Towards a Critique of Brand Relationships

Anders Bengtsson, University of Southern Denmark
ABSTRACT - With the introduction of relationship thinking in the context of consumers and brands, the anthropomorphization of brands has been taken to its logical conclusion. While the idea of brand relationships has enriched our understanding for the role of brands in the life of the consumer, there is a considerable concern regarding the parallelism to human relationship theory. This paper examines the limitations with the relationship metaphor and interpersonal relationship theory in the context of consumers and brands.
[ to cite ]:
Anders Bengtsson (2003) ,"Towards a Critique of Brand Relationships", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 154-158.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 154-158

TOWARDS A CRITIQUE OF BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

Anders Bengtsson, University of Southern Denmark

ABSTRACT -

With the introduction of relationship thinking in the context of consumers and brands, the anthropomorphization of brands has been taken to its logical conclusion. While the idea of brand relationships has enriched our understanding for the role of brands in the life of the consumer, there is a considerable concern regarding the parallelism to human relationship theory. This paper examines the limitations with the relationship metaphor and interpersonal relationship theory in the context of consumers and brands.

In research on consumers and brands, considerable efforts have been made to demonstrate the anthropomorphous characteristics such as personality (Aaker 1997; Batra, Lehmann, and Singh 1993; Durgee 1988) and charisma (Smothers 1993) that consumers credit to brands. A similar way of anthropomorphizing brands is found in the brand management literature, where issues of identity have been given considerable attention in recent years (Aaker 1996; Aaker and Joachimsthaler 2000; de Chernatony 1999; Kapferer 1997). This personification of brands has now reached a new phase with the introduction of a discourse based on relationships (ApTria 2001; Blackston 1993; Fournier 1998; Palmer 1996). In her seminal article, Fournier (1998) introduced relationship theory to consumer research and demonstrated its usefulness for understanding the roles brands have in the life of the consumer. The article has already been characterized as a modern classic (Ostergaard 2002), and subsequent research on consumers and brands that builds on the relationship idea is emerging (Ji 2002; Kates 2000; Olsen 1999). While brand relationship is a promising new way of thinking about consumer brand behavior (e.g. Fournier and Yao 1997), there has been a lack of reflection regarding its feasibility to accurately represent the way consumers interact with brands. By arguing that the concept of brand relationship is a readily understandable analogue (Blackston 1993), it appears that relationship thinking in the context of consumers and brands sometimes is taken for granted without thoroughly discussing its applicability. With regard to Fournier’s (1998) brand relationship framework, however, there is an extensive discussion that seeks to qualify brands as a relationship partner. But although consumers may attribute anthropomorphous characteristics to brands, this does not necessarily imply that socio-psychological theories of interpersonal relationships are adequate to represent consumers’ relation to their brands. The objective here is to critically analyze relational thinking in the context of consumers and brands and discuss some of the limitations with the application of interpersonal relationship theory to consumer brand relationships. The analysis is based on a conceptual examination complemented by illustrations of consumers’ interpretations of relationship constructs. These empirical illustrations are not presented in order to show the invalidity of current conceptualizations but are included to show that there may be a discursive problem with the current terminology. The empirical data was gathered as part of a larger study on the role of brands in the life of the consumer and involved in depth interviews with consumers living in a large city in the Western United States. In the next section follows a conceptual discussion regarding a brand’s ability to serve as an active relationship partner. This discussion points to the need to examine the brand relationship quality constructs that were proposed by Fournier (1998). In the final section of the article, the feasibility of adequately representing consumers through relationship constructs is discussed.

