ellipsis flag icon-blogicon-check icon-comments icon-email icon-error icon-facebook icon-follow-comment icon-googleicon-hamburger icon-imedia-blog icon-imediaicon-instagramicon-left-arrow icon-linked-in icon-linked icon-linkedin icon-multi-page-view icon-person icon-print icon-right-arrow icon-save icon-searchicon-share-arrow icon-single-page-view icon-tag icon-twitter icon-unfollow icon-upload icon-valid icon-video-play icon-views icon-website icon-youtubelogo-imedia-white logo-imedia logo-mediaWhite review-star thumbs_down thumbs_up

5 principles of breakthrough success in the "Relationship Era"

5 principles of breakthrough success in the "Relationship Era" Doug Levy

Breaking through is something the world celebrates. Award shows recognize breakout movie actors -- people who have permanently shed mere performer status to become ironclad, bankable, big-name box office stars. The X Prize and other similar competitions confer both notoriety and financial rewards upon people and teams that find a way to be first -- solving a problem or challenge that confounded the best efforts of everyone who came before. And the rock canon is filled with songs that celebrate our need to climb over, tear down, and break through conventional barriers. We love getting to the other side, and we typically like seeing other people get there too.

In the marketplace, brands that break through have done something extraordinary. In the past, we typically only thought about the winners in terms narrowly defined by revenue and profit. Today, in a period we call the Relationship Era, brands that win are expanding their focus to also include non-financial goals -- the kind of things that shareholders might have considered a distraction previously. And these brands are realizing that it is possible to do something that is intensely meaningful and also more profitable. It's also a lot more fun. But achieving this today requires an entirely different marketing model and some new tools for creating the kind of ground-shaking results we're referring to when we talk about breakthrough success.

This article will cover some points of interest along the marketing journey and offer five principles that can put your brand on the path to your own breakout moment. But a permanent solution requires you to think beyond simply hitting a number at the end of the next quarter. We're talking about a true transformation, and that's something that requires immediate action and long-term commitment. 

The rise of Sterling Cooper
Until recently, there were two eras of marketing: the Product Era and Consumer Era -- and each featured a winning marketing model that distinguished the period. 

In the Product Era, from the 1900s through the 1960s, the focus in business was on producing products. During this era, marketing was about simply informing people about these products. Ads were copy heavy, and the strongest performers did the best job of explaining why their product was superior.

In the 1960s (cue Don Draper), marketers realized that product descriptions reached people at a logical level but failed to connect on an emotional level. As a result, the Consumer Era was born. Whereas in the Product Era, the thinking started with the marketer and its products, in the Consumer Era, marketers learned that an understanding of the consumer was paramount. Marketers worked to deeply understand consumers' wants and needs, to reach them at a moment of utmost receptivity with a message most likely to influence them.

A super model
While marketers in the Product Era informed people about products, and marketers in the Consumer Era persuaded consumers to buy more, my agency, imc², welcomes a new period in the evolution of our industry that we call the Relationship Era. The role of marketing in this new era is to foster sustainable relationships between brands and people.

The following graphic shows the progression to the Relationship Era and the predominant marketing models in each era:

The new model of marketing -- fostering sustainable relationships -- represents a meaningful change in the role of marketing. In the Consumer Era, the starting point was typically the consumer. Marketers worked to understand the buyer and become what consumers wanted them to be. The problem is, what consumers want the brand to be may not be what the brand authentically is. This causes a gap between the brand's true intentions and how the brand presents itself -- a gap that can cause mistrust with customers.

In the Relationship Era, the starting point is the brand. The brand must know its authentic self before it can engage in sustainable relationships with people. (This is similar to other relationships in our lives -- at least the good ones -- where it's pretty much a prerequisite to know yourself and what's important to you before finding a good match.)

The winners in the Relationship Era will be those that build trust and transactions, creating sustainable relationships with people.

Next page >>

T and T is dynamite
In our way of looking at marketing, the combination of trust and transactions is the powerful formula for igniting brand relationships. But because trust and transactions can have different meanings, let's start by defining each word. The word "transactions" refers to the amount of money a consumer spends on a particular brand relative to what might make sense for a person to spend in that category.

At imc², we define "trust" as having three progressively complex components. The level of trust in a consumer-brand relationship stems from the consumer's perspective on the following topics:

  • Credibility: Does the brand deliver on its promises?

  • Care: Does the brand understand my needs?

  • Congruency: Does the brand resonate with my values?

Here's how everything connects back to the three eras of marketing:

  • Product Era: The focus is solely on transactions.

