Understanding the Relationship Era Where the More You Sell the More You Scare

We are in a new digital era of information at our fingertips. An era where virtually nothing is hidden any more. In this era, the fundamentals of marketing and sales have changed. I recently finished reading these three amazing books and wanted to share my learnings with you coupled with my own thoughts about the topic from my new book on reimagining sales & marketing.

Money Spent Does Not Correlate with Love Received

Marketing is not what it used to be, not even a little bit. Long gone are the days of gimmicks, clever phrasing, and seduction. The well of false enchantment has run dry. Consumers stare down attempts at persuasion and flashy advertising because they expect authenticity from corporations and individuals alike. This shift in consumer expectations comes on the back of the digital revolution and unilateral skepticism toward companies and their products. As consumer psychology changes, marketing enters a new era, when human needs, values, and connections define success and failure.

To meet this call to action Marketers must change their perspective toward consumers. They cannot see them as conquest or gullible moneybags. They must see consumers as community members, tribes-people, as human beings who crave trust, predictability, transparency, and respect. This is the pathos of the Relationship Era.

In this era, your corporate value must resonate at every level infrastructure and emanate outward through your employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders, neighbors, and your relationship toward the earth. Merely projecting an image is akin to falsity; you must genuinely and steadfastly practice what you preach.

Better Late than Never

This ascendant paradigm in marketing is completely natural—almost expected. When you look at the history of marketing, it becomes patently clear why this new era came about. There are four global, ubertrends that contributed to the fundamental shifts ongoing in marketing.

The first is the unsustainability of mass media and advertising both economically and socially. The cost of advertising continues to increase as technology allows marketers to reach highly targeted groups of people; and yet, customers are conspicuously opposed to advertisements. They are perceived as an encumbrance and in some cases, invasive.

The second is that the Internet dissipated the curtain of shadows that once hid corporate activity. No longer are corporations impregnable fortifications. What remains of them is transparent, and it must be if companies are to win the confidence of their customer-bases.

The third is the rise of social media channels as news outlets where people share current events as they happen as opposed to retrospectively. Daily events are live conversations.

The fourth is the overturn of the morality of consumerism. The public cares not only about the cost and quality of its products and services, but also about the values and conduct of the providers. Trust, reliability, and ethics often supersede quality and affordability.

These four ubertrends represent an unseen disruption in industry at large. They have profoundly altered the status quo, the strategies, and the very sociology of marketing. The question before us is this: What can we do to adapt while preserving our bottom line?

The Middle Way

The apparent choices before brands and marketing agencies are threefold. Pour money into all sorts of media channels at the expense of their budgets and ad agencies; Jump into social media and hope for the best; Or, be purpose driven and suffuse media channels with a distinctive and human set of core values. In a sense, it is the convergence of all three choices that can win the day.

To understand why a convergence is preferable we must delve into the origin story of marketing.

Marketing – An Origin Story

Marketing began in what you can call the Product Era. It’s defining characteristic was an emphasis on the intrinsic—to put it charitably—properties of a good or service. In copy dating back as early as 1659, we see advertisements like this: PANACEA, or the Universal Medicine: Being a Discovery of the Wonderfull Vertues Of Tobacco Taking in a Pipe.” The copy is simple, blunt, and hyperbolic.

Curiously, by the mid-nineteenth century, marketing schemes had remained just about the same. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Consumer Era began.

The Consumer Era

The Consumer Era was characterized by a change in focus from the product to the consumer. The goal became to penetrate the minds and hearts of consumers, rather than just extol the “vertues” of a good or service. A quintessential example of this is Nike’s, “Just Do It.”

During the Consumer Era, the reigning marketing methodology was a four-step, universally applicable approach.

Use research to determine what the public wants;

Offer the good or service;

Devise advertising campaigns to entice, entertain, impress or flatter the public; and

Carefully choose the media where your campaign will be featured.

The Relationship Era is the result of consumer reactions to this approach, in addition to fluctuations in the basic externalities that compose the marketing environment.

Shift in the Marketing Environment

Marketing as an environment has always been ruled by three externalities: Consumer psychology, the market itself, and, the economics of marketing. To date, these three externalities have fluctuated in measurable ways.

Cost. In the past there were gargantuan barriers to entry for marketers. Only the most lucrative agencies and brands could afford to advertise on popular media channels. Now, media is myriad and comparatively inexpensive. Anyone with a social media account can launch highly targeted ad campaigns locally, nationally, and internationally.

