“Brands don’t have ears. Only vocal chords.”

Brands Aren’t the Same as Customer Relationships

January 07, 2014  
by Don Peppers

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YOU cannot have a relationship with a population of customers, or with an audience, or with a market segment. You can only have a relationship with an individual customer. Sometimes this point can be difficult to absorb, but the very idea of a customer “relationship” only makes sense when you’re talking about one customer at a time.

In a workshop on how to develop and manage customer relationships, I was explaining the I-D-I-C model for understanding customer relationship management (CRM) – identify customers, differentiate them, interact with them, and customize for them.

At one point a brand manager in the workshop audience insisted that her brand’s mission was to maintain a personal relationship with each of her customers. Part of her brand’s role, she said, was to embody the relationship each of her customers had with the company.

But, no offense intended to brand managers anywhere, this is just not correct. It’s entirely the wrong way to think about what a brand does.

Before going further, let me say that the brand plays a vital role in nearly every company’s marketing success, as we are all increasingly bombarded with a cacophony of overlapping and conflicting commercial messages. Simply differentiating what one company’s offering “stands for” in comparison to others’ offerings is part of a brand’s important role, and a good brand is an extremely valuable asset especially today, when there is so much information inundating us.

However, differentiating your business is not what a relationship is about. A relationship involves differentiating your customers — which will then allow you to treat different customers differently. A relationship, by definition, involves direct, one-to-one interaction with an individual customer – a customer whose needs are different from the needs of other customers, and who will be treated differently as a result of his or her relationship. But brands don’t interact with customers; they don’t even know individual customers’ identities. Brands do not treat different customers differently.

So I said to the brand manager: Your brand has the same kind of “relationship” with each of your customers as Justin Bieber has with my teenage daughter. My daughter has a picture of Justin on her wall, and she knows every one of his songs pretty much by heart. But Justin Bieber doesn’t know who my daughter is, has never interacted with her, and has never changed his behavior in any way on the basis of what she said to him. If he did any of those things, then that would be a relationship.


If you want your business to be customer-centric, you need to know how profound the difference is between how your brand works, and how a customer relationship works. Because the truth is, you could think of relationships and brands as operating in different marketing dimensions.

Yes, having a well respected brand can help you strike up relationships with your customers, because the customers will be more willing to engage with you because of your brand. And yes, having great individual customer relationships will in fact strengthen the brand, as well.

But brands aren’t relationships. And relationships aren’t brands.


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