  • Consumer Era: The focus is still on transactions, but the idea of trust enters the dialogue as a way to persuade people to transact more.

  • Relationship Era: Trust between a brand and consumer is mutual. Trust and transactions are seen as distinct, and both are important.

The distinction between the role of trust in the Consumer and Relationship Eras is important. In the Consumer Era, trust was seen as a means to achieve an end, namely a consumer buying more. It's a manipulation.

The shift from the Consumer Era to the Relationship Era is a fundamental one -- beyond a shift in communication, advertising CPM models, or measurement tools. It's an entirely new way to think about and practice marketing.

An entire industry kicked to the curb?
Well, not exactly, but the old model is failing.

The traditional tools of mass marketing are clearly no longer working, nor is using a variety of channels with the same campaign-driven persuasion techniques. A lot of brands are throwing good money after bad, attempting to influence consumers to buy more, with less to show for it.

But it's no longer the marketer's role to run campaign after campaign to persuade and drive transactions. Effective marketers now participate in and nurture an ecosystem of touch points with people, building trust with customers that align with the brand values. This new landscape includes digital, emerging, and more traditional media to allow people to cozy up to brands on their terms.

In this marketing environment -- the Relationship Era -- persuasion is less effective. Trust can't be used as a tool, and it can't be ginned up or manufactured. Instead, successful marketers foster trust as a fundamental, essential, and independent pillar of sustainable brand/customer relationships. It's an organic outgrowth that reflects the strength of an authentic relationship.

Breaking through
So, an inquisitive marketer might ask, "How do brands win in the Relationship Era?" Because the times are a changin', we believe there will be a dramatic reorientation of the competitive environment in many industries, and some brands will win big. Are you ready to start creating something better for your brand and your stakeholders? Good. It will take some work, but the rewards are definitely worth it. In the new approach, the challenge is breaking from marketing's past and embracing something different. The heavy-lifting is mostly related to changing mindsets -- yours and those of the people in your organization -- and figuring out how to translate your purpose into meaningful action that truly connects with people.

Here are five principles for breakthrough success in the Relationship Era, based on ideas that we're exploring with our clients.  


Principle 1: Clarify purpose
The apex of trust-building involves a connection at the core. To support brands in creating the deepest possible relationships, we facilitate the process of uncovering purpose. Purpose answers the question, "Why are we here?" Brands that have clarity and alignment of their purpose have more engaged team members. They're more energized by their work, and they make decisions more efficiently and with greater conviction. These brands also have happier customers, consistently beat their competitors, are more apt to positively impact society, and have more prosperous shareholders.

Pampers shifted its marketing approach from the mere functional benefit of the product -- keeping babies dry -- to the brand's deeper and more important purpose: helping mothers worldwide with their babies' physical, social, and emotional development. This shows up throughout its marketing, and, within a couple of years of the change, Pampers became P&G's first $8-billion brand.

Principle 2: Commit to sustainable relationships
In the Consumer Era, building trust was seen as a mechanism to sell more. That type of trust is fairly easy for company leaders to support. However, building trust as a goal separate from influencing transactions -- a key philosophy associated with the Relationship Era -- truly requires organizational commitment.

Business leaders typically have significant obstacles to overcome:

  • Corporate culture (fueled by capital structure) that solely prizes short-term financial performance and views dialogue about non-financial objectives as "fluffy" or extraneous

  • Organization structure and career paths where mid-level managers quickly rotate, leading to a focus on big, immediate results rather than thoughtful action with both short-term and long-range benefits

  • Marketing partners that talk about new approaches but have a vested interest in protecting the legacy talent and infrastructure they have built

  • Confusion, as the words associated with innovation within the Consumer Era (i.e., trust, relationships, measurement, targeting, insights) can be the same as those used to talk about the move to the Relationship Era

The brands that excel in the Relationship Era are those that skillfully align leaders and organizational systems to support sustainable relationships. Their commitment to sustainable relationships leads them to take principle-driven, unique actions that often produce superior results.

When Google went public in 2004, the search leader made it clear to potential investors that it was committed to long-term opportunities and not short-term quarterly numbers. This commitment has enabled it to pursue its vision and the best sustainable growth strategy for the company, while racking up some pretty amazing results, including a 475 percent increase in the company's stock.

