We All Need Friends

Relationships are the most important things we have – and that’s just as true for a brand as a friend. Here’s how we can make one into the other

Christina Stahlkopf

Associate Director at C Space

Christina Stahlkopf is an Associate Director in C Space’s Boston office and a core member of our Global Research Team, Christina turns stats to stories and is a lead architect of our annual Customer Experience Code (CXC) Study, which connects key brand relationship behaviors to stronger business performance. A sociologist, ethnographer and author, she’s our in-house pathfinder, constantly mapping out ways for brands to innovate and push boundaries.

The Golden Rules of Brand Friendship

On a flight with my five-year-old daughter recently, I couldn’t help but laugh as she unsuccessfully, and increasingly frustratedly, swiped over and over at the dumb screen on the back of the airline seat in front of us. Despite my gentle suggestion that “it doesn’t work that way”, the idea of a non-interactive screen was inconceivable to her.

It reminded me of a time when technology was clumsy, sluggish and far less of a necessity. My family bought our first computer when I was 17; the only way I could email then was through a public terminal in my college. My first cellphone arrived when I was 21 with the caveat that it was too expensive to use unless my life literally depended on it. And I didn’t hear about Facebook until I was nearly 30.

The social networks of my youth were local and in-real-life, which resulted in just a small number of personal friendships. But with modern connectivity, those boundaries don’t exist. Now, we can’t imagine being without instant communication to an extended and global network of peers. This has fundamentally influenced our relationships with others – but it has also transformed our expectations of brands.

Relationships matter. They’re the foundation of our lives. That hasn’t changed. The difference now (catalyzed by technological advancements) is our perception of what constitutes a relationship. Continuous, always-on connectivity has given us heretofore unseen access to each others’ lives. Yes, I’m talking about relationships between people. But that has a knock-on effect for brands as well.

Exchanges used to be limited to two key touchpoints: point of purchase (in-store or via catalog) or advertising. The relationship was entirely one-sided – brands pushing out to customers. But as relationship expectations have overlaid onto brands, customers are demanding that one-way street become two-way. Brand has become personal. Looking over the last five years of Customer, Experienced data from over 100,000 consumers, the biggest lesson is this: customers don’t emphasize the functional aspects of the product or offering; price or sales; product packaging or marketing; store hours or facility cleanliness; shipping fees or delivery times. This is not to say that these functional things aren’t mentioned and don’t matter.

They’re just table stakes. For top-rated companies, what customers focus on is the relationship. Our relationships with brands are built from the same building blocks as our relationships with people. Trust, authenticity, listening, appreciation, shared values – these matter to our relationships with brands in the same ways they matter to our relationships with people.

Chewy.com – an online retailer of pet products in the US – provides one such example. Among the top performers in our CXC data, Chewy takes their relationship status to a whole new level. Chewy shows the love in ways one would expect from a friend, including unsolicited birthday cards, holiday cards, condolences, flowers, gifts and painted pet portraits.

Chewy’s legendary friend status was on full display when a customer tried to return an unopened bag of pet food after the death of his beloved pug. Rather than just accepting the return, Chewy refunded the customer’s money and told him to donate the food to a pet shelter. A nice gesture, yes. But it’s what came next that sets Chewy apart. Chewy then sent a handwritten condolence card which said, “Pets come into our lives, leave paw prints on our hearts and we are forever changed. We’re sending lots of love and positive thoughts. If you ever need anything, we’re always here.” Accompanying the card was a personalized oil portrait of the owner’s pug, modeled from a photo in the owner’s online account.

This isn’t a one-off example. Via our CXC data, customers referenced their relationship with Chewy in emotive ways. As one customer said, “they show individual care and concern for each pet household, and they understand that many of us view our pets as family members. They show a special sensitivity and understanding of their customers’ feelings.”

Chewy’s actions are truly extraordinary within the context of a retail experience. But if instead we view the interaction through the lens of a relationship, we can see why Chewy connects so strongly with pet owners. The brands that stand out, the ones that matter to customers, are the ones who abide by the rules of friendship (see our panel, left).

Just as no two friends are exactly the same, how brands execute on relationships with their customers is fluid, contextual and dependent on both parties. Those brands that pursue an approach which puts their customers at the center, that take something at mass scale and make it feel more like a one-toone relationship, will be elevated to genuine friend status – while the rest risk their customers becoming far more fickle.

Do your customers experience your brand as a friend?


Relationships are the most important things we have—and that’s just as true for a brand as a friend. C Space shows you how to make one into the other.

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