“Brands that succeed will need to act like humans.” This is how one advertising executive summed up the current stage in the evolution of marketing. In particular, brands will seek to be our friends.
One way they will do this is by talking like our friends on social media. Marketers speak of ‘conversational commerce’ and aim to answer customer queries or concerns any time of day or night—just like our ‘bff.’ The airline company KLM, for example, “promises to respond to consumers’ requests on Twitter within one hour.” To achieve such promptness, companies will have bots respond to our messages in a lightning-fast fashion. The technology called ‘Natural Language Processing’ (NLP) enables these bots to communicate with us fluidly, fluently, and informally, like one of our friends. And the bots can intuit when you need to speak to a real person, and hand you off seamlessly to a live attendant.
Friends can also intuit your needs—perhaps, before you know them yourself. Or, as is the nature of intimate relationships, they can discover your needs even if you don’t make them public. Brands want to be these friends, too. Through conversation, and over a period of time, they hope to “create a complex portrait of [your] needs and desires,” in order to make the right product suggestions at the right time.
This is a remarkable development in the onslaught of brands. In No Logo, her groundbreaking work on the emergence of branding, Naomi Klein described how corporations sought to transition from the material to the spiritual. Companies no longer sold ‘things’ but feelings, ideas, values, aspirations. Globalization effectively ended a corporate relationship to material products, which are now manufactured by a revolving host of subcontractors all over the globe, but mainly in the developing world. In short, production was outsourced, and the home office busied itself with more ethereal affairs, like product design and marketing. And, corporations learned, consumers were ripe for spiritual outreach from the objects of their devotion. They wanted their products to make them feel a certain way; they wanted products to lift them up, enhance their self-image, or embolden them to scale great heights. Like Nike, which urged customers to ‘Just Do It!’ In the rush of excitement and encouragement, customers might overlook how the shoes themselves were increasingly shoddy, thanks to all the cost-cutting and outsourcing.
But times have changed, and technology—as usual—has upped the ante. Brands are capable of much more. In turn, consumer needs and the demands they have put on brands have also grown considerably. Apparently, we are hungry for friends across the digital universe.
The restaurant chain Denny’s strives to be a good social media friend. The company issues an intermittent stream of zany, snarky one liners to its half million followers on Twitter. Naturally, lower case letters are de rigueur, and grammar is optional. One day, Denny’s tells everyone that “toast is al dente bread;” a few days later, it declares “whoever has our voodoo doll, can you put it in a cauldron of syrup? thanks.” Denny’s wants to be your hip millennial friend who cheers you up and interrupts your day with quirky comments, nonsensical observations, and risible affirmations. “uh YEA you can order pancakes, bacon, and sausage,” Denny’s tweets on another occasion, “life’s a movie and you’re the devilishly good-looking protagonist.”
If brands were to be our friends, perhaps they should have consulted Aristotle, who analyzed friendship deeply and declared that ‘a friend is another self.’ To some extent, marketers are following that advice.
Scholars have long debated what exactly Aristotle meant by this curious formulation. In general, though, it seems to capture or sum up what he saw as the essential features of friendship: when it is properly nourishing, restorative, affirming, and enduring. For, there are, Aristotle noted, types of friendship that are no such thing at all, but only serve one party and are fleeting, shallow, or context-dependent. Real friendship involves reciprocity, equality, and similarity. Friends do good things for one another, good things that are relatively on par, or of similar value or significance. Friends are on relatively equal footing; a power imbalance may turn the relationship into something transactional. And friends have relatively similar backgrounds, values, interests, and needs. Your friend is like you; and when you help him, you are fulfilled in the process.
We might also say that a friend is a mirror of sorts, where you see yourself reflected. In particular, Aristotle hoped that friends might mirror virtue, the requisite ingredient for a happy life. Virtue is largely carried out in an interpersonal context. Courage, generosity, moderation—the particular virtues—are performed and perfected in the company of others. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a person displaying or exercising any of these virtues alone. A friend is to mirror my virtue (or lack thereof) and urge me in the right direction, hopefully by either modelling the right behavior or highlighting my own and providing useful opportunities to practice virtue.