LEGITIMIZING THE BRAND AS RELATIONSHIP PARTNER

A cornerstone in Fournier’s argument that seeks to legitimize the brand as a relationship partner is the conceptual acceptance of the behavioral significance of marketing actions. Through the marketer’s everyday marketing mix decisions, the consumer perceives the brand as a behavioral entity. The central premise on which the framework of consumer brand relationships is founded is the assumption that consumers translate a brand’s behavior into trait language from which the brand’s personality is construed. By accepting this translation of brand behavior to trait language, Fournier argues that the brand passes the personification qualification and can therefore become an active partner in a relationship dyad. However, Fournier’s acceptance of the behavioral significance of marketing activities needs a closer examination; the personification of brands does not necessarily imply that the brand can become an active partner with the consumer. A brand is an inanimate object and cannot think or feel; thus it is likely to respond to consumers in a highly standardized manner. With reference to Levy (1985) among others, Fournier argues that consumers have no problem with thinking about brands as if they were human characters. The words as if are very important here because they assume a hypothetical condition that will never occur in reality. The construction of a brand as a person is just a metaphor for having consumers think about brands in terms of human characteristics. But to think of brands in terms of personalities is something different from having human-like relationships with them. Fournier acknowledges that the analogy to interpersonal relationships lacks parallelism with the issue of reciprocity but dismisses the significance this matter has for the possibility of understanding a brand relationship. However, according to Giddens (1991, p. 93), a "pure relationship cannot exist without substantial elements of reciprocity." And as Fournier, Dobscha, and Mick (1998) argue, the notion of reciprocity is of fundamental importance in order to make the relationship discourse trustworthy. In Giddens’ terms, a pure relationship is not anchored in external conditions of social or economic life but is sought after because of the benefits the relationship can bring to the partners involved (Giddens 1991, p. 89-90). This definition of pure human relationships appears to be consistent with Fournier’s characterization of brand relationships which "are qualified not along symbolic versus functional product category lines [...] but by the perceived ego significance of the chosen brands" (Fournier 1998, p. 366). Thus, according to Fournier, consumers seek and maintain those relationships that add meanings to their lives. Thus it is reasonable to argue that brand relationships, by the way she characterizes them, should be understood as pure relationships. Even though consumer brand relationships may have limited elements of reciprocity, it is still possible to characterize the bonds between consumers and their brands as relationships, even if these relationships lack the important element of parallelism with interpersonal relationships. But the question is then how relevant interpersonal relationship theory is to the brand relationship framework.

A question that is important to consider here concerns the consumers: Do consumers themselves think that their relationships with brands are reminiscent of interpersonal relationships? At first this might appear as an irrelevant question since the emotion-laden, interpersonally appropriate language of interpersonal relations is an etic concept that should be descriptive of the meanings consumers attribute to brands. It could therefore be argued that what consumers think about brand relationships as a concept is not a relevant question. However, if it is true that consumers easily give brands human like characters and by that attribute similar feelings to the brands they know and use as to their close friends, then there should most likely be a widespread acceptance of the human relationship analogy. So by confronting consumers with the brand relationship constructs, it is possible to get an indication whether there are some problematic issues with current conceptualizations. By considering the following two statements, it is apparent that the relational discourse as an extension of brand anthropomorphization is not always accepted as readily by consumers as it has sometimes been by consumer researchers:

I wouldn=t, I don’t know if I call it a relationship. You know, like I said, this is something I have a hard time with. Inanimate objects really can’t do much for you, but they are there, they are dependable, they taste good, they are recognizable, easily recognizable. (Woman, 59)

I can’t even imagine using the word relationship because it has a motive function and a, or a sense of mutuality or reciprocity, uh, even loyalty or affinity, consumer uses, uh. But I mean, this is a very interesting conversation, but conceptually I’m completely out of it. It doesn=t make any sense. (Man, 51)

