At their finest, brand relationships bring a lot of joy and are useful to a person, as long as the person is in full control, writes doctoral researcher Tiina Paananen from the University of Jyväskylä.

Brands are playing an increasingly important role in today’s globalised world. When brands compete on a global scale, it is worth analysing how to stand out from other competitors. A brand is a natural way to tell a company’s story and value proposition in order to engage customers.

A brand relationship is the relationship formed between a person and a brand. Relationships can scale from neutral to even strong.

A Tesla driver describes their experience as follows:

“I only drive a Tesla – I can feel the acceleration all the way in my stomach. Other electric cars don’t have the same ‘wow’ effect. The car’s acceleration and the response of the gas pedal are simply unique.”

A brand relationship can be formed only when person is familiar with the brand. Everyone certainly has some type of brand relationships.

In studies, brand relationships are described as similar to relationships between people, such as friendships, and can include fondness or even hatred.

Many brand products easily come to mind, from car and technology to clothing. These are often important to people, because they are visible and communicate to others about a person’s own self, values, and identity, even unintentionally.

A lack of brand usage also sends a message.  We cannot, however, avoid brands and the value propositions they involve since we are exposed to their effects no matter what.

We also live surrounded by non-physical digital service brands

The traditional physical brand relationships between the product brand and an individual have changed during the digital age. Nowadays, information can be found online, and companies are expected to provide information on, for example, their accountability, production, employees’ conditions, or even cost structures.

The demands are tough, as a lot is expected from brands. On the other hand, despite the demands being tough, a consumer committed to a brand is loyal.

A committed consumer, for example, may even feel that the brand ads in social media are pleasant and add value to them.

It is easier for customers to trust the brand when the sustainability information has been made visible for the customers in a transparent manner. Buying is easy, because the brand is familiar to the consumer and delivers the value it promised.

Brand relationships, however, are not limited to product brands that we can see and touch in the real world. In addition to physical product brands, we live surrounded by intangible digital service brands that do not physically exist, such as Netflix, Spotify, or Instagram. We form brand relationships with these, too. As one of the interviewees for the study states:

“I get goosebumps from the ‘ta-dum’ sound of Netflix – it tells me that now my evening can begin.”

People would never guess straight away how meaningful brand relationships can be.  Since digital service brands are used via devices, the dependence created by them cannot be excluded. Digital service brands have characteristics that make some of them more important to the user than others.

Digital service brands use different means of influence

Some brands and companies build their brand relationships more skilfully than their competitors do.

The desired content is offered to the user in a personalised and right format at the moment when the user takes up the service. Digital services brands use human-like elements for this, such as conversations with their user: “Hey Tiina, here are some of your favourites”.  The brand becomes like a friend.

The brands can appeal to emotions or bring the service closer to the user, at least for some emotionally driven users. On the other hand, digital service brands also exploit the reward system of humans.

Suitable content is fed to the users endlessly, for example, in the form of videos: the person gets more relevant content, and the digital service brand gets its users to spend more time with the brand.

But, as already pointed out: fire is a good servant but a bad master.

Also, digital service brands are prone to a brand relationship ending. Even a good working relationship can be lost quickly if the committed act is unforgivable. Netflix, for example, suffered from distrust in February 2022 after Russia attacked Ukraine, because Netflix’s operations in Russia were not suspended fast enough.

Users campaigned against Netflix, for example, by using the #njetflix hashtag on social media, such as Twitter. Even as Netflix users rushed to cancel their subscriptions, Netflix reacted only later to this.

Differences in our relationships with product brands and digital service brands

A non-physical, digital service brand is easily involved in almost every moment of every day through devices. At best, a person gets a lot of joy from relevant content that improves productivity at work or brings joy to their everyday life. But how many of us fall into the pattern of waking up and falling asleep with our phone being the first and last thing on our mind? And, even between these moments, we may have a phone in our hands for hours.

The device alone is not causing this.

The digital services brands and their targeted content will make people feel comfortable and get them addicted to, for example, endless Tiktok’s funny dance videos or bingeing on Netflix for hours.

Our physical brands, on the other hand, are more visible in certain moments. Digitalisation cannot be excluded even when it comes to physical product brands, as information acquisition and interaction often take place in a digital environment.

At their finest, brand relationships bring a lot of joy and are useful to a person, as long as the person is in full control.

The writer is a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Jyväskylä.  She researches consumer behaviour in omnichannel environments that combine the digital and physical world.  She works on the project Comprehensive Customer Understanding based on Data Analytics in a Multi-Channel Service Environment and is a member of the research group Value Creation for Cyber-Physical Systems and Services (CPSS). She has a love–hate relationship with digital devices and brands.

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