Two things happened this week that, while they may not have changed my fundamental thinking, have certainly combined to bring to the top of my agenda a dichotomy that’s been occupying my thoughts for a while.

The first thing was that David Hawes sent me a link on LinkedIn to a video of a talk by social anthropologist Simon Sinek in which he touches on the subject of my concerns in support of the point of his presentation. The second was that my friend the photographer Benamin Arthur posted an image by Saul Roll on FaceBook that almost perfectly illustrated my point. Digital is destroying one of the basic tenets of human relationships … including “brandships”.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit there’s a bit of a dilemma here. On one hand I acknowledge that the Internet has greatly increased my knowledge and understanding of brands and the relationships we have with them and I’m sure it has done the same for countless others. However, at the same time it is becoming obvious that it is eroding the foundation on which these relationships are built.

Anybody who is currently trying to navigate offspring through the adolescence minefield will be familiar with the scene in Saul Roll’s photo. My thirteen-year-old daughter thinks she has hundreds of friends. The problem is she hasn’t met more than a handful of them! We live in an age when people believe that clicking a “friend” button constitutes a friendship. Of course it doesn’t. It can’t for one simple reason that Simon Sinek makes perfectly clear. Friendships are a product of physical human contact.

To paraphrase Simon, this isn’t marketing theory or psychological guesswork. This is scientific, biological FACT. It’s chemical and it’s hard-wired into our DNA. Part of the fight or flight instinct that marketers know is what drives purchases, but, more importantly, differentiates us from other species and has been one of the primary reasons for our rise to the top of the evolutionary ladder.

Brands are communities of people with shared values and beliefs, just like the tribes that humans created in the early days of our existence and which prevail in their primitive form in some parts of the world. These tribes are what enable us to survive as a species. These days tribes are more likely to be providing a defence from aggressive salesmen than a woolly mammoth, but the relationships they represent remain the same – It’s all about the feeling of security we have when we establish “trust”.

Trust isn’t just about your promise, nor even wholly the effort you go to to make that promise a reality. Trust is emotion driven by a chemical reaction in your brain that happens when you connect with them physically in some way and it’s clear that you can’t do that on-line.

To be honest, I’m not that bothered about the fact that modern-day thoughts and actions devalue friendships, but the outcome of this failure of understanding is something that we should all be concerned about because it’s not just brands that depend on this chemistry, but our future as Earth’s dominant species. Maybe, as Douglas Adams predicted, we’ll arrive at some point in the future at the realisation that we don’t own the show after all – the mice are in charge!

Meanwhile though, if we are going to continue to adopt a micro-perspective, marketers need to work out how they are going to overcome this pretty daunting challenge to our thinking. Can you even build “brandships” on-line? It seems to me that loyalty already isn’t all that it should be and if there is any chance at all of strengthening the relationships we have with brands we’re going to have to come up with something pretty extraordinary to compensate for the absence of physical contact in on-line relationships. Whatever this may be, I haven’t seen it yet.

First published on LinkedIn Pulse April 8, 2015. Thanks to everyone who contributed the information on which this piece is based and I appreciate the irony of social media having made it all possible! 

Phil Darby
April 13, 2015

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