How to Build Meaningful Connections with your Customers

Building personal relationships with consumers is the holy grail of marketing. But many brands are missing the mark, forgetting what a ‘relationship’ actually looks like and overlooking what really makes a connection meaningful.

For relationships between people, hard selling is counterproductive to building meaningful connections. We’ve all had that red flag moment when we realize there might be an ulterior motive behind a friend reaching out: “Haven’t spoken in a while, thought you might be interested in my new project!”

But brands aren’t people.

This disconnect sets up a challenge and an opportunity for brands today. As a brand, it’s crucial to know how to reach people in a way that makes them care about you (and feel cared about), while still delivering on your business’ bottom line.

Speak like a person, deliver like a brand

Brands exist for a reason. People want and need stuff, and they rely on the brands that have delivered stuff with value for them in the past. Transaction is at the heart of this relationship, and that’s okay! Trying to deny the nature of this relationship is when the veil of a personal connection gets clouded.

No matter a brand’s size, scale or reach, building successful relationships is about the balance of being human and being a brand. Speaking like a person, to people, while acknowledging the transactional nature of the relationship. In this balance, brands can own up to being brands, and deliver the functional value their consumers want and need. But in doing so, they can also connect like a human – with empathy, a clear set of values and a personality.

Before getting into the right ways to do this, a warning: Don’t be creepy

Know that data collection does not equal a relationship.

Big brands know more personal data about customers than ever before, but very little is personal in the way they reach out to them. They rely on their vast access to consumer data as a shortcut to being personal, but knowing personal facts doesn’t mean you are in a relationship. In fact, more often than not, this backfires, leaving consumers feeling that brands act more like a stalker who goes through their trash than someone who truly knows and cares about them.

Unfortunately, most strategies that attempt to build a personal relationship with consumers focus on intensive data capture at the expense of other important considerations. These strategies do not consider whether efforts to build personal connections make things better, generate excitement and enthusiasm, or benefit the value equation (that a customer is getting enough out of the relationship to warrant the data they’ve parted with or the communications they’re receiving).

Being in a personal relationship means reciprocating and turning up when needed. You have to act with meaning, generosity and consideration towards your customer base. Show compassion, personality and even humor to create a genuinely human brand voice that really speaks to people.

Now that we’ve flagged that, let’s get into how brands can authentically connect…

1. Craft a brand voice that consistently speaks from the heart

Personal messaging is different than personalIZED messaging – the latter often treading into that creepy space, like someone you’ve just met at a party following you around and overusing your name. By using its voice effectively, a brand can communicate in a personal way without needing to hyper-target to every individual. Being personal is about consistently and genuinely speaking with the beliefs, values and personality of your brand. Let your authentic brand voice drive the meaning behind the medium.

Swedish oat drink brand Oatly has proved that this can be done on a mass scale, with messaging in major cities all around the world. There’s nothing personalized about a bus or subway ad, but because Oatly delivers a consistent view (that oat milk is better than cow’s milk), and speaks in a consistently offbeat, unique, and lighthearted tone of voice, those mass messages strike a personal connection – even with those who have never considered switching from dairy.

2. Be more relevant through considering when and where you show up

Remember that time you casually mentioned to a friend you needed new sneakers, and your Instagram was suddenly filled with sponsored ads for… sneakers? How did that feel? Slightly off-putting, right? Hold onto that when considering your marketing strategy.

As marketers, we’re always thinking about the right message for the right person in the right place at the right time. And while this remains absolutely true, applying that mantra for every individual consumer can quickly push a brand into that creep zone.

Instead, brands can be relevant in a more personal way. This means showing up at a time or in a place that individuals will be receptive to, because the figurative door of the relationship is already open.

For example, you are more open to and personally connected with a message from Hubble contact lenses reminding you that your six month stock might be running out based on the timing of your last order than getting a randomly timed, generic coupon from 1-800-CONTACTS right after your eye exam.

Similarly, getting bombarded with meditation app ads after Googling “stress reduction” is invasive. But seeing the ad for headspace as you are packed into your stressful morning subway commute might spark you to download it and take your first lesson by the time you reach your stop.

3. Strike the right balance between promotional and personal in communication

Brands want to promote their products and, done right, consumers want that too. After all, consumers don’t want brands to be their friends, they want great deals, new products, value for money… and a shared set of values is a bonus! There are times and places for brands to promote, and others to connect. When thoughtfully balanced, brands can achieve both.

Outdoor sports brand Patagonia uses its communications to reach its customers with this optimal balance of promotions and personal connection. As with every other brand, they collect consumer emails. Some messages update their customers about their products (which their email base are genuinely interested in), while others center around their environmental and political initiatives – driving genuine brand affinity and value-added trust.

This strategy inspired Patagonia’s loyal, aligned customer base to sign petitions to save land or register to vote, while still driving them to their website to purchase.

4. Create experiences that add value for your brand and your consumers alike

Yes, personal can come from real-world experiences or through the people representing your brand. But it can also be through creating experiences that add value by sharing values.

An experience isn’t limited to any one channel to be meaningful. It can be a physical activation, a digital platform, or even a comms campaign with real-world impact. Most importantly, the experience must bring brands and people together around a shared value or passion.

Crucially, the core objective of an experience shouldn’t be focused on how many impressions or shares it gets on social media. While that’s an obvious benefit for brands, consumers see through these motives, shifting the experience away from an opportunity for connection and into a cynical marketing tactic.

But how to get it right? Whole Foods recently launched Home Ec 365, a digital platform that promotes Whole Foods’ 365 store brand of home staples. Home Ec 365 brings together influencers who share Whole Foods’ holistic take on life. These influencers host classes on “adulting,” covering everything from cleaning your home to stocking your pantry.

While the lessons might spark consumers to buy 365 products, the platform’s focus isn’t about sales. Instead, it’s around integrating the brand more deeply into a culture by creating experiences that connect consumers, influencers, and the Whole Foods brand through shared values and inspiring, share-worthy content.

Delivering the personal touch

These steps will help any brand to ensure its existing messaging tactics work harder to connect with people. It’s all about the simple balance of speaking like a person, while delivering on the core offer of your brand.

Such a layered marketing approach may sound overwhelming, but pretending to be everything to everybody is even more exhausting – plus, this is no longer acceptable to a growing number of savvy consumers.

Combine personal messaging that markets in relevant ways, and your brand has the opportunity to drive the awareness, trial, and genuine affection that leads to a lifelong relationship.