What is time to a brand?
Time is different to us all, maaaannnnn
This past Saturday, I made the leap from Craiglist voyeur to Craigslist participant and set out to buy a microwave. I’d agreed with a seller to meet at 11am and rather than take the subway, I decided to do the 90 minute walk from my part of Brooklyn to theirs. Likely nervous because they’d been no-showed by other feckless, less-handsome buyers, the seller confirmed with me three times prior to our scheduled time to collect the microwave.
Halfway into the walk and 45 minutes before I was set to purchase the microwave, they canceled. Someone else who was at their place earlier had decided to purchase what I’d set out for.
In landing on the microwave in question, I’d combed countless Craigslist ads, responded to about a dozen, and spurned other eager sellers. I’d invested time, expecting a return on that investment in the form of a baby-blue, retro looking microwave to adorn my kitchen. Alas, my time sown had reaped me nothing. My leftovers would remain cold.
Before things fell through, both sides of the transaction had invested time. This spending of time came in the form of the seller communicating with me, communicating with other buyers to turn them down, and by setting aside time for me to come and pick up the microwave. On the buyer side, everything I’d mentioned earlier (communicating, walking, perusing listings, etc.). The tacit tension—that both sides could waste the other’s time—bound us together like two ropes taught spanning a chasm, knotted at the middle. We needed each other.
This tension exists in all interpersonal relationships. Generally, the greater the tension, or reliance, you have with someone, the closer you are to them and the more you have at stake. One of the major components which creates this tension is time. Time invested with something or someone.
This tension also correlates to your likelihood of seeing someone again. The less likely you’re to see someone post-transaction, the less there is at stake in the interaction, because the relationship means less. This is what enabled my Craigslist counterpart to cancel on me so easily, they knew we’d never meet again. Despite it all, I will miss them.
Brands strive to establish, without coercion, the type of brand/consumer relationship where there’s a certain amount of mutually assured relationship destruction at stake. Contrast the levels of brand loyalty coercion between McDonalds and Aetna: Switching or losing a health insurance provider is intentionally more difficult and confusing than switching or losing a hamburger provider. It’s because of the built-in coercion in its business model that Aetna will never be as beloved at McDonald’s.
Because they’re not coercive, McDonald’s—and most other brands—know that no matter your love for their product, it can easily be replaced. This is why many of them use words and phrases to engender feelings of artificial closeness: ‘when you’re here you’re family’ (Olive Garden), ‘live better’ (Wal-Mart), ‘every pet deserves the best life’ (Purina). If a person said stuff like this to you upon a first meeting, you’d think they were either a cult leader, love bombing you, or even both. In fact, there’s often an inverse relation to the replaceability of a brand’s product to the strength of wording it uses in marketing. As in, the more a brand attempts to foster the feeling of a genuine relationship, the less vital its product is. Do you know the slogan of whatever company produces your toilet? Or IV drips? Or water heaters?
In terms of time (and often money as well), it’s expensive to create and foster a relationship based on love and mutual respect. This means it’s also expensive to reciprocate respect and honor, as one would do in a real relationship. As a hedge against their inability to do this, brands don’t mind treating us like shit from time to time. This enables them to save time and money in the event the tense relationship we’re discussing goes slack.
Southwest Airlines is a perfect recent example: its slogan is ‘Low Fares, Nothing to Hide’. The slogan’s meant to imbue trust and openness, bedrocks of a healthy relationship. Paradoxical to its slogan, this past December, Southwest stranded thousands of travelers with scant communication over the course of 16,700 canceled flights. It didn’t mind its customers wasting time stuck in airports, on hold, or searching for their lost bags because it had never really invested that much time in the relationship to begin with.
It’s frustrating when brands screw us not just because of the time lost dealing directly with them, but also because of the downstream impacts their screw ups can have on our time. All kinds of products can impact our health (eg: food, medicine, transportation) and our access to loved ones (eg:transportation, banking, telecom). Repairing our health and maintaining personal relationships require vast amounts of time. Being inanimate, a brand doesn’t need to consider its health or loved ones, and is therefore exposed to far less risk of lost time than a consumer.
When time is removed from the customer-brand equation, all that’s left is money, at which point it becomes a competition between each side to see who can recover the most—in the least amount of time. Because of their vast resources compared to a single consumer, this unbalanced equation falls in favor of the brand.
Given all of this, what is time to a brand in relation to its customers? Rather than a resource used to establish a meaningful connection, it’s a cudgel held just out of sight.
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