. Part of me does not want to believe that can have a relationship with Coca-Cola on an intimate level as their children or parents.* With that said, the industry is booming with new opportunities to log into the Facebook machine and get involved with the activities and fun that major soda, cracker and hamburger brand have going on.** But is this trend moving towards people having closer relationships to brands? I am going to ramble on a blog post and share it across all my social media accounts to figure out why.


In 2012, the Association of Consumer Research stuck their noses into people’s relationships with their brands and found that people in fact do want a relationship with a brand. There, question answered. But on the other hand, the Harvard Business Review found conflicting evidence suggesting that only 23% of people want a relationship with a brand.  The problem isn’t that the ACR or the HBR are wrong; it’s just that they are both right based on their unique definitions of what a relationship entails. The American Consumer Review defined a relationship in commercial sense as the mutual exchange in benefits and value between two parties whereas the Harvard Business Review equated the relationship between brand and people to the relationship between people and family members. Its an interesting finding by both sources because it seems to show that in the practical sense, people do share a connection with their favorite companies and this connection leads to greater involvement with the company’s happenings. Can you still call this a relationship if you keep in mind that products and services are a means to solve a problem?


In this day in age (also thanks to Apple), there is a movement towards pushing a brand’s purpose rather than its products. Defining the career of Steve Jobs and Macintosh computers was his commitment to the phones, computers, mp3 players, and tablets being a by-product of the mission statement. The concept of the mission statement surrounding how you make your products and what you make has been molded and crafted in many successful social media based advertising campaigns. It seems that the product sits behind the hashtag rather than on store shelves which makes the whole dynamic between people and companies much more compelling. Think about how Nike’s #makeitcount campaign seamlessly integrated the platforms to attain massive involvement. The campaign wasn’t directly about selling a digital wristband, but to remind people to always maintain an active lifestyle. It tied back to the company’s mission to let the world know that if you have a body, you can be an athlete. I vehemently agree with their believes which has led me to be a loyal supporter of Nike over the years even despite questionable manufacturing issues. But what does that mean to say about the relationship that I have with the company? Almost any one that  you talk to will agree in various levels of passion that everyone can be an athlete. If you think rationally about what inspires you are the people who do it best or for self-content.


Very few in the company’s target audience will disagree with Nike’s mission. Appealing to the masses by way of your company’s purpose is common practice and social media makes communicating this purpose work at a much faster and interactive pace. However, a company is only limited to discussing one mission and its following will divide if it strays from that mission. Sometimes it can lead to uproar.


With all that said, to say that the purpose of social media is to develop relationships between consumers and brands would be a little contrived without a more specific definition of what that relationship entails. While it seems to be more practical in the sense of communicating to a large group of people at once to define relationships as the connection between man and brand as the exchange of values and benefits. In reference to communication as an art form, there is a rightful tendency to look beyond the rational. In the age of the television, ads became legendary when they transcended the colorful glass box and spoke to the audience individually and there are some incredibly smart people trying to do the same with social media. However, whether it is out of romantics or practicality, always be mindful of how the word “relationship” gets used to describe people and their potato chips.


But who am I to judge.


* The interior décor of some Midwestern households might suggest otherwise.

** It is currently lunchtime as I am writing this.



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