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How consumers are getting “intimate” with brands
In today’s fast-paced environment, modern life is influenced heavily by the power of digital media. Individuals find it easy to connect with peers, but human connections can quickly come to an end by swiping right, unfollowing, or pressing delete. This exemplifies how online interactions can offer a quick return on investment but do not ultimately guarantee lasting relationships.
Additionally, recent academics have commented on the more transitory nature of human relationships. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman notes a shift in modern society, where we have moved from “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning and connection to “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.1
Interestingly, while human relationships seem more temporary or difficult to sustain, consumers are increasingly bonding with brands. After studying how consumers connect with brands for over a decade, we see today that brand performance has increased 19% since before the pandemic.2
To further dimension the idea of human intimacy, cultural purveyor and writer Beverly Golden identifies four forms of intimacy, detailing a more complex spectrum rather than just physical and sexual kinds. Golden introduces the idea that human intimacy can be physical, emotional, cognitive, and experiential.3
Physical intimacy refers to a sensual or sexual connection; emotional intimacy is about the mutual sharing of innermost feelings; cognitive intimacy is an exchange of ideas and exploration of similarities or their difference; and experiential intimacy is involvement in an activity that produces shared experiences.
Using more than a decade of insights, 20,000 brand stories, over 30,000 quantitative respondents, and 253,000 brand evaluations, we have definitively learned that people form relationships with brands the same way they form relationships with each other. While the term intimacy may initially seem odd when applied to brands, it is actually the richest way to dimension these relationships. We have translated or applied the four forms of human intimacy to brands, with the goal of enhancing understanding of how people form attachments to the brands they use and love.
The four forms of Brand Intimacy (cognitive, emotional, physical, and experiential) parallel human intimacy. Looking at individual brands’ performances offers insight into where they fall in the categories of intimacy, with some brands falling into more than one category.
Physical intimacy denotes a sensorial-oriented relationship between a consumer and a brand that develops through an engagement of the senses. Brands that we ingest, such as food and drinks, as well as brands used or worn on or near the body, are often associated with physical aspects of intimacy.
Not surprisingly, the apparel and beauty industries perform strongly in the physical space. The following customer’s social post perfectly describes how Abercrombie & Fitch managed to appeal to consumers through sensual and sensorial stimulations:
Abercrombie managed to appeal to four out of the five senses. Through dark lighting and shirtless models(sight), music (sound), the unmistakable scent (smell), and physical clothing (touch), the company managed to create a whole in-store experience.
Similar sentiment is expressed toward brands that make comfortable clothing, like lululemon.
The sense of smell should not be underestimated when considering Brand Intimacy. Many brands in the beauty, food, and beverages industries, such as Lush, Cinnabon, or Twinings (just to name few), are loved and remembered by customers because of their unique scents.
Indeed, studies confirm that smell and memory are closely linked because the anatomy of the brain allows olfactory signals quickly travel to the limbic system. Furthermore, memories associated with smell tend to be older and thought about less often, meaning the recollection is very vivid when it occurs.4 When possible, associating your brand with a fragrance might therefore help differentiate your offer and help you stand out from competitors.
Emotional intimacy links to a deeply personal relationship between a consumer and a brand that develops because the consumer feels understood and accepted as an individual. While brands may not have inner feelings to share, they can still create emotional intimacy through the projection of emotion and by eliciting emotional responses in consumers. Often, emotional intimacy is manifested by a brand through thoughtful gestures and a caring nature.
Centered on catering and providing to customers, the hospitality industry does especially well in emotional intimacy. Hotels are able to cultivate personal, intimate relationships through thoughtful acts and gestures that help the consumer form an attachment to the brand.
Disney is the #1 ranked brand in this year’s Brand Intimacy Study. Through the years, the company has expanded vertically and horizontally, and, as of today, at least two generations grew up watching Disney and dreamt of seeing its characters taking life at Disney Parks. Consumers share their love for Disney for the sense of escapism, nostalgia, and delightful memories the brand conveys—and can we tie this to the emotional definition more—feeling understood/accepted/eliciting emotional responses?
Beyond hospitality & theme parks, we find emotional intimacy across different industries, from gaming and beauty to sports, automotive, and tech. In the automotive sector, customers are particularly open and enthusiastic about describing their bond with their cars. We analyzed insights from owners of cars in different price ranges, from Jaguar and Mercedes to Mazda, and fulfillment, which links to brands exceeding expectations, seems to be the top deciding factor across these brands. When buying a car, we know that it will become part of our daily lives, and we’ll need to trust it and rely on it for many years. Therefore, it’s crucial for these brands to establish a strong and intimate relationship with their customers.
Concerning the cognitive form of intimacy, which emphasizes a more reason-based relationship between a consumer and a brand centered on a feeling of intellectual connection, the crypto industry definitely takes the lead. Cardano and Bitcoin users firmly believe these companies represent the future. They have strong communities that share and align with their values and are committed to stand for them. Take a look at these tweets:
As you can see, the level of affinity for the brands’ values and dedication to their ideas and purpose are bold and clear.
The tech & telecom industry also sees a strong performance related to cognitive intimacy, with brands like Apple and Google enhancing and informing consumers’ lives in a useful and meaningful way.
