Susan Fournier, author of the groundbreaking 1990s study* Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research, offers some insight in an interview with the Atlantic.
… For whatever reason, many refuse to accept that people might actually have relationships with brands. They say, “Relationship is just a metaphor.” One particularly aggravating form of this denial is the charge that men do not have brand relationships. There is plenty of empirical evidence to the contrary of course. Think iPhones, cars, and sports teams, for example. These critics are unwilling to legitimize the consumer-brand engagement as being a relationship in its own right. Maybe it's the immense psychosocial weight we attach to the relationship concept in the interpersonal space, a weight that somehow makes it seem profane to use the term in conjunction with consumerism.
If you listen to people's stories and how they talk about their interactions with brands, there are relationships in there. A relationship is simply an interdependent entity that involves some sort of connection or bond — positive or negative mind you — that can be summed up by considering the meanings exchanged over time. We can use the same labels for brand relationship constructs that describe interpersonal relationships when appropriate, such as flings, committed partnerships, best friends, or we can come up with labels that are unique to marketing relationships like best-customer relationships. But labeling does not reduce this phenomenon to a simple metaphoric exercise.
What have you come to realize about how people perceive brand relationships or, more generally, consumerism?
It's all too easy in our society to mock a person who forms brand relationships. Many charge that brand connections are dysfunctional in that they promote materialism, self-indulgence, and selfishness; and that consumers who engage in them are illogical, irrational, misguided and misinformed. This critique denies the very culture in which we live. Ours is a culture that is very much defined by consumption. In the U.S., the number one export is branded merchandise, both in the form of products and celebrities. We can critique this and lament the consequences, or we can embrace it and understand it for what it is. Are Obama's supporters bad for society? Does love of the iPhone degenerate culture? In a foreign environment, is it dysfunctional to seek the refuge of a familiar brand?
Brands are a part of life in the 21st century. Consumers and academics must understand what this means and, at the same time, not take things too far. For example, despite research that demonstrates over and again that relationships are merely facilitators, some continue to reify brands and brand relationships. But a strong relationship develops by supporting people in living their lives, not by driving brand involvement. As I like to say, “It's about the people, stupid.”
*With a sample size of only 3 few thought her research would come close to the 2,310 citations its received since publication.