Relationship Marketing Series #1: Create a Human Connection


This is the first in an occasional (in other words, whenever I get a wild hair) series on the essentials of relationship marketing.

Relationship marketing focuses on nurturing ongoing relationships with customers, instead of strip-mining prospects for one-time purchases. There have been dozens of riffs on this over the last 15 years or so, with labels including one-to-one marketing, permission marketing, share of customer, and referral & retention marketing.

They all boil down to the same idea–create a stronger emotional connection with existing customers, and turn them into loyal advocates. Not only is this more fun, it’s much more profitable. Selling to someone who knows, trusts, and likes you takes a lot fewer resources than selling to strangers.

If you’re a giant conglomerate, this is important. If you’re a tiny little business, it’s vital. Small businesses don’t have the capital or the momentum to attract an unlimited number of new prospects. Fortunately, it’s also a lot easier for tiny little businesses to relate to customers on a human scale. Forget about looking big. If you’re a one-person shop, you can get tremendous mileage out of turning your human individuality into your remarkable brand.

We’re hard-wired to relate

Legendary cranky old ad guy Gary Halbert said that if you had a star, a story, and a solution, you had what you needed to create a viable business. (I’d argue that you have what it takes to create a viable marketing campaign, but that’s not such a different animal.) The “star” part comes from having a human being to hang your story on.

There are plenty of examples of successful faceless companies, but having a person (or persona) that customers can relate to is one of the easiest shortcuts to building a relationship. People, fictional or real, are easy for us to understand and identify with.

For example, I became a Squidoo enthusiast partly because I’m a Seth Godin enthusiast. On a lizard-brain level, becoming a Squidoo lensmaster was a way for me to participate in a quasi-relationship with Godin–to become part of his story.

Consider the brilliance of Apple’s campaign pitting the cute, hip Apple guy against the schlubby, hapless PC guy. Those characters embodied the qualities Apple wanted us to believe about each product. We instantly got it (even those of us who happen to prefer PC guy).

Tony Robbins and Dan Kennedy and Martha Stewart have something in common: their customers feel like they know them personally. Those customers will forgive foibles (most of them), and they’ll accept modest glitches in service. Now think about service problems you might have had (or heard about) with AOL, AT&T, or Comcast. It’s much easier to hate those folks. They lack a human face, and we have no inclination to give those companies any benefit of the doubt.

We’re hard-wired to gossip

Not only do we have an innate desire to relate to other humans, our DNA practically compels us to tell stories about them. We yak endlessly about who we hate, who we love, and what we think of their choice in shoes. We have opinions about Warren Buffett and Lee Iacocca and Bill Gates, and those opinions color how we feel about their companies.

Having a human identity to hang your brand on makes you intrinsically more remarkable–that is, intrinsically easier to tell stories about.

Does it matter if your company’s face is a real one? I wish I could remember the source of the quote “there’s no difference between Betty Crocker and Madonna, cultural impact-wise.” (Leave me a comment if you know it!) Our reactions to the human-ness of another person work the same way with real people as they do with fictional characters. Our conscious brain knows the difference, but our unconscious lizard brain doesn’t seem to. The only caveat is that, if you’re a small business and you create an elaborate fictional representative of your company, you should make that fiction plain. People like to be tricked (up to a point), but they don’t like to feel like they’ve been tricked.

Why did I use two monkeys to illustrate this story? I’m talking about human connection, but that connection goes deep to our monkey brain. Remarkable communication is, at its essence, about speaking to the heart of what drives us. It’s not about about rationality and analysis. This is fundamental mammal stuff–connection, love, and belonging.

The Relationship Marketing Series

Related reading:


  1. Stacey says:

    Ah, Sonia, this speaks to me! I have no problem revealing all on my blog (which is widely read), but with my actual business site, I’ve hung back in the shadows. Time to start that chatty email newsletter and be a ‘human identity’ for my business. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. Sonia Simone says:

    Neat, Stacey! Come back and let us know how it works for you!

  3. SaTek says:

    It always amazes me how easily we forget how simple things are. Sometimes it seems like the more I study communication the more complicated it becomes. Thanks for the reminder;)



  1. [...] My relationship marketing series has slowly grown a nice following. This post, written in November, was the first: Create a Human Connection. [...]