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  • Tracey Kyles

Witty Brands and Communication-based Relationship Marketing: Is it Here to Stay?

Ah, relationship marketing! This is a subject matter that is much more specifically my area of study. I mainly study communication in business and media psychology. This means that I’m interested in how businesses choose to communicate with their audiences as well as the science behind successful communication strategies. In recent years, communication-based relationship marketing has been especially popular. It’s the kind of marketing you’d see on social media platforms. Companies use witty banter, jokes, and posts from others to interact with their audiences. Fast-food restaurants are even playing out feuds with their competitors on Twitter.

But the question is does this actually work? I mean, what are we seeing when we see these brands on social media or online communities? What’s the science behind why it works? Are there moments where it backfires, and if so, what is happening when it does? And lastly, is this something that will stick around?

What is Communication-based relationship Marketing?

In the early 90s, a man by the name of Don E. Schultz (1992) came up with the 4C’s model of Marketing: consumer, communication, convenience, and cost. It changed how marketing worked by focusing on what consumers wanted, how much they were willing to pay, and, most importantly, how well they communicated with consumers.

This was different from McCarthy’s 4P’s concept (1960), which was profits, prices, place, and promotion. Later, Tom Duncan and Sandra E. Moriarty introduced the idea of communication-based relationship marketing, which focused on building relationships with consumers instead of hard sales.

The science behind parasocial interaction

This is what leads us into having to discuss parasocial behavior. Parasocial relationships are when fans begin to feel personal connections to someone in media. This is why we have fans and followers of celebrities. Studies of parasocial behavior go back as far as the 50s when Horton and Wohl (1956) studied people’s reactions to radio personalities. It goes even further than the mere relationship alone, however, because the better the reputation of the individual, the more people “fall in love” with that personality (Perse and Rubin,1989).

This can be seen once again with relationship-based marketing. Strong relationships can form when brands exhibit a strong self-identity and uniqueness (Batra, Ahuvia, & Bagozzi, 2012). Additionally, it should be noted that this usually applies to the more passionate folks, not the impartial consumers (Roy, Eshgi, & Sarkar, 2013).

From here, we should have a look at Bowlby’s research, the man responsible for Attachment Theory. According to his theory, everyone is compelled to attach to others, and how we develop influences how we make those attachments. This same concept has also been introduced to relationship-based marketing research with the theory of brand attachment, which is basically just saying people can have emotional responses that build emotional links to the brand. That comes down to aligning with the consumer’s self-image. This is why we see brands specifically trying to appeal to target demographics. If a brand can properly align itself with the consumer’s sense of self-identity, then it actually can bolster the brand’s positive reputation with that group (Tuškej, Golob, & Podnar, 2013). When customers relate to the brand’s identity, this is a little something known as self-brand connection (Escalas and Bettman, 2003).

This is also where you begin to see people buying specific products to represent themselves in a specific way, such as Apple or Windows users, or individuals with different game consoles. In summary, people are going to show favoritism or even outright fanaticism to brands they feel they’ve grown attached to or relate to. This is why you see brands developing personalities online as a means to take advantage of these basic phenomena of human psychology. If a brand acts like a person, then a person recognizes the humanness of the brand, or anthropomorphizes the brand. This, in turn, helps people relate and feel a sense of kinship with that brand. And in turn, the company profits; customers spread the word to others about the product, and those people are willing to spend more for the product they love (Albert & Merunka, 2013).

This effect works with something as simple as a brand choosing to use causal conversational English with their customers (Kelleher, 2009), or even when brands start using humanlike appearances for their mascots (Guido & Peluso, 2015). And that explains all of the witty posts and retorts on Twitter.

When it Doesn’t Work

There are times where we can see this backfire, of course. Basically, when brands try too hard, or they aren’t really positively reputable in the first place, people don’t respond very favorably (Aggerwal & McGill, 2012; Gretry et al., 2017). Additionally, if a brand was recently involved in a controversy, it can be so damaging to the reputation of that company that fans actually feel emotionally hurt and leave (Ma, 2017).

Also, when companies get in trouble, they should be sure to communicate with their audiences in a way that is appropriate to what their audiences expect out of the brands as they know, or else that can backfire. For example, if the company has never used humor before, or if a lighthearted company released a very formal, wordy message, it would feel weird (Han, Sung, & Kim, 2018). This is, of course, assuming that the company is responding appropriately to the situation in the first place (not joking over death, for example) (Greyser, 2009).

Lastly, companies should consider what environment they’re in when they start talking to audiences and consider how they’re talking to them. A social media environment is expected to feel like a community, so when a larger corporation tries to enter that community with a very authoritative tone or with aggressive sales tactics, it can be very off-putting (Arnaboldi & Coget, 2016).


By understanding why parasocial relationships manifest and how companies take advantage of this, we can understand why they’re using these strategies today, and we can understand when they don’t work.

The last question to ask: is this a gimmick that will eventually die off? I would guess this is going to likely be the beginning of an ongoing shift of brands integrating themselves into our online spaces as long as social media is a thing. Companies know they’re using a strong aspect of human behavior. We’re social animals. We like socializing with entities that feel personable, so as long as the company doesn’t overdo it or pushes themselves too hard into a community, it’ll be effective. We’re already demonstrating that it works. You can go to popular company Twitter pages and see swarms of responses and fan communities. There are endless examples where controversies are easily forgotten by consumers because so many people still like using a brand’s products. So it’s safe to say, this is likely all here to stay, and I’ll be here to watch it evolve.


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Gretry, A., Horváth, C., Belei, N., & van Riel, A. C. (2017). “Don’t pretend to be my friend!” When an informal brand communication style backfires on social media. Journal of Business Research, 74, 77-89.

Ma, L. (2017, March). When love becomes hate: the dark side of consumer-brand relationship in crisis communication. In 20th International Public Relations Research Conference, Looking Back, Looking Forward (Vol. 20, pp. 149-164).

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Arnaboldi, M., & Coget, J.-F. (2016). Social media and business: We’ve been asking the wrong question. Organizational Dynamics, 45(1), 47–54.

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