Making the Product the Hero
What do consumers really want from brands
and how do marketers establish an intense
customer-brand relationship? Is it just about
emotions? A recent study shows that it also
means fulfilling the consumer’s need for an
By Greet Sterenberg
"Each time the question is the same – why Lacoste?
And each time it’s the same answer: I take off my
polo shirt and I ask the person who dares to ask me
this question to try it on. Then they understand what you
feel when the soft weave of the fabric caresses your skin."
This French consumer is not a Lacoste employee. He
wasn’t asked to praise the brand: he was simply talking
to an interviewer about something he loves and relates
to intensely. Many consumers have these kind of intense
connections with brands, but how are they formed, and how
can marketers take advantage of them?
To find out what consumers really want from brands,
Research International conducted a qualitative study, talking
to 1,200 people in 43 countries, selecting individuals who
said they had a ‘high intensity connection’ with at least one
brand. It soon became apparent that there’s no such thing
as a specifically ‘high intensity brand’. Almost any brand can
make this kind of connection with a consumer – respondents
talked about mass-market brands as well as prestige ones,
and both global and local names were mentioned.
Similarly, it’s not just a certain kind of consumer who
makes high-intensity brand connections. The study
featured people of every demographic. However the kind
of relationships people form does vary: there are definite
regional differences in the way consumers approach brands,
and some of the most intensely personal connections with
brands are most commonly formed later in life.
These connections are based not on a brand’s social cachet
or display value but centre on the intense experience
of actually using the brand. In the Lacoste quote – the
consumer knows that the only way he can show why
he wears Lacoste is to offer his questioner the physical
experience of wearing the shirt. It’s not a question of
aspiration, or brand image, it comes down to the feeling of
cloth on skin.
Swell of concern
In recent years marketers’ focus has been very much on
the emotional side of branding – creating brand promises
and images that have strong emotional resonance. At the
same time there’s been a swell of concern over a backlash
by consumers against global brands and their ubiquity. The
qualitative study demonstrated that consumers do love
brands and would consider a world without brands a dreary
place. But they dislike the homogeneity of global brands and
the ‘meaning gap’ between the things a brand promises and
the experience it actually delivers.
According to the research, customer-brand relationships
take four basic forms. Each fulfils a different need. The first
three – brand as security, social affiliation, or as a means of
expression and identity – are based on rational motives or
social behaviour. There is a fourth type of consumer-brand
relation in which the brand fulfils the consumer’s need for an
In this case the brand-consumer relationship is based on an
intensified experience at the moment or moments of use,
amplified by brand communications and by the personal
meaning a consumer brings to the brand.
Experience mode connections are what consumers in the
US, Australia, Japan and Northern Europe are increasingly
looking for. At their heart is often a feeling of personal
transformation – “When I’ve had a bad day I go to FNAC.
When I leave I’m in a good mood again” as one respondent
in France said. Other consumers talked about feeling “like a
jewel”, “powerful”, or “more balanced” among many other
positive, transformative sensations.
What does this mean for branding and marketing?
To solve these problems marketing needs to be more
personal, but personalising branding and communications
is difficult. Experience mode connections offer a solution
– it’s not the branding that is personal in such a relationship,
but the experience. By making the experience the hero of
a brand’s story, the meaning gap can be closed and even a
mass market brand can feel unique to a user.
For instance, a Hungarian speaks about what Old Spice
provides him, “If you want to lead a successful and balanced
life, it is essential to make peace with yourself first. It is Old
Spice that gives me this balance. It helps me get my act
together in the morning.”
The study identifies four key means by which brand owners
can create an intense brand experience: differentiation,
consistency, caring and storytelling.
In many key markets – most of Asia, Africa and Latin America
– experience mode relationships are still rare, and branding
is still based on ideas of trustworthiness or social affiliation.
Even where experience mode relationships are more
important, they are difficult to build. The most important
thing is to make sure the experience you are offering is
actually different, whether in terms of design, sensory
excellence or technical innovation. The experience has to be
consistent, and the brand’s communications need to be built
around it, making the experience part of a longer and wider
story – think of the way the iPod is marketed as a device
that will change the way you consume music, for instance.
Finally, an experience mode relationship is built on the idea
that the brand cares for the consumer in some personal way.
None of this is easy to do, but the benefits are clear. The
type of consumer who forms these connections is most
often an adult with no family responsibilities, or a senior,
and the experience mode offers a roadmap to reaching
this demographic. And the countries in which experience
mode relationships are strongest are also those with an
ageing population: this trend is only going to become more
noticeable in the next 20 years.
Greet Sterenberg is Global Qualitative Board Director at Research
International in The Netherlands.
This article originally appeared in volume 12 of WPP's Atticus Journal.