It is obvious that these two consumers are unwilling to accept that they would have relationship with their brands. The statements illustrate that the term 'relationship’ is primarily understood as a term that belongs to the interpersonal context and is therefore not a suitable concept that should be applied for inanimate objects such as brands. Even though the two consumers express a reluctance to accept the relational discourse, this does not mean that conceptually, consumers cannot have brand relationships. Yet the fact that there are consumers who discursively reject relationship thinking with regard to brands is interesting enough and should be taken into consideration. Although Fournier (1998) spent considerable effort trying to legitimize brands as a relationship partner, it appears that absence of reciprocity is potentially a basis for a reformulation of the relationship construct. I will argue that the relationships consumers have with brands are different in several ways from relationships that they initiate with other people. People are human beings that think and interact with each other while brands only can "behave" on behalf of the manager. For instance, a brand cannot respond in an individual manner to a request from a consumer and therefore lacks an important attribute that characterizes human relationships. It is of course possible that consumers can e-mail or call the brand’s customer service and receive personalized responses but that is an activity where consumers are likely to understand that they are interacting with humans instead of with the idea of the brand per se. Sine in some instances a brand relationship can be understood as different from a human relationship, it is worthwhile to examine what possible consequences this difference may have for concepts of brand relationship quality.

BRAND RELATIONSHIP QUALITY

Fournier’s (1998) conceptualization of brand relationship quality is an explicit analogue to concepts of relationship quality in the interpersonal field and implies that the relationships consumers have with brands have similar qualities as human relationships. Although one can choose to refer the bonds between consumers and brands as relationships, I contend that the anthropomorphization metaphor in some instances appears to be unfortunate with regard to some of the brand relationship quality constructs. Just as commercial friendships are different kinds of relationship compared to relationships to close friends (Price and Arnould 1999), there is potentially the same kind of difference between human relationships and consumers’ brand relationships. The vocabulary that is used to describe brand relationship quality is therefore not necessarily compatible with the vocabulary that is used to describe human relationship quality. I do not suggest that the brand relationship quality constructs should be replaced with other constructs. The issue here is to supplement the vocabulary so that the constructs also account for consumers who do discursively not consider their brands as active relationship partners.

From consumers’ stories of strong brand relationships, Fournier (1998) derived the six facets of brand relationship quality. A strong brand relationship is ideally characterized by love and passion, a connection between the brand and self, a high degree of interdependence, a high level of commitment, intimacy in the relationship, and an overall positive evaluation of brand partner quality. With regard to these concepts, it appears that the lack of mutuality in the brand relationship makes them somewhat problematic. According to Fournier (1998), strong brand relationships have affective grounding which is similar to love and passion in the interpersonal domain. At first, these concepts pretend to be easily transferable to the brand relationship domain since a common sense understanding prescribes that love and passion are not confined only to people. However, as Ahuvia (1993) suggests, interpersonal love and love for objects such as brands are in most cases at best considered by people as similar rather than identical. The reason for this, according to Ahuvia, is the difference in culturally constructed meanings that people attach to human beings and objects. A second reason why there are likely to be at least two sorts of love is the unilateral nature of object love, which is less complex and responsive than interpersonal love. So it is likely that love for brands is at best understood as something that is similar to love for a person. However, Ahuvia also points out that love is possibly understood as a concept that only can exist between people. An example of the ambiguousness of love with regard to brands is illustrated by the following passage:

Okay, uh, well Haagen-Dazs ice cream, uh, they would be different from how I feel about my husband because I wouldn=t trust it (laughter) as much or I couldn=t have, I would feel like, I don’t really, well I would feel like it’s only suited for certain occasions, uh. I wouldn=t, you know have it to access, and I certainly wouldn=t feel that about my husband. Uh, do I love Haagen-Dazs ice cream? Uh, I don’t, I guess I don’t love it like I do with something else. (Woman, 44)

While this woman has a fairly strong relationship to Haagen-Dazs ice cream, her statement indicates that the love-feelings she credit to this brand is qualitatively different from how she love people. So there is indeed a possibility that loving a brand can be understood as something different from loving, for instance, a husband. Even though consumers may not love or show feelings of passion for brands in the way they can do for human beings, it does not imply that the prerequisite of a strong brand relationship is absent. So in order to make the brand relationship quality constructs applicable to a wider group of consumers who understand love as a concept that only can exist between human beings, it might be feasible to also include a term such as fondness, representing feelings that can be described with the act of liking:

Not love (laughter). Not love, like I said I don’t think of inanimate objects, being an object of my love. Like it very much, yes, uh You know I’m not good at comparing things with people (laughter). But I like it very much, and I know I have said I love it but you know, candy is candy, chocolate (laughter) is wonderful. (Woman, 59)

