A Collapsing Consumer Trust: the Most Impactful Trend in Marketing Today

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Brand loyalty is at an all time low. Distrust in the media, corporations, and government is at an all time high. Consumers lack trust in institutions and experts. Ubiquitous algorithms eroded trust by organizing media around individual’s’ affinities and relationships. Search and social media exacerbate the problem.

Consideration is won and lost in the scroll. Brands are slow to react to this decentralization because control is the purpose of a traditional brand marketer. Instead, consumers today make purchase decisions through their communities, via relationships. As Americans contemplate Mounjaro or Wegovy, TikTok is the new front-line. This is the era of Relational Marketing. 

Relational Marketing is the evolution of Influencer Marketing.

Brands embrace influencers to co-opt the passion and permission of their followers. Hang with the cool kids. My son loved Travis Scott’s collab with McDonald’s, but we only experienced it online. Yet, the industry miscalculated because influencers are brands themselves who supercharge awareness, but they don’t build real trust despite often strong awareness. 

Influencers are aspirational versus real. Popular versus persuasive. Exceptional versus regular. Awareness versus consideration. 

Tellingly, influencer content outperforms brand content; however, lo-fi peer-to-peer content outperforms them both. In a recent Meta study, the highest converting ads on the platforms are lo-fi peer-to-peer. Brand and influencer content is more expensive and less effective than peer-to-peer. It turns out consumers can actually feel which relationships and opinions are real when making decisions.

Everyone is an influencer.

Consumers are most influenced by their inner circle. These people are identifiable today through social graph analysis through targeting tools such as People First, Applecart, and Untu. The next concentric circle of influence flows from shared identities. These people are also identifiable. 

“Man is by nature a social animal,” said Aristotle. Consumers are most persuaded by those who share intersecting geographies, affinities, ethnicities, sexualities, and conditions as well as professions and affiliations. NIH research outlines how “adolescents who are most likely to be influenced by their close friends are those who have the highest quality social relationships.” However, everyone is susceptible.

These intersections are proxies for identity. After all, consumers are an amalgam of these identities presenting the opportunity for brands to kindle relationships. By matching the right messenger to prospects based on shared identities with greater precision, marketers can rapidly build meaningful relationships at scale. This ‘micro’ content is 5x more likely to be organically shared and 3x more likely to be engaged than brand content with the same message.

Relational Marketing is the science of sourcing media from real people sharing lived experiences en masse in unison. This can be done at scale and speed. Practically, it is how marketers drive intent, conversion, advocacy, and loyalty by instigating, organizing, and directing word-of-mouth through like-minded consumers on behalf of the brands and causes they support. It is influencer marketing with precision and performance.

Approximately 30-50m people are registered influencers, which means there is a lot of redundancy among platforms, and the majority of people don’t think of themselves as influencers. And so, when these non-influencer influencers speak up about brands and issues, the message stands out. This content performs in part because it is scarce.

Relational Marketing was developed at the front-lines of countering extremism online, when it was called a-synchronous information warfare. Perversely, ISIS and White Supremacists understand how media metastasizes online through relationships and identities. But, brands are not at war with customers. They should just want to be friends.

Relational marketing succeeds by tapping into the longtail of influence.

Instead of 5.07 million influencers in a database, Relational Marketing enables brands to source media from a population of 5.07 billion. Every consumer is now invite-able to partner.

So, when i-Health wants to drive purchase of its number one probiotic, Culturelle, the health and wellness leader commissions and then propagates hundreds of approved brand stories from actual Irritable Bowel Syndrome patients. When Floor & Decor wants to boost sales, the retailer recruits beyond the usual suspects of to-die-for kitchens and en-suite bedrooms to activate contractors and installers who frequently influence homeowner purchasing decisions. One story with many authentic voices that circulates from peer-to-peer. If you stand way back from all the posts and videos, you should see a pattern in Relational Marketing.

Conversely, brands are still trying to get real through studio produced ads. Amazon’s “smiling factory worker” ad campaign mimics this reality by borrowing the social currency of their employees who shared lived experiences. Chipotle’s ads voiced by their employees explain that “real food meets real impact.” After spending the majority of its ad dollars on television in 2022, Tractor Supply Co. embraced TikTok through microinfluencers eschewing celebrities and producers to great impact.

Relational Marketing is audience-agnostic and channel-agnostic.

Consumers are also more diverse today. They no longer fit into coherent personas such as Peggy the Working Mom and Don the Undecided. They are just Peggy who responds to her pet affinity and Don who responds to local messages to smart marketers. Peggy and Don choose to engage with brands on a multitude of platforms in an a-linear journey.

Consequently, brands must be in more places with more voices at the same time. Relational Marketing solves this challenge by partnering directly with diverse consumers as messengers on a host of channels and at a scale that’s impossible and cost prohibitive when using celebrity influencers or highly produced studio content.

There is also an equity problem in marketing services with minorities underrepresented in marketing as well as targeted audience segments. 

High production agency creative is rarely developed by individuals with a shared lived experience of the target consumer. As a result, authentic relationships are enormously difficult for brands  to manufacture. Even the most subtle imperfections in voice, vernacular, and perceived intent  in their ads and posts can come across tone deaf at best and extremely offensive in some cases.

Relational Marketing solves for diversity and inclusion by placing the creative with minimal guidance from the brand into the hands of the community that embodies the lived experiences of the target consumers.  

And, while marketers obsess about TikTok and Instagram, real estate across the Internet is undervalued.

Why not meet consumers through transparent recommendations, reviews, posts, videos, and ads on Yelp and Amazon, Pinterest and Nextdoor, and WhatsApp and Sina Weibo? If target consumers speak Spanish, Tagalog, or Mandarin, recruit in-language messengers. One size does not fit all in a marketing ecosystem governed by Relational Marketing. Marketers must go forth and be plentiful, but they must think outside (consumer) in (brand) rather than the traditional inside out dogma.

Marketers know Relational Marketing will work, because it is already working.

AI allows marketers to understand what is shaping decisions right now around their brand among different consumer populations. The discourse is always shifting, and any static message such as an ad degrades quickly. Brands can not only vector the right message, but the right messenger. So, Relational Marketing begins by analyzing the emotions, memes, pictures, and themes already resonating within communities.

This ground-truth informs the Relational Marketing message and identifies  the right messengers. Smart brands balance what they want to say with what consumers want to hear using first-party intelligence. Successful relationships are two way – just ask Dr. Phil and Ruth Westheimer (ask Chat GPT if younger than 40). When brands engage in Relational Marketing, they are leaning into pre-existing behaviors, attitudes, and riffing off pre-existing content rather than trying to manufacture moments.  Bank of Creativity’s One Minute Briefs is an outstanding example of this always-on marketing.

Relational Marketing is one story with many voices.

People are the new line item in a modern media budget, because of Relational Marketing. The goal of a great brand should be to form a relationship with every customer and prospect in the world. For the first time this ambition is achievable. Decentralization gives more power to the individual even if it takes away from the institution.

Marketing is not alone in this reality. Every institution is decentralizing. Wars are fought with drones. Currencies are exchanged on blockchain. Presidential elections swing on the social movements. Vaccine decisions are made through friend groups. This is not a new phenomenon. We wrote “How Social Media Leads to a Less Stable World” in 2014. Relational Marketing began with new media begat by web media, begat by social media, begat by influencer media, and now, the entrenchment of the more scientific and distributed relational media.

If you are not running Relational Marketing programs, your brand is already behind.  You should be experiencing FOMO right now. Start making more friends.

Curtis Hougland is the founder and CEO of People First, which specializes in Relational Marketing for brands as well as social causes and political campaigns