Toward a More Balanced Brand-Customer Relationship

Jeff Eckman

Jeff Eckman

Thanks for taking the time to peruse our foundational article—published in two-parts—created as a framework for understanding how brands can build deeper relationships with customers and prospects.

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Part 1: Customer Says to Brand, “I need more space in our relationship.”

The de-facto relationship between the brand and the customer has not been a balanced one. Most of the activities involved in marketing have been controlled by brands. Brands (and their agencies) have owned the messaging, the creative, the segmentation, and the methods of response.

And while brands have opened up to customer-generated content for part of a brand’s creative set, in the areas of segmentation and methods of response I’ve observed brands holding too tight to those reins. This means that brands have been missing out on growth opportunities that the World Wide Web and martech have been capable of providing for years.


The De-facto Imbalanced Relationship – It’s Complicated

Generally, brands assume and consume a majority of the available space in the brand-customer relationship. I’ve depicted this space, and the imbalance between the large amount the brand owns relative to the customer in Figure 1 below, with brands on the left, and customers on the right.

Each “side” involves people, of course. On the brand side that includes those who work on marketing teams within brands, the people who serve brands in agencies, and the many people in adtech firms (to include just a few of the many players on the brand side). On the customer side, is, well, just the customer.

I’ve also included a lever to depict the imbalance—a seesaw, if you will, with the playground bully “B” as the heavyweight brand, leaving the poor customer “C” high and dry. (I suppose the US federal playground safety guidelines that went into effect in 1981 in response to injuries from seesaws have leveled the playing field for the health of the customer, so to speak. But I parenthetically digress).

Figure 1: Relationship Space

Playground bully analogy aside, if we were to personify the brand-customer relationship as if it were an adult couple, the pair would look completely dysfunctional. The brand would be playing the role of control freak—overbearing, talking incessantly, rarely listening—and perhaps treating their partner with disrespect. And the customer would be observed not having much say in the relationship, unable to get a word in edgewise except in those relatively few quiet moments when the customer actually buys something.

This de-facto imbalanced relationship is a legacy of the industrial age, when brands went to market with a small set of big things, through a small set of durable channels. It is a somewhat impersonal, cold, transactional relationship, with Madison Avenue left to warm up the experience with “creative.”

In Figure 2 below, I’ve added several features of this imbalanced relationship to the illustration: dotted arrows to represent communications and interactions, the customer’s “buy” moment as their primary communication vehicle, a few descriptors of how brands tend to behave in their “space,” and a solid arrow reflecting the mostly one-way nature of the relationship.

Figure 2: Relationship Features

So, what does a more balanced relationship between brands and customers look like? Are there examples of more balanced relationships out there? Does marketing technology play a role? That’s what I will discuss in Part 2: A Relationship-First Approach to Brand-Customer Balance.

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