What is a relationship built on? Trust. And people buy—repeatedly—from brands they trust.

But how do you build trust with your customers? The answer is at once simple and complex: You create an interaction with the customer during which you give them what they need, what they desire, and what you say you will deliver and treat them as a valuable part of your brand and business.

You keep doing this—continually—and in the process of this two-way communication trust is created in your brand and with your company.

Successful brands and the relationships they engender are based on two-way communication and the sharing of information and ideas (especially in the area of direct marketing), which is predicated on the idea of trust.

Trust is much on the minds of consumers today; the issues of cookies, privacy statements, data sharing, secure Web pages, do-not-call lists, and so on have made it of paramount importance to the marketing process. Therefore, the trusted-agent concept is integral to the success of any brand and relationship marketing strategy.

The relationship with a customer based on the practice of the brand creating a relationship with the consumer gives a business the competitive edge it needs to stay at the front of the pack. When trust becomes part of the brand relationship, and the entire company embraces and practices relationship marketing as part of the overall operational practice, relationship marketing turns into a core brand competency.

This competency becomes your edge over the competition. It becomes part of what defines your brand and places you ahead of the pack. It becomes part of the appeal of being a consumer of your brand. It creates loyalty and affinity, making the brand relationship stronger and, ultimately, if managed well, profitable for both parties.

In the process of building up this relationship, a wonderful thing can happen. If you service your customers' needs properly, and treat them well, they turn into advocates for your brand.

While ongoing business from them is our objective as marketers, referrals are a wonderful, exponential thing. One satisfied customer tells many friends about your business—people they trust, and people who trust them. The referral comes with a stamp of approval.

A referral is much more likely to buy than a cold prospect, so along with the additional sales you get from the customer you have built a trusting brand relationship with, you get the added benefit of the advocate's word of mouth. Essentially, you turn satisfied customers into an additional sales and promotion channel!

A brand relationship and brand referrals can truly exist only when a great trust flows back and forth from the company to the customer in order to ensure that both get maximum benefit from a mutual relationship. And people refer brands to others only if they trust the brand. And, as stated, brands built on the bedrock of relationships can beget more relationships.

This type of viral marketing is extremely valuable. Consider this: A recent survey conducted by the research consultancy Goodmind found that 92% of respondents had made a purchase in the last 12 months based on someone else's recommendation.

When you also consider findings such as those reported in the Jupiter Media Matrix 2001 study, which revealed that companies considering viral marketing and customers' satisfaction when identifying loyal customers can reduce customer acquisition costs by 27% and increase average order sizes by up to 60%, this relationship thing makes more and more sense all the time!

To repeat myself for what seems like the millionth time, brands are all about relationships.

Brand marketing, and relationship marketing, as trite as it sounds, reverberates across many channels, and people. It isn't a one-shot effort; rather, it leaves impressions behind, and each impression builds on the previous communications and impressions. Through the trust gained with a customer via a fulfilled brand promise and a sound relationship marketing strategy, a business stands to gain a great deal.

But in this day and age, to truly make a brand have a relationship with a customer, it takes more than fulfilling a brand promise. It takes knowledge—knowing who your customers are, why they are, where they are, why they use your product, etc.

It is the integration of the information shared, or even inferred, due to the position of trust between the customer and the brand's parent company that makes relationship marketing possible.

Once this information is gathered, and used responsibly, effectively, and repeatedly, the customer and company can work in concert rather than as adversaries. At this point, the relationship transcends the brand—or, in the optimum situation, the trust factor becomes part of the brand and its equity.

And that is where the true power of the brand relationship gets put to work.

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Kristine Kirby Webster is Principal of The Canterbury Group, a direct-marketing consultancy specializing in branding and relationship marketing. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Direct Marketing at Mercy College in NY. She can be reached at Kristine@canterburygroup.net.