The secret of a good relationship

Forging successful links between brand and customer is a core part of marketing. But companies must spot the type of relationship their customers actually want, and monitor how it develops. Alan Mitchell provides advice on establishing and mai

Much as they hate to admit it, marketers are supreme followers of fashion, and it’s interesting to watch fashions come and go. A few years ago, new product development was the craze. Innovation was The Big Thing. Today, this cure-all is being assailed as innoflation, a costly diversion from the essential task of nurturing the core brands.

Not long ago, loyalty and relationship marketing were the bee’s knees. Now things are going strangely quiet there, too. Perhaps, just perhaps, a lot of people have invested a lot of money expecting fat returns – and are now beginning to wonder whether they are going to get any returns at all.

Viewed with the luxury of hindsight, marketers may see relationship marketing – the development of a long-term, even intimate association with named customers based on a two-way flow of information – as rather akin to a nation developing a nuclear capability. It may catapult you to world power status, but the technical challenges, costs and risks are enormous.

The first obstacle, at which most brands fall immediately (despite the self-deceiving protestations of their managers), is that most customers simply do not want go beyond an arms’ length relationship with brands. Former Henley Centre chief Bob Tyrrell, for example, warns that the best role many marketers can achieve is as a facility, which customers pick up and use when they want to, and then leave aside just as quickly. Better to concentrate your effort on being an excellent facilitator rather than waste time trying to get over-familiar, he suggests. This is a far cry from the common relationship marketing ideal, where customer and brand are supposed to share deeply held values, aspirations and lifestyles.

The second obstacle is, if anything, even more challenging. Assuming that there are grounds for some sort of deeper, more significant relationship between brand and customer, it’s not at all obvious what sort of relationship is the best one. Marketers tend to talk about promiscuity and loyalty as though all relationships are marriages. But people have many different types of relationship with other people, and so, potentially, do organisations with their customers.

Here are some possible examples: parent-child (loan marketer), teacher-student (mass marketer of Internet software), leader-follower (fashion brand), comrade-at-arms (pressure group), fellow enthusiast (sports car), confidante (financial services adviser), idol to be worshipped (luxury brand), casual friend (beer, crisps), soul mate (special whisky), old flame (brands your mum used), a friend whom you seek out to escape from everyday reality (holiday).

Of course, advertising agencies have long understood these differences and have sought to build brand personalities around them. But their brands are singular, one-dimensional affairs created for the mass market. The committed one-to-one relationship marketer has a much more difficult task. To succeed, he may need to build many qualitatively different types of relationships with customers, all revolving around the same brand.

Take a PC brand, for instance. For vast sections of the market, its role is to be the friendly, helping hand, showing the ropes to hesitant first-time users. But that’s just the beginning. Some customers may seek a “fellow enthusiast feel”, all techies and geeks together. Others may want the brand to mean escape and entertainment – “just look at all those gripping computer games!” – or a purely instrumental relationship: “I want to achieve X at minimum cost.”

Yet others may seek a coaching relationship: “I want to reach this difficult performance target, can you help me?” Marketers of cars, travel and financial services have a similarly diverse range of potential relationships.

Somehow, the truly successful would-be relationship marketer has to divine exactly what sort of relationship his customer really wants or needs and find a way of consistently tailoring communications and offers to these needs, meshing style, tone and content to the desired relationship over time.

He also has to sense when and how the relationship life cycle is developing. Lovers move from excitement and passion to intimacy and, perhaps, to boredom; and children grow up and assert their independence. Many computer marketers caught a cold when they failed to realise the first wave of buyers had grown in confidence, moving beyond the need for the reassuring helping hand to seek a less patronising relationship. Customers started buying clones off page, turning to different brands sold through different distribution channels.

For all these reasons, bad relationship marketing is as easy as falling off a log. Many marketers don’t even get past the first step: their research techniques just aren’t sensitive enough. For example, market research invariably shows that customers want the brand to be helpful and friendly. But these are generic qualities. They tell us nothing of the true nature of the relationship being sought, and achieving them does little to strengthen the bonds between brand and customer.

Then comes the balancing act. The operational capabilities and communications skills needed to develop many different types of relationship simultaneously within one brand are probably beyond most current practitioners. How does one organisation nurture under one roof all the different attitudes, styles and skills you need?

Branding strategies and portfolios may also fall out of kilter. Can one brand really offer a choice of many different types of relationship, as a supermarket offers choice from a range of products? How different can a brand’s style and content of communication be to different audiences, bearing in mind that such communications always leak beyond the intended target? Should different brands be created for different groups with what implications for costs?

The dream of relationship marketing is that it will gather customers ever more tightly around the brand, building and deepening their loyalty to it. The reality may be precisely the opposite, as it develops centrifugal forces of its own, pulling the brand in several different directions at once: the marketing equivalent of a nuclear accident.

The few who really are successful at relationship marketing could make current approaches to branding look more like “blanding”. But for the rest of us, contentment with excellence in bland management may be no bad thing.

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