Why Brand Love Has to Go Beyond Algorithms to Be Real

There’s no excuse for a brand not knowing about its customers

An interviewer surprised me not long ago with the question: “How does ‘brand love’ compare to personal relationships between individuals?” The term ‘brand love’ is not one that I’ve used a lot but I understood the question and for sure there are some obvious similarities.

Keith Reinhard

Among other things, your close friends know everything about you—your likes and dislikes, your sense of humor, your taste in music and entertainment. Likewise, a brand that seeks your friendship and loyalty should know all about you. In today’s data-rich environment, there’s no excuse for a brand not knowing about its customers. As long as it doesn’t depend solely on algorithms.

It’s also true that both personal and brand relationships are established, nurtured and sustained more by feelings than by facts or rational argument. The phrase “love is blind” recognizes the truth that data and statistical analysis have little to do with how we choose our friends or life partners. And neuroscientists are finally proving that brand choices are made in much the same way—something we have known intuitively for years. Like love or friendship between individuals, brand love is an emotional connection. How does it feel to use a brand? Or to be seen with it? Which leads to another similarity.

Who we associate with helps define who we are. As individuals, it is often said that we are known by the company we keep. In a similar way, we are self-identified by the companies we keep—whose cars we drive, whose coffee we drink, whose logos and labels we display on what we wear. There’s a Spanish saying that says “Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are.” So, who do you walk with? Jordans? Adidas? Reebok Pump or Puma Suede? And what do those brands say about you? Or maybe you walk in a pair of Allbirds wool sneakers to show you’re in tune with Silicon Valley.

Like love or friendship between individuals, brand love is an emotional connection.

There are other parallels. Like a good friend, a good brand is always there when you need it. Byron Sharp, director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science says the secret for brand growth is to be both mentally and physically available.

Apple for example is like an always available techy friend who can trouble-shoot a problem I might have with any of the brand’s devices or services. Many Apple stores are open 24 hours a day or I can dial 1-800-MYAPPLE any time of day or night and speak with a helpful tech-savvy human. Within minutes we’re on a first name basis.

McDonald’s, the most trusted brand in the casual dining category according to a 2017 study is omnipresent by virtue of their thousands of locations, many of which are open 24 hours. Starbucks is always there for me—four locations within a block of where I live in Manhattan.

One brand that I love is State Farm, the most trusted brand in the auto insurance category according to the same 2017 Most Trusted Brands study. For 42 years, State Farm has been delivering on their promise to be there, “Just Like a Good Neighbor.” One of the many great features of Amazon, a brand with the highest emotional attachment among millennials according to a 2016 LEAP study, is that you can access it anytime, from anyplace on any device.

Which brings up another parallel between brands we love and personal relationships. Continuity. A good friend has certain characteristics and qualities one can always count on. For a brand to be loved, even though it must change with the times, it’s important to remain true to its core values. Across time and across every consumer touchpoint.

One last point when comparing personal relationships with brand love. If a good friend makes a mistake, we are quick to understand and forgive. The same is true with a favorite brand. Assuming the brand is honest and admits its error or misstep, we are patient and offer the kind of forgiveness we would never extend to a brand we had no feelings for.

So yes, it’s a fair comparison, maybe even a helpful one. Your favorite brands are like your close friends. Sort of.