To say that one loves objects, activities, and ideas is relatively widespread in the American society and is distinct from the way the word 'love’ is used in many other cultures where the concept has a more restricted applicability. This phenomenon buttresses the idea that redefining love as a feeling that is similar to but different from interpersonal love can be productive to research. In so doing, brand relationship quality constructs can represent relationships to brands in other cultural settings, where the concept of love has a more restricted usage. The ambiguousness of the concept of love is also found in Fournier’s own empirical material where one of her informants mentions "I don’t want to bring the "L" word into things" (Fournier 1998, p. 364). This statement illustrates that the feelings consumers assign to their favorite brands can be different from the feelings they have for human beings.

With regard to commitment, another facet of brand relationship quality, it appears that the lack of reciprocity makes the construct somewhat problematic. As Giddens (1992, p. 137) points out, commitment is generated as an individual gives of herself to another. Unlike human relationships, brand relationships are primarily unilateral and make shared commitment more difficult. A person who commits to another person does so because the other partner in the relationship is committed to the same goal. The problem with commitment in the context of brand relationships is that consumers do not necessarily feel that a brand can be committed to a relationship with the individual consumer.

Yeah I don’t feel commitment or loyalty to Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Uh, and I wouldn=t think that Haagen-Dazs ice cream would to me, uh. You know, I can, I could take it or leave it, uh, so there is that. I don’t feel like that’s a brand I should buy, as opposed to another. There is not, you know, it’s not going out of business or it’s not a small business or, you know, those sort of, have a loyalty that way. And I, same thing, I don’t think it has a loyalty or commitment towards me, as a consumer. It doesn=t need me, so. (Woman, 44)

The unwillingness to accept commitment as a concept related to brands may have something do with the absence of a relationship to a human being who represents the brand. The personal encounter in a commercial friendship (Price and Arnould 1999) generates the notion of a relationship in which commitment is given a different kind of meaning than in the context of brand relationships. So even though consumers may ascribe personality-like characteristics for a brand, this does not in itself necessarily imply that commitment is accepted as a term that relates to inanimate objects such as brands:

You know, if were having to go to farmer Jones, and buy eggs and butter, and I knew Mrs. Jones and knew their kids, you know, that’s, that’s different, because I know those people behind. With the corporate structure that we have in the food industry, you separate them, you know, you have really no commitment to the people who are behind the products you are buying. (Man, 52)

As the statement illustrates, commitment may be a concept that is exclusively considered to belong to the interpersonal domain and is therefore considered as inapplicable in the context of brands. While one indeed can argue that the farmer Jones who the consumer refers to can be considered as a brand too, it is apparent that his interpretation of the encounter with the farmer differs from his interaction with mass-produced brands. Although mass-produced brands use celebrity endorsers to personify their brands, there is possibly a greater distance between the consumer and the brand than is the case for local brands like "Farmer Jones." According to the brand relationship framework, commitment is an adequate concept when referring to behavior that seeks to support the longevity of a brand relationship. But when consumers show a skepticism towards the idea of having relationships with brands, concepts such as commitment are likely to be dismissed because of the limited elements of reciprocity.

Another facet of the brand relationship quality construct is interdependence. While this concept has an important meaning in a human relationship, its applicability is less obvious in the context of brands. While frequent brand interactions can make consumers dependent on their brands, it is difficult to see why consumers would think that their brands would be dependent upon them as an individual consumer. On a macro level, a brand is of course dependent on consumers, because without their fondness, the brand’s raison d’etre is jeopardized. So consumers are indeed likely to understand that companies try to offer brands that satisfy the market. And while consumers may realize the potential power the market has, there is a possibility that their personal role in keeping the brand dependent is considered to be of marginal importance. So if a mass produced brand loses one relationship with a consumer, there is likely an understanding among consumers that the brand has millions of other relationships to explore.