Ecology. In the past advertisers would saturate the market with campaign ads, constantly burning money for the promise of greater returns. Now, there are far too many channels and too much content being produced everyday. To saturate the market is simply unsustainable.

Practice. In the past businesses were slaves to consumer preferences, the competition’s activities, and capital markets. Now businesses must look inward to ascertain their core values and earnestly live them out in order to survive in the market. It is no longer acceptable to create the impression of reliability, trust, and quality. It is necessary to foster genuine relationships built on equality, reciprocity, respect, and attention to feedback.

These profound shifts constitute an entirely new marketing environment. Heretofore known as, The Relationship Era.

The Relationship Era

This is what the Relationship Era looks like.

Type, “I love Apple” into your search bar. You will get something like 387,000,000 hits in about 0.42 seconds.

Type, “I love Starbucks” into your search bar. You will get something like 35,900,000 hits in about 0.53 seconds.

Some companies spend billions of dollars every year to get the attention of their customers and don’t boast nearly this many hits, likes, or love. That’s because money can’t buy love in the Relationship Era. It can’t even buy you likes.

Citibank, Dow Chemical, and Exxon spend roughly $2 billion dollars every year on marketing. Type, “I love Citibank” into your search bar. You will get something like 12,900,000 in about 0.30 seconds. The others do not fare any better.

These results reveal that money spent doesn’t correlate with love received. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to give to get, however. You just have to give the right kind of stuff; the reality of the market will take care of the rest.

What is the reality of today’s market?

People Talk. There are billions of people online, and millions of them are talking about brands, their experiences, posting reviews, and reading consumer feedback. Trust me. When your customers like your brand, they will express affection for it. People will care about you.

Providence. Those relationships and what people say about you online does, in fact, dictate your success. You might not want to accept it, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

Transparency. This is both an edict and an admonishment. Be transparent and shoot to be. What happens in the boardroom is no longer a secret, and any discussions had can and probably will find their way into a public forum.

The Relationship Era. It is unique in that success or failure depends not so much on what you say, but rather on who you are. To thrive in it just takes some flexibility and willingness to upend the status quo.

Not Business as Usual

The Relationship Era has many requirements. It demands much more from corporations and marketers. Doing business successfully in this milieu will depend on moral conduct, positive customer relations, and continual cooperation with stakeholders. The imperative at every level is to build trust, and not through subterfuge but as an aim in and of itself.

The relationships that companies tended to build with customers were detached and self-interested. They were meant to lubricate negotiations. Many people built long-lasting relationships on these grounds, but they were superficial and opportunistic connections. This would make corruption and duplicitousness easier.

When you build relationships on trust and equity, it is harder to abuse someone for money. Relationships of fidelity are not purely transactional, and yet, they result in greater shared value and reduced expenditures on promotion.

When you establish connections that are genuinely and mutually satisfying, you cultivate sustainability and resilience. In economic terms, these relationships yield high financial premiums. You increase share prices, improve ROI, and concurrently safeguard the bottom line. Best of all you transcend economics and create the opportunity for admiration and respect, which permeates every interaction.

Relationships Are Built on Social Media

Always being connected is a boon and a curse. Consumers have perpetual access to social media and to the information that flows through it. This can carry you to glory or down into the pits of forget. The power consumer’s wield has changed their psychology greatly.

Consumers realize that they have this power and they brandish it in their favor. They live the “social” part of social media on a daily basis. They take no relationship for granted, whether it is human or corporate. You should give equal priority to this facet of social media.

That means viewing consumers as constellations of interlinked relationships. They are connected to their families, their friends, their co-workers, and their lovers. They are roads to bridges that exist online in perpetuity. As a marketer, if you think affectively about advertising, you can enter those circles fluidly.

The way to accomplish this, first and foremost, is to understand how social media works, especially Facebook. You must think of social media less as channels and more as roads to human lives. What are these roads paved with? They are paved with human observations, ideas, concerns, hopes, dreams, fears, opportunities, failures, and all the things that make us complex and exciting.

To put it bluntly, until you establish genuine relationships with your consumers, no one will care what you say on these channels. You can spend millions of dollars on social and never see a return on investment.

What’s great about this from a financial standpoint is that money spent on relationship building pays in spades. When you cultivate these relationships from the heart, your consumers stand behind you like they would a friend. The more they let you into their lives, and more they share your content, your thoughts, and your brand with their intimate circles. You don’t necessarily pay for that with money, just with time and affect.

