Building an Unbreakable Bond With Customers

By Ginger Conlon

Customer loyalty can be fleeting. It can be based on behavioral cues such as convenience or habit. And when it is, as soon as something better is available, that loyalty will vanish along with the customer.

Brand intimacy, according to Mario Natarelli, is a far stronger customer connection. Natarelli, coauthor of Brand Intimacy: A New Paradigm in Marketing and managing partner at MBLM, explains that brand intimacy is so powerful it can mimic the way that people bond with each other.

During a recent conversation with MKTGinsight, Natarelli explains more about brand intimacy and what marketers need to do differently to build that unbreakable bond with customers.

What is brand intimacy?

We see it as the science of the bonds that we build with the brands that we love and use.

The benefits of brand intimacy are numerous. The more intimate you are with brands, the more you're willing to pay for them, the less you're willing to live without them. We've seen that by studying brands across industries and geographies and looking at them from the perspective of different demographics.

How does brand intimacy differ from advocacy, engagement, or loyalty?

Those are constructs that haven't evolved with the times. One of the reason we've been passionate about brand intimacy is because we feel that it's for the times, of the times.

Loyalty is an interesting idea, but there are many brands in your life that you use, and you may be even loyal to them, but you may not necessarily like. For example, your cell phone provider may be a brand that you are extremely loyal to, but you probably have very little affinity for. We call those "trapped loyalists."

This concept of brand intimacy isn't designed to replace loyalty or advocacy. What we believe is that intimacy is a higher plateau. I think of it like a compass with a new North that’s more effective and more evolved than loyalty.

Your book is based on extensive research and highlights nine key findings. Which one was the most surprising?

We certainly didn't imagine going into this that the way that we bond with brands would mimic the way that we bond with each other. That’s one of the things that we were pleased to find.

One of the other findings that's important is this idea of reciprocity; that everything we do as consumers and everything that the brand does plays a role in building or diluting those bonds.


For brand managers or brand owners and marketers in general, you can imagine that puts a magnifying glass on every brand interaction. And then on the side of the consumer, to the degree that we are increasing the amount of control we have over brands we love and use and the preferences that we choose around them — it comes with a lot of responsibility, as well.


There’s so much focus today on lead gen and getting customers into the funnel. And clicks, clicks, clicks. Are marketers paying enough attention to branding today?

As someone who specializes in branding, I certainly feel the pain of that question. It seems in many ways, no. Look, here's what we know. There's an increasingly optimized world of marketing going on. Technology is playing an ever-greater role. Leadership in general is increasingly shortsighted and requiring immediate returns and results from marketing tactics.

Brand intimacy doesn't necessarily play to its strengths there. It certainly can inform and improve tactics. It really is designed to be considered holistically and is much more upstream. When you look at the brands that do this really well, they’re investing in and thinking about their brands in a much more strategic way across everything they do.

What's an example of a brand that's built deep brand intimacy with its customers?

We were seeing Amazon performing really well in brand intimacy years before people were talking about it from a business perspective. What's interesting about that is this a company that until recently hadn't done any traditional advertising.


Amazon performs well in terms of how its customers feel. It's the ultimate fulfillment brand. Fulfillment is an important archetype for brand intimacy. Amazon, Prime especially, is a brand people love and can't live without. It becomes part of their habits and rituals. They expect the value it generates. It's a very utilitarian experience, which is true to what Amazon is all about.

Another great and fast-rising brand that we think will continue to do well is Netflix. It does well through a series of other archetypes: ritual, indulgence, and enhancement. This is a brand that is part of your daily routine. It's a brand that you feel is adding some much-needed pampering in your life. And is one that performs above expectations.

Any B2B example you can share?

B2B is a little trickier because of the research components. There are the big B2B brands that are exemplars year in, year out: the GEs of the world; aspects of IBM, SAP. I'm talking about their marketing more than their business performance.


What we really like about B2B brands is that the stakeholder landscape is complicated. We call it the value chain of stakeholders — how they influence each other, connect to each other, relate to the brand, is much more dynamic than a consumer brand. So, the bonds that form are much more nuanced than they are in the consumer space. That excites us.

The question that’s a tough one in the B2B space is the role that emotion plays. If emotion drives these bonds, how do you do that in the business-to-business arena when the argument is, “Our product is about financial services,” or “Our products are about moving complicated engineering machinery,” or “There's nothing emotional about it. It's science. It's rational. It's numbers.”

Some of that is true. But when we make decisions, we make them based on emotion. When you look at the best practices or the companies that are doing well at building brand intimacy, they’re bringing emotion into it. Think about a GE and how it’s bringing its products to life in a way that is compelling and emotionally engaging.


There is so much focus on data today, how can marketers use data to better understand customers' emotions and connection to their brand?

Great question and a huge challenge. We're literally drowning in data, right? I love this irony that the more data we get the more we need computers to manage and find the insights in the data that they're generating. It's a vicious cycle.

What we ask is, “Are you tracking the emotion in your brand or in your products and services, or the bonds you’re forming with your stakeholders?” If you are, great; continue and find ways to take that data and measure it more effectively. If you're not, add it.

What if you could find out who's forming the strongest bonds with your brand today? What stage of intimacy are they in? Then think about the tactics that you would use to grow those bonds or to grow customers that don't necessarily have a connection with you into a stage of intimacy. That changes the conversation very quickly and briefs the marketing teams very differently in terms of what they would do and how they would do it to make those things happen.

What's the biggest change in their thinking that marketers need to make to focus on and build brand intimacy?

The fundamental thing is to imagine that a brand isn't a static, inanimate thing. It's a relationship with your stakeholders or your customers. The minute you start to focus on that connection and how to nurture it, you've already started changing your framework. Then take the time to see the bonds and appreciate them and then understand how to measure, enhance, or build on them.

Another point on this is that technology and data and features and functions and the rational side of why a brand thrives are all important. In fact, essential. However, what motivates us as humans, what makes us care, is when we are emotionally connected.

Marketers spend far less attention

and time on those important parts of what drives motivation.

Building brand intimacy is a journey. It takes time, energy, commitment. It isn't easy. It's rarefied. Only one third of brands reach a level of intimacy.

Brand intimacy isn't designed to be all things for every brand that's out there. But for those marketers who really want to build leading, lasting, and powerful brand, we think this is an elevated concept and approach that could be of huge value.

About the Author

Ginger Conlon, chief editor and marketing alchemist at MKTGinsight, catalyzes change in marketing organizations. She is a frequent speaker on marketing and customer experience, and serves in advisory or leadership roles for several industry organizations. Ginger was honored with a Silver Apple lifetime achievement award for her contributions to the marketing industry.

Find her at @customeralchemy and on LinkedIn.