To my wife or to a family member, to me that’s totally different relationship because of the feelings. I mean, and the Kraft food has no feeling. It doesn=t care if I go, you know if I buy it this week or if I buy Best Foods. It doesn=t really care. (Man 52)

Although many companies seek to anthropomorphize their brands, consumers may still consider them as relatively anonymous. Therefore it might be difficult for individual consumers to see that it would make much of a difference to the company if they bought the brand or not. The concept of interdependence appears to have a more suitable applicability for relationships with brands that represent local businesses, such as community brand relationships reported by Kates (2000). Such relationships explicitly involve the people behind the brand and may provide a significantly different meaning for the notion of interdependence. To use the term 'interdependence’ for brand relationships where the brand is not understood to be dependent on the individual per se, seems to be problematic because the sense of mutuality is not present. Hence, in addition to interdependence, it is worthwhile to consider if the term 'dependence’ should also be included as a supplementary concept for interdependence.

When consumers reject the suggested brand relationship discourse, it is also likely that the concept of intimacy is rejected. Fournier (1998) contends that intimacy in a brand relationship is generated by elaborate knowledge structures of the brand with rich layers of meanings. But similar to concepts of love, it is possible that some consumers are unwilling to equate intimacy in the brand relationship domain with intimacy in the interpersonal domain. Intimacy in an interpersonal relationship concerns the most personal matters, and it is the exclusive right of sharing the personal information with the other part of the relationship that creates intimacy. A consumer cannot share his/her life story with a brand since the brand is an inanimate object. While I agree with Fournier that consumers can develop rich layers of brand meanings, it is difficult to see how this in itself can create an intimate relationship with the brand. To make intimacy a viable concept, it might be appropriate to consider that relationships with objects are never two-way (person-thing) but always three-way (person-thing-person), as Belk (1988) suggests. By including the social dimension of brand consumption, concepts such as intimacy obtain a new meaning. Brands can become the messenger that generates intimacy in a human relationship, thereby strengthening the consumers’ relationship to the brand.

While it is possible that consumers may reject or at least find the relational discourse unsuitable for their brand relationships, it is apparent that some of the brand relationship quality constructs are less capable of representing the way consumers relate to their brands. Fournier (1998) illustrated the usefulness of relationship thinking by relating three women’s brand stories to the concept of relationship quality. But when consumers are confronted with the constructs, it appears that there is a reluctance to accept the discourse. The fact that there are consumers who discursively reject concepts related to relationship theory points to the need for discussing its significance in the context of consumer research.

WHY RELATIONSHIPS AND CONSUMER RESEARCH?

Relationship marketing was introduced as an alternative to the exchange paradigm and sought initially to explain inter-organizational behavior and service situations (O’Malley and Tynan 2000). In the last few years, however, relationship marketing has been extended to also include mass consumer markets (Sheth and Parvatiyar 1995), and with Fournier’s (1998) conceptualization, relationship thinking has reached its logical conclusion. While relationships between companies can often be described as mutual, where both buyers and sellers are active and where interaction and relationships are important, it has been questioned whether there exist relationships between businesses and consumers at all (O’Malley and Tynan 2000). While questioning whether relationships can exist in the consumer market, we have to keep in mind that relationship constructs have not emerged at random but are the result of a cultural development (+stergaard 2002). As such, relationship marketing exists primarily as a discourse (Fitchett and McDonagh 2000), and it is through this discourse we understand interactions between actors in the marketing system. So there is nothing "real" in relationships beyond the metaphor that seeks to create an understanding for interactions in the marketplace. But as O’Malley and Tynan (2000, p. 807) suggest, "it may be that the metaphor of interpersonal relationships has been so successful that the academy has forgotten that it is a metaphor which is being used." Thus, researchers sometimes consider relationships as if they were real and use social exchange theory in a way that tends to over-emphasize the role of trust, commitment, communication, and mutuality (O’Malley and Tynan 2000). So the question is whether relationship thinking accurately represents consumers and their behavior in the marketing system. Fitchett and McDonagh (2000) have critiqued relationship marketing for not being able to rebalance the inequalities and underrepresentation of consumers in market exchanges. They contend that current conceptualizations reduce consumers to prisoners under the hegemony of organizations. In this way, relationship marketing becomes more rhetorical than real because the kind of relationships consumers have with companies and their brands are likely to be imposed on them rather than initiated by mutual interest.

