Let's be friends

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Coca-Cola’s “Share A Coke” Ramadan ad in Indonesia.
Coca-Cola’s “Share A Coke” Ramadan ad in Indonesia.

"Friendship Theory" can inspire brands to behave differently and enable them to build stronger and better connections

Peer to peer, friends and family, and personal recommendations are some of the most persuasive and powerful forms of communication around. Whether you’re buying a radiology machine or shampoo, analysis has long shown that recommendation and trust are intimately connected to market share performance.

Brands that are "human-sized" are increasingly more successful than those that cling to the pre-crash/pre-Internet imperial era. (When was the last time you saw a new brand built on TV?) The opportunities to personally connect and build direct, immediate relationships with consumers are getting richer every day. So why aren’t we better at it?

The "friendship funnel" is a deliberate challenge to the more traditional purchase funnels. If brands think about how to make and grow friendships, they step onto a very different playing field: one that is not dictated by awareness, familiarity and preference. The outputs are much closer to the drivers of purchase, and the components of the planning process become much more interesting.

Just think about how we make new friends. You meet a person you’ve never spoken to before. How do you greet them? Is it a handshake or a slap on the back? Is it an online friend request or a blind date? Are you in a park or a nightclub? What about your appearance and choice of words? After all, our prejudices about new people are made in a matter of seconds.

Most positive introductions occur when you ask questions of the other person and listen, rather than proclaiming, "It’s all about me." And yet, isn’t that exactly what we do when we assume our first objective is awareness? Too rarely does an introduction start with "it’s all about you." "Share a Coke" – particularly its iteration in Indonesia during Ramadan – was a welcome exception.

Once an introduction is made and a friendship established, it must be nurtured: The friends need opportunities to bond. These bonding moments could be many things: a "hang out" occasion based on mutual interest; a "conversational" occasion, when you talk about something more personal; or maybe a "swagger moment," when you get together to show off and have a good time (Bud Light’s Whatever USA springs to mind).

Friendships also need time to thrive and survive. Brands can post and tweet to stay in touch, but the strongest relationships need serious time invested in them. If a brand can’t be bothered to invest time in its relationship with a consumer, why should s/he invest time and money in the brand?

Reciprocation is the final component of the friendship funnel. Friendships that only go one way don’t last. Value exchanges between parties, whether material or otherwise, don’t have to happen at every turn, but they do need to happen.

Importantly, the friendship funnel (much like our own personal friendships) is not linear. Things go up and down; they don’t have to be full on, all the time. But once a friendship is established, investments in bonding opportunities, time and reciprocity will help make sure it lasts.

There are many things that determine the depth and strength of a friendship, but it is important that a brand understands and is clear about what sort of friendship it wants. From Aristotle to contemporary psychology, three types of friendships emerge as being relevant for brands: acquaintance; casual (whether based on utility or pleasure); and true. Together with the funnel, these can create a framework for a brand’s overall friendship journey:

To meet commercial objectives, brands will need to understand how many of each friendship type (the equivalent of light, medium and heavy shoppers?) they need, so that the influence of "true" friendships can spread to "acquaintances." Developing an understanding of how to manage and nourish these networks will be crucial.

Friendship theory and friendship funnels are, in some ways, just a fresh spin on things we already know to be desirable in communications; what’s different is they help a brand operate from a point of view that sees consumer interactions as connected and human, rather than siloed and technical. Asking ourselves even the simplest question – how do we make new friends? – shifts the way we think about developing more relevant and effective communications.

In the end, it’s about asking yourself what the friendship journey should be for your brand: with whom you hope to be friends, what types of friendships you want and what you need to do to build those friendships.

Jon Gittings is Global Strategy Officer for Business Development with MediaCom.

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