You might be familiar with the concept of brand loyalty: the idea that, once consumers discover a product from a given brand with which she's particularly delighted, they're more likely to continue buying products from that brand over others.

But what about the idea of brand intimacy?

Last week, marketing agency MBLM released its Brand Intimacy 2019 report: a ranking and analysis of the top 10 brands that have formed a more significant bond with consumers, using what the company calls "emotional science."

U.S. Top 10 Most Intimate Brands 2019Source: MBLM

This year, there were some shifts to the rankings. Apple fell slightly from its #1 place on the list (and was replaced by Disney) -- but the top 10 was still rife with Big Tech companies.

What made these companies rank as well as they did -- and do so many tech brands reign on the list? Here's a closer look at them, and what "brand intimacy" means in an industry that has faced a significant share of controversy. 

Apple

As mentioned earlier, Apple lost its previous #1 ranking to Disney this year -- but still outperformed the 2019 top company in a few areas that MBLM uses to measure the brand intimacy "quotient."

For instance, while 38% percent of Apple users said they "can't live without" the brand's products, only 26% Disney product consumers said the same thing about that brand.

Apple quotient

Disney quotientSource: MBLM

As for specific consumer demographics, Apple also outperformed Disney in the 18-34 and 35-54 age groups -- while neither brand ranked in the top 5 brands for emotional bonds with consumers over 55. 

age rankSource: MBLM

But Disney overall outranked Apple among both male and female users, as well as in both income brackets observed for the study: $35-100K and $100-$200K, the latter for which Disney didn't rank at all.

gender rank

income rank-1Source: MBLM

A few explanations could be behind these various metrics.

First, Disney's overall outrank of Apple within the category of brand intimacy could be explained by a sense of nostalgia -- of the fictional characters created by Disney in its films, for instance, and the experiences created around these stories (e.g., parks like Disney World) can make for a sense of emotional attachment that isn't as easily replicated by a brand known best for its range of mobile devices.

"Disney -- occupying the #1 spot -- is a huge part of people's developmental years," says HubSpot VP of Marketing Meghan Keaney Anderson. "It's unsurprising that they maintain that warm nostalgia today."

However, what Disney creates is less of a utility than the products and services made by Apple -- for example, smartphones and computers.

But many of Apple's products -- especially its more recent iPhone models -- are also known for a premium price point. It's a pricing strategy used by Apple that has received some criticism, especially as comparable smartphone models have permeated the market at a somewhat lower price. 

The premium pricing, however, could at least partially explain its outranking of Disney within the higher income bracket, as something like an $1,100 smartphone may only be financially acceptable to a certain segment of consumers. (That could also explain why Whole Foods -- a natural foods supermarket change that earned the nickname "Whole Paychecks" for its premium pricing -- also ranked well among the higher income bracket.)

Amazon

Ecommerce giant Amazon ranked #3 overall on the Brand Intimacy Study -- also dropping from its previous #2 spot on the list. 

amazon quotientSource: MBLM

Interestingly, Amazon doesn't rank at all among the top five brands with an emotional bond for consumers between 18-34: a list that is somewhat dominated by tech brands, despite Amazon's absence.

A concept known as the "experience economy" could explain Amazon's lack of presence among the top five most intimate brands for the 18-34 age group: the philosophy that consumers within this age bracket are more likely to spend money on experiences over material goods, which comprise a significant amount of what is sold on Amazon.

And while Amazon is the top-ranked company for brand intimacy among consumers in the $35-$100K income bracket, it's also absence from the $100-$200K one. However, Amazon acquired Whole Foods -- which ranks #2 on the latter list -- in 2017, helping to expand its overall brand reach to other audience segments.

Netflix and YouTube

At the #5 position on the Brand Intimacy rankings, we have Netflix: a pioneer in the area of streaming entertainment, which many other companies have emulated over the past few years with existing movie and TV show aggregation, as well as original video content.

netflix quotientSource: MBLM

Among other things, Netflix is known for its personalization capabilities: Namely, an algorithm that helps make catered recommendations to viewers, using a predictive model that uses past streaming behavior to suggest new content to watch.

Thrillist once called this algorithm a "subliminal trick." But the Netflix technology team merely calls it an "embrace [of] personalization" that "algorithmically adapt[s] many aspects of our member experience." There it is again: the idea of personalization.

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 2.13.29 PMSource: The Netflix Tech Blog

But there's a difference in the way YouTube's recommendation algorithm works, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. These video recommendations, it seems, are designed somewhat more systematically to encourage users to spend more time on the site -- namely, by recommending "progressively longer content."

PI_2018.11.07_youtube_0-02Source: Pew Research Institute

YouTube's recommendations also seem to use less of a predictive model based on what a consumer has viewed previously, and more with what's already trending on the site. The Pew study, for instance, found that YouTube recommendations tend to guide users toward videos with a higher view count, for instance, over those that are relevant to the content that the user started with.

PI_2018.11.07_youtube_0-101Source: Pew Research Institute

A Common Thread

The general concept of personalization and resulting recommendations -- regardless of how the algorithms behind them actually work, it seems -- appear to go a long way with building brand intimacy with consumers.

The idea of a brand "knowing" what a consumer likes and suggesting what to do next as a result can underscore a consumer's emotional bond with that brand -- which could explain why several companies dominate the top ten ranking ones on the Brand Intimacy Study.

The Brand Intimacy Model (2)Source: MBLM

The concept of being treated as a unique individual with specific tastes could lend itself to a higher sense of consumer intimacy with a brand. It's a strategy used by some of the other tech companies on this list -- including Amazon and Netflix -- where past buying or viewing behavior is used to influence personalized recommendations made by each site.

Tech brands are integrating with how we like to live, and are going with us in our pockets, our homes, and even on our vacations. Rather than asking us to go to them, they become an extension of our everyday lives and, therefore, we become deeply connected with them.

- Kim Darling, HubSpot VP of Marketing

On one level, it boils down to idea of access to user data: what that person is watching, buying, and generally searching for. But to achieve true brand intimacy, data alone is not enough, and requires leveraging that information in a way that resonates with a user. in a way that somehow delights or otherwise makes life easier for the consumer. 

"As a marketer, brand intimacy is something I actively think about when we map out our goals and the 'why' behind them. We are constantly asking ourselves, ‘Who am I doing this for, and why does it matter to them?’" says HubSpot VP of Marketing Kim Darling. "Personalization using data certainly helps to tailor the experience for each individual, but it’s those insights combined with a push towards a low-friction experience provided by these tech companies that make them life-additive."

The life-additive nature described by Darling is one that positions tech companies with a brand intimacy advantage, in that is augments the amount of time consumers spend interacting the products and experiences created by them. 

"The presence of so many tech companies says as much about how we spend our days as it does about any particular tactic on their part," adds Keaney Anderson. "We feel close with the companies and technologies that have become engrained in the way we live our lives."

The full 2019 Brand Intimacy Study can be found here.

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