As a consumer I am unable to demand that my bank or airline service provider negotiate the terms of our relationship to serve my own interests, whereas the organization can impose such terms without any recall to the consumer. [...] The market relations between organizations and consumers form a very unusual type of relationship, and one that we as individuals would be unwilling to consider in any other relational context. The bias in such relations is such that one could legitimately argue that there is no mutual relationship, only imposed relations (Fitchett and McDonagh 2000, p. 217- 218).

It is common practice for companies to assert that they have relationships with their customers, but it is less known whether consumers really want them or believe that they have relationships with companies and brands whose products and services they consume. There is generally a lack of reciprocity in the relationships between companies and consumers and one can question whether the term 'relationship’ is the best term to use when describing the interactions that take place between consumers, companies, and brands. One can of course redefine the term 'relationship’ so that it does take account of the current conditions reflecting its lack of reciprocity. But then we must question what we have achieved by redefining the relationship construct so that its meaning becomes significantly distant from its theoretical roots.

One of the benefits of relational discourse in the context of consumers and brands is the emphasis on the consumers’ active role in keeping the relationship going. In Fournier’s (1998) conceptualization, the consumer and the brand (and implicitly also the manager who administers the brand) are both considered to influence how the relationship evolves over time. In this way, there is not a top-down hierarchy in which consumers are reduced to passive receivers of marketing stimuli. Instead, consumers are considered as active co-producers of brand meanings (Ligas and Cotte 1999; Ritson 1999). But the question is whether the relationships consumers have with brands can credibly be characterized as equal relationships. Although consumers are free to choose which relationships to nourish and maintain, there is always a managerially preferred way of interacting with brands which limits the consumers’ freedom. Consumers’ unauthorized ways of using brands as reported by Ritson (1999), can be subject to brand management intervention, where the consumer ultimately runs the risk of getting sued (Klein 1999, p. 177). So while it is the case that brands are always managed by their legal owners, it appears that relationships consumers have with their brands are likely to be equal only within a narrowly defined context. It might therefore be that relationship discourse creates a false belief in consumer freedom when, in fact, the relationship is largely managed by the marketers (cf. Fitchett and McDonagh 2000)

Relationship discourse should be understood in the light of a broader movement where companies seek to personify themselves. Through concepts such as corporate identity and brand identity, marketing research has given companies a human dimension by pointing at the similarities these concepts have with human identity. Although it might be appealing to humanize companies in this way, concepts of corporate identity has been criticized for its questionable parallels to human identity (Balmer 2001). It is without doubt that the relational discourse fits well with managerial goals, where maintaining long-term relationships with existing customers is considered more profitable than short-term exchanges. Whether the relationship discourse is equally valuable to serve in the interest of consumers needs further analysis. It is now a readily accepted fact that consumers think of brands in terms of personalities, and it appears that the relationship thinking has been received positively by consumer researchers as well. However, we have to be aware that the acceptance among consumers to think of brand in terms of personalities did not emerged randomly. It is the result of a marketing discourse that saturates the market with ideas built on relationship principles. Perhaps consumers do not think they have relationships with their brands, but if we as researchers supported by the marketing discourse, continue to argue it is so, consumers are sooner or later likely to accept the relationship discourse.

CONCLUSION

This paper has highlighted some of the critical issues with relationship thinking in the context of consumers and brands. While Fournier’s (1998) work is a valuable contribution that has enriched our understanding of consumers and brands beyond cognitive utilitarian models of decision-making, there is a need for further research that can qualify the relational discourse in the context of consumer research. This paper has identified some of the possible limitations of using interpersonal relationship theory in the context of brand relationships. Before the relationship discourse becomes a taken-for-granted concept in consumer research, we need to further critically examine its feasibility of representing consumers.

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