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Frenemies or Friends with Benefits: Brand-Customer Relationships

A friend recently mentioned to me the concept of “buddy brands.” This is a notion that I, as a consumer subject to the ever-expanding cosmos of marketing clutter, will only allow 5-6 brands to have “un-filtered” access to my daily life.

I began exploring this idea by examining my circle of brand “friends.” It quickly became apparent that this was, in fact, the way that I engaged with the brands that touch my life in one way or another. There were a total of six brands that have, what I can only describe as, free range over my inbox, phone messaging and social media. I had expected to exclusively find brands that I am excited about or positively associated with in some way. However, notwithstanding my preconceptions, at least half of these are not brands that I am particularly fond of!

This rendered me rather perplexed, particularly as someone who lives and breathes marketing, and who spends his life as a personalization evangelist. As I dug deeper into this seemingly inexplicable phenomenon, it became apparent that I had two types of companies making up this inner circle: brands to which I had grown close and which I feel give me direct value—my “friends with benefits”—and brands on which I had become dependent in one way or another, but about which I am not overly excited—my “frenemies.”


Despite having made it into my top six, along with other more welcome members, these “frenemy” companies were not only ones towards which I hold less favorable sentiments, but upon deeper reflection these were steadily degrading relationships. The two best examples of this were my bank (coming in at second place) and an airline which I fly on a monthly basis (taking home the gold medal).

My bank has been relentlessly pushing me to take out an American Express card with them (which I already have!), while my airline continuously pushes promotions for destinations and peripheral products which are completely unrelated to my typical travel needs. Even with their prime placement in my life, they were completely neglecting to provide me with any value or benefit from the relationship. The most frustrating part about this situation is that I am fully aware of how much personal data these companies hold about me and how openly I have shared additional details with them.

In the age of the customer, it’s more important than ever to engage effectively with your customers — how, when, and where they desire.


Being almost unwillingly exposed to their assault of irrelevant communications, these brands had managed to use their prime placement in my life to insert a prominent wedge between us. It’s actually a real shame because they were not only shining a spotlight on their complete lack of understanding about who I am and what I want, but they were continuously making me reconsider my choice in providers. To be honest, if they had just left me alone, they would be in a much better position than they are today.

The opportunity for companies that know how to effectively communicate with their customers is enormous. An IBM/Econsultancy study released earlier this year revealed that only 35% of respondents said their favorite companies sent “usually relevant” emails or messages, and that only one in three customers believe their favorite brands truly understand them.


Friends with Benefits

On the other hand, two of the companies in my top six have truly earned their place of privilege in my life. These two “friends with benefits” brands have successfully established a profoundly positive aura around their engagement with me as a customer. Put simply, they “get” me. Just about each and every piece of communication I receive from these companies is clearly embraced by them as an opportunity to deepen the relationship and increase my loyalty.

A customer’s emotional relationship with a brand is one of the strongest unique drivers of customer loyalty. This means you can be sure that refocusing your efforts to understand and play to consumer emotion will positively affect your bottom line.


The two best examples of this in my life are an online music provider and a small fashion retailer. The music store has totally grasped my tastes, sharing with me the latest tunes that suit my unique audio palate and prompting me to follow carefully crafted playlists that fit me like a glove. Similarly, the online fashion retailer has precisely understood my taste in fashion, seamlessly transitioning me from season to season, in both formal and casual apparel. They clearly appreciate the different compartments of my life that call for a variety of get-ups to keep me looking great at any given point in time. These guys have even taken it one step further by guiding me into new trends which they (correctly) predicted would be to my liking. Most importantly, they actually mentor me on my interminable and multifaceted fashion adventures!

It’s amazing how much I welcome communication from these types of companies, and how I eagerly await the next tidbit they’ll send my way. It comes down to the value I feel they give me and the benefits they bring, enriching my life. What a stark contrast to the “frenemies” I described earlier.

Buddy Brands

In analyzing my buddy brands, it has become apparent that gaining prime placement in the life of a customer can be a double-edged sword, with the possibility of both favorable and unfavorable consequences. So when I think back to my earlier relationships with the airline and bank, I try to figure out what went so wrong. My realization is this: both of these businesses have a successful human element, and it’s clearly this human element that won me over in the first place. Namely, the helpful and educated support provided by the staff at the bank, and my wonderful experience on this particular airline. Both companies had succeeded on the in-person experience level, but failed miserably on the digital one. They were simply unable to transfer the successful interpersonal experience into the digital medium, and were no longer able to sustain the high standard of interaction to which I was accustomed. All the subtleties of my identity and experience where lost to them and no quantity of frequent flyer miles or credit card reward points were going to save them at this point.

So, how is it that the music supplier and online fashion retailer nail it time and time again—with no direct human interaction at all and a far leaner range of experience with me as a customer? Quite simply, in the absence of the in-person component, they have learned to cherish their data. Lacking the opportunity to engage with me face-to-face, they leverage data to discover all the subtle hints that enable them to craft a clear picture of who I am and what I want.

The key is to run relevant pander-free promotions that reward customers, make them feel good about doing business with your company, and encourage them to do more of the same.


It’s All About Emotional Intelligence

As a pure-play online company, without smart customer treatment and emotionally intelligent communication, you won’t likely ever make it to the status of a buddy brand. And even if you do, it’s unlikely to last very long. So, from the outset you must appreciate the pure necessity of this concept. As for the companies with an in-person element, the spotlight is yours to lose. In today’s tech-forward world, customers expect brands to bridge the physical/digital divide and carry the experience across mediums.

Over the next several years, we’re likely to see the consumer experience radically integrated across the physical and virtual environment.
McKinsey & Company

McKinsey & Company

So rather than resting on your laurels when breaking through the clutter, be aware of the intricate balance that is your customer relationship and embrace the opportunity to strengthen your brand. Use your customer data to radiate emotional intelligence in each and every customer communication, because it’s through this approach that your customers will feel the true value and benefit of your relationship with them. Show them you’re worth their attention—after all, you’ve worked hard to get it!

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Alon Tvina

Alon is all about building businesses and relationships. With over a decade of experience working in cross-industry and multidisciplinary organizations, Alon’s passion for game-changing technology makes him feel right at home at Optimove. He holds an MBA, B.Bus, B.CI, and Professional Certs in Project Management & Business Analysis.