Do you have friends for life?

April 2013

Spring has been a long time coming this year – but the thirst for bright colors which are missing everywhere else can at least be slaked at the usual time in one place: the fashion store window. Bright springtime clothes await consumers there, shoe stores tempt the eye with their new spring range, and light garments line clothing outlet shelves in place of thick winter wool. But why does a particular item of clothing or a product by that specific brand make our heart race? It’s not because of the way it looks or how it fits – emotions play an important part, although we often don’t realize it. This isn’t just the case when we buy clothes; it happens whenever we shop. What do we associate with a particular brand? What do we expect from it? Why are we drawn to particular stores, and why do we avoid others like the plague?

GfK’s Customer Brand Relationship (CBR) tool provides the answers. It analyzes the relationship consumers have with particular brands and records how much of an influence a particular brand actually has over the consumer journey as a whole. Our perception of brands is always in flux. For example, a humorous ad that strikes a chord with consumers because of its sales approach can make a previously unknown brand a contender for purchase amongst its demographic. Equally, negative media coverage about a certain brand can lead some of its target buyers to go out looking for alternatives. GfK’s CBR tool takes these factors into account, along with how consumers’ interests and emotions tend to change with time. To make sense of the complex relationship between consumers and brands, the CBR tool draws up parallels between the customer brand relationship and how people interact with one another. Just as we either know Joe Bloggs or we don’t, just as he can either be our enemy or one of our trusted friends, our relationships with people tend to change during our lives. Our perception of brands follows a similar pattern: they can arouse positive or negative emotions in us, provoke admiration or revulsion (see below for a comprehensive description of the CBR tool).

Of arduous love affairs and much-admired friends

According to a survey of around 1,200 consumers, seven types of relationship pattern are at work in the German fashion market. In positive cases, the relationship between a person and a brand is therefore on the level of either a solid and profound relationship, or a much-admired friend. If the consumer has a relatively neutral relationship with the brand; if they simply don’t know it, it’s equated to a casual or fleeting acquaintance. When consumers feel negatively about a certain label, the relationship is often associated with a disappointing, tiresome love affair, or even a love-hate relationship. There are many factors at play in every kind of relationship pattern (is the relationship meaningful or not meaningful? Is it shallow? Intense? Unfair? Is it honest?)

Abercrombie & Fitch: Sorry, do I know you?

Using this method, respondents gave answers on the American company Abercrombie & Fitch, the Swedish fashion outlet H&M, the Spanish chain Zara and the discount store KiK as well as two fashion boutiques, Peek & Cloppenburg and C&A. According to the results, Abercrombie & Fitch was the brand with which most respondents claimed to be unfamiliar – despite the presence of musclebound male models and a great deal of naked flesh in Dusseldorf back in 2011 at the celebration of its entry onto the German market, an event that attracted much media attention. There are only three A&F stores in Germany today, so it’s really no wonder that consumers hardly know it. Alongside the A&F moose, fashion label Zara was a brand consumers also tended to deem a stranger. However, just as many respondents considered it a much-admired friend. Zara was actually a very close runner-up to leader H&M in the positive association segment.

C&A: Long-established sense of trust

The brand most able to build a solid, profound relationship with consumers was C&A. This was the brand most frequently associated with this kind of relationship pattern, followed by H&M and, by some distance, Peek & Cloppenburg. The latter was mainly associated with a casual acquaintanceship, which was a sign that there remains room for improvement in P&C as regards customer loyalty. This relationship pattern approach should also provide food for thought to those responsible at the KiK discount chain, which proved the outright winner in the love-hate category. Neither the range of advertising campaigns that sported a testimonial from Verona Pooth nor football sponsorship deals could fully banish KiK of its rather negative image. Presumably scandals about the chain, which have included workers being spied on, wage dumping and poor conditions at suppliers’ factories, contributed to this negative judgment.

However, all of the brands were more or less at the same level in the fleeting acquaintance relationship segment, with each one achieving moderate figures. Fashion boutiques’ marketing strategists hardly need to worry about whether the image of “their” brand is the subject of a tiresome love affair for consumers: out of all the brands in the survey, this was the aspect most rarely reported as an issue by respondents.

H&M: Intimate feelings

The relationship that exists between consumer and brand can be described in even greater detail. After all, solid and profound relationships are multi-faceted by nature. These kinds of relationships exist between friends, romantic partners and family. Differences between C&A and H&M became apparent in this relationship segment: whereas C&A was more often viewed as an old friend, Germans tend to see H&M more as a family member (close siblings). People associate an old friendship in this context above all with warmth and honesty between two people, maintained of one’s own accord. This relationship is based on trust and respect, and is therefore not very rational. The relationship somebody has to a family member is just as emotionally warm, but it tends to be more intense and meaningful, and often requires a greater degree of personal investment. In this respect, the H&M brand elicits closer emotional consumer contact than its competitor C&A, even though the consumer has probably also had a great many pleasant, emotional experiences in C&A stores. However, the relationships people have with their families mostly delve deeper, last longer and become more meaningful than the ones they have with old friends.

The same applies for the negative love-hate segment. This expression is often reserved for the feelings people have towards their ex-partners or true enemies. The subject of the relatively harmless annoying acquaintance also falls under love-hate. KiK is associated particularly frequently with being an annoying acquaintance, generating noticeable feelings of actual animosity amongst consumers. Conversely, when they are viewed negatively, H&M, C&A and Peek & Cloppenburg tended to be seen rather as former friends; that is to say, a previously healthy relationship with these outlets has clearly somehow been tarnished for some consumers.

These organizations can draw some important conclusions from the results of the survey. For instance, they can learn how to strengthen their brand and go from being a fleeting acquaintance to a good friend. Evaluating the German fashion market in this way shows that at various levels of the consumer journey (e.g. when considering brand choice and purchase) there are a range of different relationship patterns at work. For example, the amount of “buddies” closer relationships that targeted brand purchasers have is higher than for those who simply select goods and have no brand affiliation. Those who simply select tend to have more fleeting or chance acquaintanceships with brands, a factor which, in turn, decreases the probability of targeted purchase.

How affairs can lead to solid relationships

It is therefore crucial for brands to turn shallow relationship patterns into firm allegiances. But how? Integral to this transition are driver analyses. These tools clarify which activities are most influential at which times for which consumers. Within the fashion market, for example, these analyses show that companies who tailor certain products and services to their customers (the ones who are already connected to them in a friendly way) tend to increase their sense of trust. Companies that offer a consumer friend the chance to create their own design, that make clothing which fits customers exactly, or that have consumers’ personal details stored in databases are on the right track to step up the relationship from being just friends to becoming something more intimate. In order to make the leap from a brief affair to a friendly relationship, contact must first be intensified. The brand needs to meet more often with the consumer so that they can both get to know each other better. Good opportunities for this are events and apps, which tend to increase communication levels. Furthermore, driver analyses help to identify and smash barriers that stand in the way of a closer relationship to consumers.

Those who want their brand to become best friends with a consumer must employ a targeted approach to that particular consumer’s individual wishes whilst making sure the consumer develops their own different needs over the course of their personal consumer journey. Whoever employs this strategy stands a good chance of their label glimmering in the streets along with the first rays of summer sunshine.

Data source: GfK SE (CBR Research project).

If you have any queries concerning this article, please contact Alexandra Stein or Oliver Hupp.

If you have any queries concerning this article or Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar,  e-mail: