Revved up to relate

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Ambivalence, distrust, lack of affection. It sounds like the description of a relationship that's doomed to fail, which doesn't bode well for the presidential candidates facing off in tomorrow's election. Those were among the words people used to describe their relationships with the Democratic and Republican "brands" in a two-year, wide-ranging study conducted by FCB Worldwide, New York.

The upshot of FCB's research -- whether the brand is a political party or a consumer product -- is that people relate to brands much like they relate to other people, and delving into product loyalty is much like studying interpersonal relationships.

Out of the multimillion-dollar study has come FCB's Relationship Monitor, a tool designed to help clients maximize customer relationships by measuring the way consumers feel about brands.

Relationship Monitor is a response to the customer relationship management -- CRM -- obsession that has enveloped the industry. Direct and general agencies are scrambling to come up with ways to aid marketers in their CRM crusades.

"Agencies doing research that goes to the fundamentals of the customer experience is extremely important," said H. Robert Wientzen, president-CEO of the Direct Marketing Association.

Mr. Weintzen added: "I think that the cornerstone of effective CRM programs is really understanding the dynamics of the customer's interface with the product."

CRM begins with customer relationship measurement, explained David Budner, exec VP-worldwide director of Relationship Monitor at FCB.

"To effectively manage anything, you need to be able to measure it, and you need those measurements to be quantifiable, reliable and sensitive," he said.

EYE ON HUMAN RELATIONS

FCB's study began with a qualitative analysis of human relationships via interviews and focus groups with relationship experts including clinical psychologists, as well as with couples in various types of relationships, to better understand the dimensions that are central to these interactions. Those interpersonal relationships became a template for consumer-brand relationships.

In conjunction with research company NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., FCB then asked 2,400 people nationwide to rate the brands they use from a sample of 60 brands -- such as AT&T, Budweiser, Citibank, Colgate, Compaq, Honda, Nike, Taco Bell and Yahoo! -- across 19 product and services categories.

The study found seven different "relationship styles" -- from "No Commitments," where a person is ambivalent about the brand, to "Perfect Fit," where the consumer feels affection and comfort.

The most important finding, Mr. Budner said, is that stronger relationships mean greater brand loyalty, which is becoming increasingly critical as brands compete for consumers' attention amid multiple information sources and purchasing channels.

"If a relationship is strong, then a relationship is resilient," he said. "And if a relationship is resilient, then a customer can be forgiving [for example, when a desired brand is out of stock]."

FCB intends to use Relationship Monitor to help existing and prospective clients execute marketing strategies that enhance brand-customer relationships.

AT&T Corp., an FCB client that was included in the initial study, plans to use Relationship Monitor to better understand the kind of relationship customers want to have with its brand.

Relationship Monitor will help "to understand what relationship space our category fills in the customer's mind and heart," said Sara Lipson, VP-brand management at AT&T.

ATTITUDE VS. BEHAVIOR

But Brett Gow, senior VP-customer management services at Rapp Collins Worldwide, Dallas, thinks attitudinal research like Relationship Monitor is less relevant to a marketer than behavioral information.

"I think people in the industry feel more comfortable with behavioral indicators as true measures, because they're more indicative of what people really do," he said. "The knock against focus groups or attitudinal research is that people will say one thing and do another."

But FCB's research was convincing enough for Compaq Computer Corp., which tapped the agency in May to handle its $350 million account. FCB's pitch included results from Relationship Monitor, which found that Compaq, among the five computer brands studied, had very low customer relationship scores, Mr. Budner said.

"We had something that resonated with the client," he said, adding that the new campaign includes more direct, one-to-one customer communications than Compaq had previously used.

"What's so nice about the paradigm [is that] it takes multiple variables into account," AT&T's Ms. Lipson said. "There's not one right space and relationship for every category . . . this is multidimensional. No matter what category you're in, the concept of relationships is going to be more important over time."

Relationship Monitor serves as "a mission statement as to how a company has to behave in relation to its customers," she added.

But brand relationships, like human relationships, cannot be improved overnight. "Relationships need nurturing, they need attention, they can't be taken for granted and they build slowly over time," Mr. Budner said. "This is not a quick fix."

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