Principle 3: Connect with authenticity
The brands that win in the Relationship Era are committed to connecting with authenticity. In our lives, one could argue that we are either building or diminishing trust with every interaction we have with another person. When we do things like follow through on a commitment, try to understand other perspectives, or authentically express our values, we're demonstrating credibility, care, and congruency -- the three factors that build trust. When we fail to deliver, think just about ourselves, or fail to demonstrate our expected values, trust decreases. 

Just as in our personal lives, every interaction between a brand and a person either increases or decreases trust. The brands that win in the Relationship Era consistently connect with authenticity, building trust in each interaction.
Trust was one-way in the Consumer Era, with brands working to elicit trust from consumers. In the Relationship Era, trust becomes mutual, with brands both earning trust from people and offering to trust its employees and customers to do the right thing.

Costco accomplishes this in a unique way, investing considerably more than the industry average in the compensation and care of its employees along with a very generous return policy for members. The results include a higher caliber workforce with lower turnover and committed customers who appreciate the obvious values that the brand demonstrates every day.

Principle 4: Treat customers as partners
In the Consumer Era, there was a sense of superiority -- a notion that marketers are smarter than the rest of us. Therefore, they have the right to benevolently (or, in some cases, maybe malevolently) convince consumers to take whatever action they want. It's even evident in the language of marketing. For example, marketers often talk about target audiences. A target is something that is shot, and an audience passively listens. Neither of these concepts have a role in the Relationship Era. At imc², we are working to change the language marketers use and, more importantly, to evolve the mindset associated with connecting brands and people.

In the Relationship Era, brands consider customers to be partners -- smart people who are capable of making good choices. They care and communicate not to manipulate, but to deepen understanding.

When Harley-Davidson was struggling to emerge from bankruptcy in the 1980s, the company created H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) to tap into the passion and energy that customers feel for the brand, and serve as a go-between for frustrated dealers and owners. By nurturing this connection, opening lines of communication between Harley owners and the company, and consistently showing respect for its most devoted advocates, the brand has been a phenomenal turnaround story. There are also more than 1 million H.O.G. members worldwide.

Principle 5: Engage
Many marketers and agencies talk about an integrated approach to marketing, using a variety of tools to reach consumers. In the Relationship Era, that idea of tapping into multiple communication vehicles holds, but the orientation of these tools is subtlety -- and meaningfully -- different.

Marketers who win in the Relationship Era employ a variety of vehicles, including social, mobile, direct, and mass marketing -- all working together to create interaction that improves relationships. In other words, they aren't seeking opportunities to tout product benefits; they're seeking opportunities to engage.

Engaging with consumers in meaningful ways -- not just advertising to them -- allows a brand to understand its customers and yields deeper connections and stronger relationships.

In seeking to connect with younger customers, Toyota launched the Scion brand in 2003, utilizing an approach that really engaged the 18-24 age group. As you might expect, the brand leveraged digital and web-based interactions, including viral campaigns and online video sponsorships. But it also used meaningful promotions, created a simplified car-buying experience (one trim level, one price), and offered unprecedented after-market personalization options supported by an extremely engaging website. Scion's example is more than just a company that paid attention to trends -- it is attention to the details that matter most to their customers, and an appreciation for how they want to engage with the brand. 

This is the end
So there you have it -- a short course in imc²'s new way of thinking about marketing and some approaches that successful brands are using to push past the rest of the pack. I hope you're inspired to try something different, and that your brand and the people you're trying to connect with can break on through to marketing's other side -- the Relationship Era. And while it's the end of this article and the old way of marketing, it's definitely the beginning of an exciting time in our industry. We appreciate the time you took to hear us out, and we'd love to repay the favor. Please share your ideas on breaking through, the future of marketing, or other related topics in the comments section below or at the Relationship Era website.

Doug Levy is CEO of imc².

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Doug Levy is co-author of "Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results," published by Penguin in March 2013, and he is founder and CEO of MEplusYOU, an integrated marketing agency. Levy believes that businesses can...

View full biography


to leave comments.

Commenter: Tom Kasperski

2010, January 14

The graphic is a better representation of the consumer decision process (Awareness > Adoption > Adoration > Advocacy) than an illustration of Marcom Eras: You can't have a relationship with brand s you never heard of - never tried.

Building stronger relationships with consumers is simply a means to increase adoration and advocacy. This is nothing new, we just have better tools to do it on a bigger scale.

Commenter: Patrick Allmond

2010, January 14

The new modeling of marketing you are referring to has been around so long. Probably even before the 1900s. Why are people considering this so revolutionary? I see this constantly and I wonder if it is has just been the defactor way that smart people have always done business, and the people that were doing it wrong are just now getting it ?