Recently I had the privilege of connecting with Tim Halloran, President of Brand Illumination and author of the new book Romancing the Brand: How Brands Create Strong, Intimate Relationships with ConsumersWe discussed the key ingredients needed for a strong brand, how small businesses can take the first step to create meaningful, long-term relationships with their consumers, and he gave some examples of companies that are doing it well. I also asked him to reflect on the Coca-Cola Super Bowl spot, given that he spent 10 years in a brand management role with the company prior to venturing out on his own.

What are the key ingredients needed for a strong brand?

At the end of the day, a brand is a representation of an entity. Whether that’s a product, a service, a company, or an individual, we’re all brands. So my thesis is, and this has been confirmed in many academic studies, that we as consumers actually engage in relationships with brands much like we do with other people. So the idea is that as a brand, you need to think about the consumer in a relational context. A relationship is entered into by two people because they both get something out of it. It’s about making the other person feel special, that’s what makes for the most important relationships. So the idea behind the book is that marketers who are leading these brands, our goal should be for consumers to fall in love with our brands. That’s the first step in creating what I call a romance with our brand.

What makes a consumer fall in love with a brand?

There are a couple of things that are essential to helping the brand and consumer relationship to grow. The first thing you have to do is understand your consumer. In other words, you have to “know your type.” When you think about your personal relationships there are certain types of people that you get click with, that are more likely to get along with you and that you are more likely to get along with. Because we have something in common or mutual interests. The same is true for brands and consumers, not all consumers are created equal. Too often brands have a mentality that they have to get everybody, without realizing that there are some customers that are far more special, that will embrace the brand and what it stands for. Then within that, we have to know ourselves. Relationship experts always talk about how you have to know yourself before you can connect with other people. The same is true with brands. What is it that makes us different from other offerings that are out there? That involves a lot of brand self-reflection. What are the attributes that make this brand unique, and how can we tie that in to an emotional need the consumer has? So that is the first crux, you have to know yourself and your type.

What are some brands that have succeeded in romancing their consumers?

I mean there are the big ones, the ones you always hear about, like Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola. But I think it’s appropriate in terms of big or small, there are ways that you can transform your brand overnight if you can tap into a consumer-need. A good example of that is what Dos Equis was able to do with the “Most Interesting Man in the World.” Dos Equis was a small, regional beer brand that was drunk by college students around the University from Texas. While they were trying to figure out how to tap into the “Spring Break” crowd in Mexico, they found something a bit bigger. They went into bar after bar after bar, night after night after night, really talking to and trying to get to intimately know their consumer. That being said, they found out that there was a need to be a part of the group. These people wanted to be part of a group, and the worst thing that could happen was that they didn’t have a good story to tell. They were boring. In essence, they wanted to be interesting. So the idea of being “interesting” is what resulted in the “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign. Which transformed a brand that was available in 5 states to in two years being the sixth largest beer brand in the United States. It was because they tapped into a core insight, and they were spoofed on Saturday Night Live, there were a ton of parodies created online, and it was because they spent a lot of time with consumers.

What led you to write this book?

Prior to what I do now, I had spent 10 years in the brand management department at Coca-Cola. Brand folks at Coke, we have to spend a lot of time with our consumers, so we spend a lot of time in focus groups. There was a situation in a focus group where one woman picked up a can of Diet Coke and said, “You know, I drink 6 of these a day, it’s always there for me, I like to think of it as my boyfriend.” People were laughing, this woman was thinking of an inanimate can of sweet water essentially as her boyfriend. That’s when I started digging and doing some research with academic psychologists and marketers and found out that consumers not only interact with brands but actually have relationships with them. Marketing has been under the radar a lot lately, marketers think “are we doing the right thing here?” If we think about our consumers as being in a relationship with us, and focus on taking care of them, now we are doing right by our consumers and by our brand. It’s a powerful concept if we can really start thinking about our consumer in a long-term relationship capacity and not in the quick transaction capacity.

Given your experience with Coca-Cola, what did you think of the Super Bowl advertisement and the attention it has received?

A couple of things. First of all, it drew so much discussion, people were tweeting and talking about it, all throughout the Pepsi halftime show. If you recall, it came on right toward the end of the first half, so it was an interesting competitive placement. I think what it is, is Coke taking what it’s always been about, inclusiveness and America, and bringing it to present day. It’s that 1970’s commercial, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” and looking at it with a 21st century lens on it. I thought it was a great spot, it was showcasing what Coca-Cola is and what it means to everybody. I’m not sure if it’s the loud 5% squawking about it, but it’s one of those things where a lot of people will have an enhanced relationship with Coke. One thing you can say about Coca-Cola, even though it’s over 100-years-old, it never seems like an outdated brand. Mature brands struggle because they get in ruts in their relationships, just like people do. There isn’t as much excitement, and it’s the brand’s responsibility to put out new packaging or ways of communications or messaging. Take Cheerios with the GMO announcement, here is a brand that is old but because of this announcement they are getting a lot of coverage and people are talking about them.

If you’re a small brand, what can you do to start romancing your consumers?

Every brand is in a different stage within its relationship with consumers. One of the things that is important beyond what we discussed earlier is that the first meeting is very important. Getting the brand to meet the consumer under the right circumstances. Whether that is a compelling sampling program or a compelling environment to try the brand for the first time. A second point is, I mentioned special consumers, every brand has them. I like to call them “influencers.” At some point you have to rely on your consumers as well, so your brand has to concentrate on getting your influencers to pass on your brand message. It might be different people for different groups, it’s the “foodie,” or the “athlete,” but those are the people you need to engage. Think about relationships, when you get into a good one, you want to shout it from the rooftops. The same thing happens with brands. If brands can work on encouraging this pass-along, this word-of-mouth, it’s going to make that much stronger. Even with all of the “screen-society” we have, still 90% of word of mouth marketing exists in person-to-person context. Meaning either we are in person or on the phone.

Thank you to Tim Halloran for taking the time to speak with me. His research is focusing on helping companies to not only create relationships with consumers that will benefit their bottom line, but ideally will benefit the consumers as well.