Different brand relationships = different risk
The long-term success of brands depends primarily on the connection consumers build with them. Some brands succeed in establishing strong positive emotional relationships with many customers. Most Harley Davidson drivers or Apple users, for instance, seem to be strongly attached to these brands. Well-attached customers form brand relations that resemble bonds within a family or with friends. They show higher loyalty towards these brands, are often ready to pay premium prices and are less prone to aggressive competitor activities.
However, the relationship portfolio of a brand also comprises consumers with other, less positive, weak or fleeting relationships. Weak relationships can be described as acquaintances, flings or like random relations to strangers. Other brand relationships are not only weak, but negative and at risk. They are conflict-laden or resemble dissolved friendships or outright hostility. Nevertheless, such customers often contribute substantially to overall brand success and need to be managed carefully. Like a stock portfolio, each of these relationship types offers a brand higher or lower growth opportunities and risks. The type of relationship is particularly relevant in brand crisis events.
When a brand is hit by a crisis, it is not necessarily the most successful strategy to focus exclusively on protecting positive emotional relationships. At-risk relationships are affected more than others and can lead to a significant decline of brand value.
The role of at-risk brand relationships in managing brand risk
All negative relationships are at risk of being dissolved and therefore become a significant threat for a brand and limit its potential for growth. When customers start to form even a slightly negative brand relationship, they are increasingly ready to consider other market options. They are less open to marketing activities and, when the relationship becomes more intensely negative, they are much more prone to discuss the brand with others – be it in real-life or the digital world.
Often, negative relationships can be attributed to remarkable negative brand experiences, either at the level of personal brand experiences or as conveyed by the news or social media. Experiences reported by others can also result in a deterioration of strong emotional ties to the brand. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for brand managers to understand the share of consumers with negative connections to their brand and the underlying reasons for these disconnects. If the share of negative relationships within a brand’s relationship portfolio is growing, immediate, deliberate and honest reactions need to be considered by brand managers.
The following cases (Box 1 and 2) explore how two well-documented brand scandals affected changes in the composition of the brand’s relationship portfolio and caused more at-risk relationships that erode brand equity and sales in the German market. In both cases (see figures 1 and 2), the crisis had the strongest effect among at-risk customers. This shows that marketing managers need to focus even more on negative and at-risk relationships in a crisis.