Commerce Catalysts

Mark Wieczorek

DTC MarketingBlog

The Third Era of Brand: Leaning Into Parasocial Relationships With Consumers

DTC MarketingBlog

The First Era of Brand. One hundred years ago, grocery products were kept behind the counter. The grocer shopped on customers’ behalf, selecting goods based on their needs; human relationships were at the core of the shopping experience. 

In 1927, a small ice seller in Dallas, Texas, launched Tote’m Stores (renamed 7-Eleven in 1946) with the idea that customers would handle the packages themselves, only interacting with store staff at checkout. For the first time, consumers had to make decisions on their own. Which brand of bread was better? Softer? More shelf-stable?

Alongside the evolution of choice was the arrival of mass-market entertainment. Radio and television ads drove purchasing decisions, reaching nearly every American household.

The “Cluetrain Manifesto” kicked off the Second Era in 1999. It described markets as “conversations.” Consumers suddenly had access to data and could interact directly with brands and other shoppers via social media; they could now make informed decisions.

Marketers were also seduced by the idea of big data. “We can measure everything!” was the rallying cry. With the promise of improved ROI, marketers jumped on the performance marketing wagon in droves, and ... ROI declined from nearly 5x in 2006 to about 2x in 2016. In the past few years, we’ve turned that around, and the current ROI is closer to 6x. So, what changed, and what lessons can marketers take away?

Do We Have Parasocial Relationships With Brands?

In 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl introduced the idea of parasocial relationships. They suggested that people were forming pseudo-social relationships with TV personalities — not just the characters they watched in sitcoms and dramas but the newscasters and talk show hosts who would often talk directly to the audience.

The same kind of relationships now form between consumers and brands. The direct relationship we had with the shop clerk is replaced with a parasocial relationship with the brand itself. Extend the metaphor to its conclusion, and we can think about brands in a new way, a more human way.

It’s widely acknowledged that advertising serves to build affinity with a brand by creating positive feelings and associations. But just how do we do that?

In “Why Does the Pedlar Sing?” Paul Feldwick, an advertiser with more than 45 years of experience, posits that brands can manage their fame much like celebrities. Enter the Third Era of Brand.

Brands as Heuristics: Speak to Our Impulses

As advertising executive John Hegarty once said, “A brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world; a corner of someone’s mind.” 

Author Daniel Kahneman posits that we have two modes of thinking. System 1 is the fast, automatic, often emotional way of thinking. System 2 is slower and more deliberate. According to BrandZ, “Generally, categories with short-term decision-making were more likely to contain brands with stronger assets than those involving longer-term decisions.” Put simply, brand influences fast food decisions a lot (+44 points) but less so for durables (-29 points).

The more consumers have to use the slower, more deliberate thinking of System 2, the less important the influence of brand. Brands serve as heuristics: shortcuts to decision-making so we don’t have to research and analyze every decision.

In addition, brands can help customers act by appearing where they are. Segment your audience for different platforms and contexts, and tailor your brand storytelling to resonate with these people. Leverage visual content to seize on consumers’ need to quickly understand your value proposition. Highlight user-generated content to provide quick social proof of your brand’s unique identity.

Brands as Celebrities: Lean Into Character

If consumers do have parasocial relationships with brands, that means brands can build on those relationships by accentuating their personas. We could call this maintaining “continuous character in changing circumstances.”

As writer Amy Odell notes: “In the early 2000s, actresses pretty much only wore safe, mermaid train gowns ... because they wanted producers and casting directors to look at them and see anyone instead of one specific character. But now it’s 2023, viral moments are necessary for promoting a film and making a blockbuster. Margot Robbie is literally dressing like her character [Barbie], and it’s working. The buzz for this movie is overwhelming.”

Your core message and brand identity are flexible enough to expand to multiple platforms and multiple message types — from high-production value ads to influencer-generated content. You can remain authentic to the brand without having just one style of ad.

Brands as Gamechangers: Don’t Play It Safe

Research from Kantar, as reported by MarketingWeek, shows that tailoring ads for individual platforms has a 13% increase in impact on brand equity. The evidence is abundant. The more you build your relationship with customers — by being everywhere they are and by being yourself in multiple contexts — the more your brand will grow.

Don’t hide away in the one corner of the internet you feel comfortable in; expand your comfort zone by practicing adaptability and agility. Stay responsive to evolving market trends, consumer behaviors, and industry changes. Be willing to adapt your messaging and strategies to align with changing circumstances.

The First Era of Brand was about discovering mass communication. A single ad campaign would run for years until hordes of customers could recite the jingle. In the Second Era, brands faced the arrival of information and tried to speak to consumers with data at their fingertips. The lesson of the Third Era is about authenticity. How can you be a continuous character in changing circumstances? Can you lean into what makes you, you?

That’s how a brand becomes a “corner of someone’s mind.”

As Front Row’s Chief Insights Officer, Mark Wieczorek is continuously thinking: What’s next? What can we be doing better? What’s the next evolution? What will move the needle for our brands? Some days, that’s working on advertising tech. Other days, it’s digging into the data to figure out how to better position Front Row’s brands for success. To Mark, staying ahead of the competition is a never-ending challenge, and no two days are alike. Mark has always worked at the intersection of business, technology, and advertising. Prior to joining Front Row, he built an Amazon business, from opening the account to several million dollars a year. When that company sold, his next challenge led him to Front Row.