Trust. What Does It Mean?

I have already made it abundantly clear that trust is the basis of marketing and business success in the Relationship Era. For a company, trust means humanizing the institution. People trust companies for much the same reason they trust people: Predictability, reliability, support, honesty, loyalty, respect, shared values, and empathy.

To get into the nitty gritty of trust, MEplusYOU parsed out the concept of trust into three, living components:

Credibility. The presumption of reliability and dependence must take primacy. The brand should connote credibility so that its claims and promises can be assumed to be as good as given.

Care. This is about engaging your customers where their lives matter. It’s about constructing your business around their needs and addressing them happily.

Congruency. Consumers are consistently reading into the actions of corporations. They try to divine true motivations, beliefs, values, and purposes. Your actions must align with your motivations in tangible and perceptible ways. Take risks to promote your values.

The Brand Is All-Encompassing

The brand is what people see and experience. Your starting point with the brand must be the Why behind your business activity. Why do you do what you do? Once you have identified that, let it inspire every part of your business. If that Why is less about corporate success and money-mongering than it is about relationships, then your customers will feel better about jumping on the band wagon.

The Why should determine everything about the company. Your hiring practices, your corporate structure, your product design. Your Why must be reflected in all that you do. Only then will the brand become synonymous with your Why, and only then will customers grow to trust it.

Here’s an example from Secret.

Secret has been around since 1956. It was advertised as the first deodorant for women. Throughout its long and successful history it spearheaded its most famous slogan, “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” With this, Secret played satirically on the stereotypes of patriarchy, letting women know that with Secret you could be active without the awful and inhuman effect of sweating.

Looking to pivot its brand identity, Matt Hollenkamp, Secret associate brand manager, picked up a compelling story. Olympic medalist, Diana Nyad, at 60-years-old, was training to swim 103 miles of open sea between Havana, Cuba and Miami, Florida. Secret identified an opportunity to associate with Diana’s fearlessness, and to promote its newest product, Secret Clinical Strength Waterproof Deodorant especially designed for swimming.

After some negotiation, the team agreed to a sponsorship. All Diana’s team had to do was develop a Facebook presence and visual identities for garments and gear, decals for the accompanying fleet of boats and kayaks, and some other branded signage. All within one week.

The agency shot three promotional videos with Diana. Then, a day before the swim, she postponed. Subsequently there were additional postponements because of hurricane season. She was forced to put off her historic effort until the following year. Counterintuitively this was a great occurrence for Secret. They shot another video with Diana, launched a unique website and received hordes of well-wishers who wanted to follow her preparations for the historic swim.

When the time came, Diana set off to the South Atlantic on what proved to be a doomed journey. She started the swim with a fleet of kayakers with shark repellant electronic technology and other protections, but none against box jellyfish. A swarm repeatedly stung Diana. It compromised her breathing. This eventually forced her out of the water.

She tried again and swam 49 miles in 40 hours before jellyfish stings put her at risk of anaphylactic shock. Her third and final attempt had a similar fate.

This story exemplifies the power of relationship-based marketing.

Even before Diana dove into the water, Secret sales had skyrockets. Despite never finishing the race, she won the respect of millions who had followed her intently on the Secret-sponsored Facebook page and website.

The brand succeeded not because of its products but because of its support of and association with someone whose struggle was inspiring to its customers. They wanted to be a part of her journey and of Secret.

Relationships Are About Membership

This story and others like it show us that nowadays brands are about membership and less so about products or services. In a sense, the goods and services become secondary.

There are a few questions that marketers should ask themselves when such membership opportunities come about.

Does the campaign hinge on the experience of the person(s) at the center of the initiative?

Does the campaign gratuitously exploit the emotions of the audience?

Is the association between the brand and the initiative transparently genuine and equitably transactional?

Does the campaign adhere to the stated or implicit Why of the brand?

To put this in perspective, consider that Coca-Cola’s Facebook page has roughly 45 million fans. The approximate cost of reaching that many people in TV advertising is about $1 million dollars. With this mass of followers, Coca-Cola has 24/7 access to droves of followers, for free.

The best part is that the people who liked the page wanted to be members, and every positive interaction reifies their decision of membership.

Membership in the Relationship Era goes far beyond an approval to join, however. That’s because it operates at a primitive level where the intuition of reciprocity impels human decision-making. What do I mean?

