Every brand makes an attempt to relate to its target segment on the presumption that connecting with customers would provide a sustainable relationship with them. There are two basic considerations with regard to such an approach. First, a brand manager needs to understand the different kinds of brand relationships before investing in brands, especially in this digital era of quantifying customer lifetime value (CLV). Otherwise, the quantification of CLV itself may not be appropriate at the extreme end of building customer relationships. Second, brand relationships require a marketer to understand category relationships that consumers reveal in their interaction with the brands.

Do mothers have a sustained relationship with brands of milk additives such as Horlicks, Bournvita or Complan? While brand image or association plays an important part in building customer relationships, how are most associations constrained by the category aligned with those associations? How is the relationship built by an anti-ageing cream such as Pond's different from that built by Lux in the soap category? Some of these complexities are addressed by the sociological model of Sternberg.

Sternberg's model consists of three aspects. Originally, the model was developed to explain the relationships between people, but it can be used in consumer behaviour as well, given the many strategies attempted by brands across categories. The model has three dimensions that are simple to understand – intimacy, commitment and love.

How deep is the bond?

Intimacy is how well a brand and the user know themselves. Both the consumer and the brand are involved in this situation. Would a brand of pen like Reynolds like to have such a relationship and to what extent should the brand make an attempt to build the relationship based on intimacy? Mont Blanc, a premium brand of pen that addresses a consumer's concept of oneself may like to develop a brand story that reflects an intimacy. This intimacy may be about how the brand's handcrafted techniques and diamonds for a limited edition make it a special one to possess.

The buyer's sensitivity to his own self-concept responds to the brand's story with the perception of how the brand understands him and the need for his social status. So the buyer buys several offerings of the brand and there is development of intimacy (reinforced and ‘rewarded' every time a friend enquires about the offering) that offers a possibility of being committed to the brand. It is to be noted that the commitment in this case has been enhanced through intimacy. Commitment in isolation, without intimacy, can also take place. A mother who has been a buyer of Complan (with its ‘grow tall' proposition) may switch to Horlicks (that has a ‘taller, sharper and stronger' proposition). This explains more commitment to the category and to some extent to the brand, and it happens without intimacy being a dominating factor. Unless we reach an era of marketing where milk additives are customised, the brands in this category may find it difficult to use intimacy as a strategy, while building brand relationships. Commitment in isolation is a decision to sustain the relationship and may not have true intimacy.

Love is passion that includes a high degree of liking not necessarily intimacy or commitment. Categories such as biscuits, soft drinks and even mobile gaming may have strategies that focus on love rather than intimacy or commitment. Mobile handsets too (those that are a part of fleeting fashion) may focus on love. A brand such as Samsung may build a strong relationship with the use of Galaxy Note out of consumers' commitment and love but may have a range of ‘colourful and fun' range of phones that are oriented only towards love.

There may be brands like Britannia that bank on a variety of offerings. Britannia has shifted to the “health” platform (Nutrichoice and others) that relies more on commitment than the taste proposition associated with love. There are brands in the energy drink sector such as Red Bull where “energy-love-racy associations of the brand” go together. Red Bull's success (over $1 billion in sales) can be attributed to the impact of spreading excitement about the brand. This is a form of love (passion) that has remarkable sustaining power over its consumers. Though “energy” is the brand's proposition, the type of energy that a consumer expects from a soft drink brand is different from that which is associated with Gatorade. In the latter's case, consumers are more committed to the brand.

The important point in Sternberg's model is that a brand's ultimate relationship (as derived from its implications for human relationships) has to have commitment, love and intimacy as part of its strategy.

There are several implications for marketers who would like to explore the possibilities of this model. For example, Nike's love-based strategy may be supplemented by the quality of its offering (commitment aspect) that is responsible for the consumer's relationship with the brand. The brand's online platform can use the knowledge base it develops to supplement its strategy with the intimacy aspect of the brand (knowing everything about a customer's footwear needs). Such strategies are likely to augment a brand's strategy that had been primarily constructed on the ‘love' platform. The brand's “just do it” proposition, its appeal to casual consumer segments (and not just to serious sportsmen) along with fashion orientation has created a strong platform and the “passion or love” aspect of the band. Fastrack, initially launched on the “cool and urbane” platform, continues to be strengthened with its social media campaigns. The brand's foray into goggles and bags (accessories) also strengthens the association as these offerings to have an association with “passion”.

Consumer behaviour, with its inter-disciplinary orientation, can generate several dimensions that can be applied to contemporary branding decisions.

S. Ramesh Kumar is Professor of Marketing, IIM, Bangalore