What kind of friends will brands be? What kind of friends can they be? They will not judge, that’s for sure. They don’t seem prepared to encourage virtuous behavior. Denny’s is content to have us eat ‘grand slam’ breakfasts four times a week and cheer us on all the way.
Brands are eager to offer us a mirror, but not challenge us in any way. They will let us gaze into ourselves, plumb the depths of our wants, needs, fantasies, and are likely to push for discovering some more. Brands are ready to affirm us, encourage us, and make us feel good about ourselves, largely as we are.
Consumers tell marketing researchers that they want the same thing from brands that they get from their friends, namely loyalty. This is an odd spin on things: aren’t companies looking for loyalty from customers? Well yes, but that is a different kind of loyalty. Consumers, rather, want brands that are loyal to their favorite causes and values, brands that affirm what consumers already believe in. As one researcher put it, consumers want “reliability, authenticity, and the feeling that the brands ‘get’ them, and what’s important to them at this point in their lives—whatever point that may be.”
This is only a part of what friendship provides, of course. Though a friend is ‘another self,’ he or she also teaches me and presents me with the unexpected on occasion. I encounter difference, and change, and grow. A true friend teaches me how to transcend the bounds of myself, empathize with others, and interact in a way that is fulfilling. A true friend teaches me to give, not to buy or sell.
Brands are not interested in any of that. They seem bent on delivering us to narcissism. They will happily let me reflect my wants and needs, while offering up a steady supply for their satisfaction. This is the real aim of the intimacy that brands seek to build. Armed with insider information, they can provide for my yearnings before I recognize them; they may even become adept at creating such yearnings, playing on my insecurities as only friends can do.
This starts to sound ominous. Brands may insinuate themselves into our lives, perhaps to manipulate us, if not prey on us. Though many will blame the brands, I wonder: why are we liable to be manipulated in this manner? Why are we vulnerable? To put it bluntly: why are we happy or eager to befriend brands? Why are we so needy? One answer marketers have come up with is that ours is an anxious age.
Researchers indicate that people are highly worried about current events, the future, the state of the American Dream. The political landscape is volatile and riven by nasty partisanship; climate change threatens to transform our lived environment in profound ways; inequality makes it harder to get ahead. “In a world of uncertainty,” marketers. We yearn to reach out and build bonds—and brands respond immediately.
The phenomenon is not surprising. I am unsure how to judge whether our age is more anxious than others. I am certain, however, that digital technology plays an important role in amplifying said anxiety. Dire stories receive prime attention on social media, while conspiracy theories build and whirl around the internet with great speed. Worried, fearful, and hateful people find one other through digital media—sometimes across the globe—and amplify their passions. Furthermore, anxiety seems inherent to digital communications itself, given both its instantaneous nature and our expectation that people are ‘always on.’ If I send a text message that I know my recipient sees and I don’t receive a prompt response, I am worried, ashamed, indignant, and also hurt.
This is a perfect environment for brands to step in and offer us comfort. In case anyone is disturbed by this arrangement or loath to be manipulated by brands that pose as our friends, Aristotle has another piece of stern advice: we may only have few friends, one or two at most. This will likely outrage digital citizens accustomed to touting hundreds of friends on social media platforms. Which, it occurs to me, may be another source of worry: who among my countless friends is acting as such? Who can keep tabs on this? There are no such concerns with people who truly fit the bill, Aristotle believes.
Friendship is hard work. It requires sacrifice, intimacy, and is a two-way street. Friends give to one another; they understand what the other needs, often without being prompted or asked. This requires deep personal knowledge and experience. It takes time. What’s more, friends take joy in one another’s happiness, even when they receive nothing in return. In that respect, brands will never measure up.