Sharing Is a Form of Currency

I’m sure we have all heard about increasing consumer engagement. The problem is that we may not quite grasp why this is positive at all. Yes, the bottom line is to increase revenue, so you may wonder how getting a few followers and having them engage with content will help boost revenue?

The answer is quite elementary.

Sharing is a human need. Evolutionary psychologists tell us it is hardwired into our genes. Theoretically, without this primitive need, complex human societies might not have developed.

According to psychology professor, Samuel D. Gosling of the University of Texas, sharing is not just about action. It is also about display. When we display sharing we tell people about ourselves, about our character, about our preferences. When we do this we both maintain and create social bonds. This has discernible evolutionary advantages. It also has marketing advantages.

From a marketing perspective, the display of sharing is a form of currency. When your audience engages through shares, likes, and comments they are informing others that the content is worthwhile. There is something good here. It is so good that I interact with it. That alone builds credibility.

If you as a brand respond on those sites and engage, then you engender care.

Contingent upon what the substance of those interactions are, you can generate congruency.

With those three things, in one environment, you have built trust.

The point about of substance is key. The content you put out and the content that others put up tells others something about your brand.

The Content Revolution Is About Relationships Too

The content revolution denotes the rise in the demand for high quality content. Some will describe that as providing value. No matter the nomenclature, the heart of the content revolution is strong relationship building.

When you provide high quality content, you give people more reasons to share. When you give people more reasons to share, you build stronger relationships to those people and to the people that they share with. Overtime you are associated with content that matters because more people engage with it. This is great because the content matters only as much as the people engage with it.

It’s quite simple.

Slightly more complicated are the layers of engagement. There is definitely a hierarchy there. For instance, a like is not as impressive as a comment; a comment is not as impressive as a share; a share is not as impressive as a video reaction; a video reaction could be as good as a written post about the content; and so on.

As you rush along with this content revolution, make sure that what you share on your social media channels reflects your company values, beliefs, and identity. And make sure that what you share is worthwhile.

The goal should be to increase strong, relationship-building engagement and to make sure that the content people engage represents your brand identity.

How to Decide What Kind of Content to Share

The recipe for deciding what content a brand should share is simple enough. Just think about how you build relationships with individual people.

Listen. Is the content a reaction to customer feedback?

Brands can monitor what is being said about them. Your customers will tell you what is worthwhile about the brand. Listen to them and act accordingly. Be transparent about this.

Define. Is the content aligned with your brand identity?

With your Why in mind, delineate your brand’s personality traits. Much like a person has a character, your brand does too. The brand needs a social voice, a perspective, a set of values. Define those early on and stay the course.

Converse. Is the content responding to customers directly or indirectly?

Interact directly with your customers on social media and elsewhere. When you do so, do not act like a detached voice from up above, be a person with opinions. Tell people what you think as a company and do not be afraid. The customers you actually want to reach will support you.

Promote. Does the content promote your values?

Promote your values across other media sources. Stand behind worthwhile causes. Do not be afraid to lead the charge. The brand can wield a substantial following and when you use it to promote your Why inside and outside the company, your customers will feel an affinity.

Inspire. Does the content inspire people to action?

When you breakdown all walls between the brand and the customer, you inspire loyalty and action. Do not be afraid to reach out to specific people with opportunities for engagement. This can take any number of forms. Your stakeholders especially should be willing to engage and promote. You have to find ways to inspire them into action.

Collaborate. Does the content motivate others to join in?

This is the ideal of the Relationship Era. When you succeed in building those relationships, you both become promoters. Your customers will feel connected to the brand. When that happens, reach out and give thanks. Do not let your promoters feel that they are screaming into a void: Send them tokens of appreciation, give them a platform. When someone gives, you should too. That is collaboration.

A Call to Action for the Relationship Era

I have tried my best to describe the mechanism, the spirit, and the psychology of the Relationship Era. For some brands and marketers this will be an intuitive process. For others, it will be difficult to depart from the transactional model of marketing.

The middle way requires tremendous effort, it requires listening, it requires thinking deeply about identity, but it will cost less and gain you much more.

To summarize, I will leave you with these parting thoughts

  1. The more you sell, the more you scare.
  2. Embrace relationship building not as a strategy but as obligatory.
  3. Know what you stand for and champion it.
  4. Listen to your customers.
  5. Spread content that is valuable and resonates with your customer’s feedback.
  6. You can’t fake authenticity. Don’t try it. Be sincere.

If you'd like to learn more, you can purchase my book on this topic from Kindle.

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