Following this, brands that have strong ties to cognitive intimacy may also perform the strongest in the enhancement archetype, like Apple and Google. Enhancement centers on connecting to customers becoming better through use of the brand—smarter, more capable, and more connected, which links directly to the cognitive form of intimacy.
Experiential forms of intimacy are becoming more and more sought after as we are finally getting back to our normal lives after the pandemic. These are all about engaging people socially and creating feelings of togetherness, camaraderie, and belonging. Experiential intimacy involves promoting social interaction and is dominant across several industries. Of the industries surveyed in our study, media & entertainment, hospitality & theme parks, gaming, travel, and sports leagues all connect the most to building intimate experiential relationships.
In the hospitality & theme parks industry, Disney Parks are incredibly successful in creating unforgettable experiences.
Gaming, similarly, brought people together through shared experiences, especially during the pandemic when people used gaming to substitute in-person connections.
In the travel industry, consumers reporting positive experiences is incredibly valuable. Airlines specifically benefit greatly from consumers sharing positive experiences and building a travel relationship with a specific airline.
While specific industries and brands may perform particularly well in one of the four forms of intimacy, that does not mean they are exclusively tied to only one form. Many brands that perform well in our overall study strongly connect to multiple forms of intimacy.
Disney as a media company and theme park is present among three out of the four forms of intimacy: emotional, cognitive, and experiential. The only form where the company is not dominant is the physical one, simply because, by nature, industries such as beverages, beauty, or apparel perform better in this category. Consumers praise Disney for everything from the magical experience to the music to the food.
Trader Joe’s, the top performing retail brand and seventh best performing brand overall, is another example of a brand excelling in multiple forms of intimacy. While it may be argued that the supermarket’s dominant form of intimacy is physical, Trader Joe’s stands out from the competitive set by also building a strong experiential connection. Not only does the low price point attract a wide demographic of customers, the private label and personal touch added to Trader Joe’s serves to convince consumers they are not at a more sterile supermarket chain.
Nike, the second best performing brand in the apparel industry, has consistently been working on building a fitness community by promoting its Nike Run and Nike Training applications, organizing global sports events, and endorsing athletes and coaches. This expands the kinds of relationships Nike is able to maintain with its consumers. Not only do customers appreciate the physical products Nike provides, they also connect to the experiences offered by the brand.
Finally, Apple, the top-performing tech & telecommunications brand and third best performing brand overall, connects with consumers on an emotional, experiential, and cognitive level. Apple consumers connect with the “sexy” aesthetic of the Apple products and often cite positive impact Apple products have had on their lives. The high-tech, future-forward focus of the company invites consumers to feel like they are a part of an elevated community.
Notably, brands that dive deep into cultivating one specific type of intimate relationship also see success.
YouTube, for instance, is a strong example of a brand focusing on only one form of intimacy. The video sharing platform, which ranks second in the media & entertainment industry and fifth overall, appeals primarily to the cognitive form of intimacy, focusing on an exchange of ideas and exploration of their similarities and differences.
With this, users become dependent or reliant on Youtube remaining a consistent, constant source of information and ideas.
To truly exceed in building intimate relationships, the major players have exemplified the importance of either playing to as many forms of intimacy as possible or having significant strength in one specific form.
As brand relationships mirror human relationships, it is not surprising to find that brands are able to connect with people across the four forms of intimacy.
Looking deeper into these four forms gives us a way to further understand how brands are bonding with consumers. We see that some brands are able to create experiences across multiple forms of intimacy, while other brands do well by being deeply associated with one form. It is also clear that certain industries lend themselves to particular forms of intimacy (e.g., food and beverages with physical forms of intimacy).
In addition to understanding brand strengths across archetypes, looking at the forms of intimacy stages and economic indicators paint a rich picture of how people form attachments to brands and the forms these attachments can take.
Building cognitive, emotional, physical, or experiential forms of intimacy with customers can deepen a brand’s ability to create strong emotional bonds today and in the long term.
Read our detailed methodology here, and get an overview of Brand Intimacy here. Our Amazon best-selling book is available at all your favorite booksellers. To learn more about our Agency, Lab, and Platform, visit mblm.com.
1 “From Pilgrim to Tourist—or a Short History of Identity.” By Zygmunt Bauman https://pages.mtu.edu/jdslack/readings/CSReadings/Bauman_From_Pilgrim_to_Tourist.pdf
2 “2022 Brand Intimacy Study.” By MBLM.com https://307663.fs1.hubspotusercontent-na1.net/hubfs/307663/BIS 2022/Report/MBLM_BIS22_Report.pdf?__hstc=120134103.99596bd3632e6ca6b93590cfe3191fce.1658258012862.1671740351915.1672260215665.282&__hssc=120134103.4.1672260215665&__hsfp=607013177&hsCtaTracking=65ba3108-e5c7-444d-863c-620d7132c03b|9c8b7ef7-ab93-4ac2-9f74-f49438e372af
3 “The Four Faces of Intimacy.” By Beverly Golden https://www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/the-four-faces-of-intimacy_b_1093260
4 “This Is Why We Associate Memories So Strongly With Specific Smells.” By Claire Gillespie https://www.verywellmind.com/why-do-we-associate-memories-so-strongly-with-specific-smells-5203963
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