Now that we know that brands have human characteristics, like personality, let’s talk about how we form relationships with brands. When I was little, my mother always used Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix. Now that I buy my own groceries (bummer), I always buy the same, because I’ve had a long relationship with the Aunt Jemima brand. It also makes delicious pancakes, but I digress. Relationships with brands can be significant for many reasons. The reason I just mentioned is related to nostalgia, or family ties, but you can also imagine relationships with brands being significant because they remind you of certain friends, or they make you feel good. Any way you slice it, maintaining relationships with customers is big business.
Customer relationship management, or CRM, has become key to managing a business. CRM is a way that a company can track an individual customer’s information, preferences and habits in such a way that the company can more effectively market to the individual, as well as retain him or her for future business. But before we form a relationship with a brand, we need to have a good idea of its identity. A company’s identity is composed of consumer perceptions and beliefs about company characteristics, consumer affective responses to the company and impressions of the company’s values.1
While there is a great deal of research on brand relationships, we are going to focus on a case study of compromised brand relationships: American Apparel. This year, Dov Charney, founder and former CEO of American Apparel was fired not once, but twice. For the fashion-obsessed among us, Charney’s bad behavior has long been discussed in relation with American Apparel and their sexualized advertising. In fact, Dov Charney’s sexual misconduct was first reported in 2004, when Charney engaged in some self-satisfaction during an interview with a female reporter. Since then, Charney has been sued by former employees for sexual harassment or misconduct no less than 7 times.
So why fire him now, 10 years after the first reports? Well, a lot of industry insiders think it’s because Charney finally ruined American Apparel’s relationship with its customers. Charney’s behavior was so well-publicized, and led to so much public disdain, that many people transferred these feelings about Charney to feelings about American Apparel. He compromised the brand’s identity by infusing it too much with his own, making it so that shoppers could not help but think about unwanted advances when they were supposed to be shopping for crop tops. And American Apparel’s board was probably right, because American Apparel was hemorrhaging money at the end of 2013, with a total loss of $106 million, a sign of a declining customer base.
Brand relationships are incredibly important, and many of the things we’ve discussed, like brand communities or brand personalities, work to build and support relationships with consumers. Think about the brands you buy, and the way you feel about them. It may surprise you that they’re more than just products, they’re old friends.
- Bhattacharya, C. B., & Sen, S. (2003). Consumer-company identification: a framework for understanding consumers’ relationships with companies. Journal of Marketing, 67(2), 76-88.