Consumer-brand relationships in Private Cars – What is Brand Relationship

Increasing competitiveness in the business environment has changed the shift in marketing thought from short-term exchange strategies to establishing long-term relationships with customers. The value of existing customers in determining the success of the entity is becoming a central concept of relationship marketing. Creating “genuine” customer relationships has however eluded many entities and its description widely varied in marketing literature. Although a relationship could involve customer loyalty and repurchases, Barnes (2003) for instance argues that such patronage could exist without the presence of a genuine relationship. Genuine relationship according to Barnes (2003) involves customers’ emotional attachment to a brand or entity rather than behavioral actions such as repeat purchases per se; that could be based on other aspects such as convenience and economic factors devoid of a relationship attributes. Accordingly, Barnes (2003) argues that customer-brand relationships form when a company offers emotional value to its customers through aspects such as customer interactions with the entity’s employees, in addition to providing functional value such as convenience, ease of usage and ability to save money and time (Barnes 2003). Such concepts are supported in Aaker (1994) case study on General Motors’ (henceforth GM) Saturn brand. Aaker for instance notes that by treating its customers with respect and like friends (e.g. in handling recalls on a defective coolant system) the brand created an image of a brand that “takes care of customers” thus helped in enhancing customer emotional attachment to the brand (Aaker 1994, pp. 122-124).

Fournier (1998) provides a more detailed examination of consumer-brand relationships. Conceptualizing brand as a relationship partner, the study suggests that a true relationship can only exist where interdependence and reciprocity between the partners is evident (Fournier 1998). Accordingly, for a brand to be such a partner, it must not only be a passive player but an active contributor to the relationship (Fournier 1998). Thus, one way to make a brand such an active player is by highlighting “ways in which brands are animated, humanized or somehow personalized” (Fournier 1998, p. 344). By conducting marketing actions in an interactive fashion, the aspects of the brand as a reciprocating partner in the relationship are established (Fournier 1998).  Through this conceptualization of brand as a relationship partner, Fournier (1998) identifies seven dimensions that lead to at least 15 forms of customer brand relationships. Customer brand relationships according to the study could be: (a) voluntary or involuntary, (b) intense or superficial (c) positive or negative, (d) long-term or short-term (e) formal or informal (f) public or private and, (g) symmetric or asymmetric (Fournier 1998). From such dimensions, a type of voluntary relationship “best friendships” for instance occurs where the brand image and an individual’s image and the interests of both partners are congruent (Fournier 1998). Such relationships have high affective attachment. Involuntary relationships on the other hand have low levels of affective attachment and may involve adoption of a brand that a different person from the customer (e.g. a husband – for arranged marriages; or parents – for kinships) preferred (Fournier 1998). Other types of customer-brand relationships are based on the desire to leave the previous brand rather than attraction to the new brand per se – “rebounds”, while others arise out of negative affect e.g. when one associates with brands used by an individual with whom they have divorced – “enmities” (Fournier 1998). When customer-brand relationships are laden with emotions (e.g. childhood friendships and dependencies), and commitments (e.g. committed partnerships) they may be persistent as opposed to those devoid of these aspects (Fournier 1998).

Following the perspectives highlighted above, customer-brand relationships can be perceived as interdependencies between customers and brands that do not only provide functional value, but also emotional value such as a feeling of being special, valued and appreciated on the part of the customer (Fournier 1998; Barnes 2003). Characteristics of such a relationship would be providing active reciprocity (Fournier 1998), which for customers would include brands offering them a tool to fulfill their needs such as confirming self-image as noted by Kapferer (1997, p.30). This paper analyzes such the consumer-brand relationships in private cars drawing examples from Mercedes and Toyota brands. The paper provides insight into how customer-brand relationships form, outcomes (advantages and disadvantages) of such relationships, examples of best and poor practices within the private car industry, and the implications of such relationships for marketing managers.

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