The New Normal—The Changing Relationship Between People and Their Brands


By Ivan Bojanic, Senior Integration Architect, Gongos, Inc. & Nancy Walter, Integration Architect, Gongos, Inc.

You know in Romantic Comedy (RomCom) films when the couple decides to take their relationship to a deeper level? Well as a society, many of us are taking that next step with the relationships we have with brands. We are moving past the functional aspect of choice for the products and services they provide, and are choosing brands on a far more emotional level based on intangibles like corporate values and what they stand for. In essence, we’re moving from purchasers to believers.

One motivation for this change is to fill the void left by damaged or broken institutions like government, financial and social institutions, education systems, and companies that don’t treat people right. These entities have given our lives stability in the past, but many are now embroiled in scandal, fraud, or gridlock. We’re collectively more anxious and even lonelier, especially younger generations.

So it’s no wonder that Forbes initiated the Just 100 list in 2016 to rank companies based on weighted measures such as how they treat their workers and customers, environmental impact, community support, and human rights records. And it’s not surprising that “purpose-led” brands enjoy stronger and more resilient relationships with people. Gen Z is entering adulthood as the most anxious generation on record, but is also eager to find reasons for hope. In fact, 84% will actively promote a brand that stands up for something they believe in.

The way forward: Three ways to communicate brand values

In that RomCom, the guy has to stand out in the rain with a boom box blasting a song that has meaning for both of the people involved. So too do new relationships between people and brands. But to start, brands must understand and share peoples’ values and take a meaningful place in hearts and minds. They must be clear about their principles – who they are and what they stand for.

Here are three ways to go about doing that:

1. Be real.

62% of people say they want to work with brands that are authentic in everything they do. But for brands, being true to themselves can be more challenging than it may seem.

McDonald’s provides an instructive example. Seeing that Americans wanted healthier food, the company redesigned its menu to focus on healthier options by marketing salads and wraps alongside its iconic hamburgers.

It failed spectacularly – losing 500 million orders over a span of five years.

It turns out that we do want healthier food…we just don’t want it from McDonald’s. The brand identity just didn’t align with their business decision and people saw right through it.

McDonald’s launched a successful recovery based on reclaiming its brand identity; it took what people already loved about the brand – cheap, flavorful burgers – and made it better, switching fresh meat for frozen. The reinvented burger has been a hit, from both a taste and business perspective.

2. Take the lead.

Almost 90% of Americans think we’re too divided as a country, and 60% say that brands can help bring people together. This reveals a startling insight: looking around us, we see our bedrock institutions that have given our lives a sense of stability, like government, schools, religion, and civil society, as ineffective, paralyzed, or even broken.

For brands, this means a riskier landscape where they are being asked to take a stand at a time when everyone has different points of view, and no single approach will be right for everyone. As Gillette’s recent #MeToo-inspired commercial recently demonstrated, there will be both passionate supporters and vocal detractors.

At a minimum, this means brands will have to go beyond thinking about functional attributes like product, price, and features – and clearly communicate their values.

3. Show you get them.

88% of people say digital ads are more intrusive today than 2-3 years ago; today’s consumers have a desire for greater space, and more trust, in their lives.

Some brands react to this by curating environments that don’t pressure people to buy on the spot, but rather, create a memorable experience that may lead to a sale in the future. There can be a direct relation between the brand and the experience, as with hotels that allow guests to experience products in a real-world setting. There can also be a less direct connection between the brand and experience, as this example of a luxury carmaker’s exclusive restaurant illustrates.

It can also come through with brands’ choice of spokesperson. Sixty-five percent of multinational brands are investing more in influencer marketing, and many are turning to everyday micro-influencers with fewer than 10,000 followers on social media. This approach has strong potential – micro-influencers are seen as far more genuine than other endorsers. (However, brands should be careful not to create a perception of “stealth marketing”, which strikes many as unethical.)

Brand success through shared values

In our RomCom, the couple had to get to know each other beyond the romance period. They needed to meet the family (good…and bad), be accepted by the beloved pets, show that they share the same values, and so much more. And then, they inevitably find love and settle down together.

Brands, too, are no longer a casual acquaintance that fulfills a functional need, but a meaningful partner that makes life more rewarding for the person and the brand. It’s a major shift from our traditional, transactional notion of the relationship between brands and consumers. Today’s brands that meet high public expectations, demands, and desires are connecting with people on a deeply rooted emotional level, ultimately evolving the relationship from transaction to interaction. And whether the outcome is happily ever after or just a more positive partnership, brands are building connections for life.

As published on