June 18, 2024

Relationships are for people, not brands


The notion of a brand relationship has always been a flawed metaphor.

The idea that repeated encounters between a brand and a customer would eventually take on the characteristics of a relationship between people diminishes the humanity of real relationships. Can anybody truly have a relationship with a tube of toothpaste or a sack of lawn fertilizer?

You can have a preference for a brand. You can have an affinity for a brand. But not a relationship.

Relationships, by definition, are emotional connections between people or a connection between people by blood or marriage. Elevating brands to personhood is a conceit that no longer applies to today’s marketplace, if it ever did.

Today the roles are different between brand and consumer. At one time branding was about adding a name and a label to the product and calling it done. That was when the role was one-directional and transactional.

No more.

Now the role between brand and consumer is personal and reciprocal. Humanizing a brand requires human interactions. Businesses that are disrupting their industries are building their brands on connections between people.

Lyft ride service encourages passengers to sit up front with the driver as if riding with a friend. “Our original tagline was ‘Your Friend with a Car’ which served not only to describe the human, peer-to-peer experience we deliver with Lyft,” says CMO Kira Wampler. “But it also differentiates us from other private driver approaches.”

Another brand that is building relationships one interaction at a time is Dutch Bros Coffee.

The Oregon-based chain has 264 drive-throughs in seven western states. All are focused on extraordinary customer service. Baristas memorize customer preferences, ask about their family and give away free drinks to customers going through tough times. One recent encounter went viral.

This March a customer posted a picture on Facebook of two baristas reaching through a drive-through to touch and pray for a tearful customer whose husband died the night before. A local TV station picked up the story and the video report got more than 60 million Facebook views.

This kind of customer interaction is part of the Dutch Bros company culture. It sells franchises only to people who have worked for the company a minimum of three years to ensure they have absorbed the customer orientation that exemplifies the brand. “We’re in the relationship business,” says CEO Travis Boersma. “And love is the product.”

That is how you put the humanity back into business relationships. With people, not branding.


  1. […] the extra mile to please customers. It trains employees to use customer interactions as a way to build relationships, not make the […]

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