Aristotle said that men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’ – put simply, true friendship cannot be attained until people have shared a significant amount of their life together; sharing experiences, ideas, occasions and opinions. True friendship requires time and familiarity.
However, in an increasingly complex world where time is an ever diminishing commodity and familiarity is increasingly being maintained through social networks, these digital friendships feed a focus on managing and maintaining your social circle through a virtual picture book of collective experiences – rather than building true, intimate connections.
So, are these digital connections capable of cementing relationships in the real world, or could they create a friendship void? And, is our digital existence changing the long-term face of friendship in the real world? Finally, does the theory of friendship hold any value for brands?
Aristotle said there are three types of friendship; that of utility, of pleasure and finally of virtuous friendship.
Utility is a friendship made out of a common advantage; essentially staying friends whilst it suits the circumstance. A functional bond that ends based on changing circumstances such as a move in industry or location. I’d coin this group ‘Convenient companions’ – the 100+ friends on the periphery of your social circle; old school friends and past colleagues. Not necessarily meaningful friendships but those who you keep in contact with ‘just in case’.
Next comes friendship based on pleasure: built around the opportunity of a moment – the shared bond created by a collective experience. It’s the feeling of belonging to your tribe of like-minded people. A platform with real potential to build connections with people however pleasure can be fleeting as your own definition of it changes with age and maturity. This type of friendship is more often associated with younger people – it’s about being active, searching for new experiences whilst looking to define yourself as a person. Simply coined as ‘playmates’; staying friends based on fun, fad or fashion. This is an evolving group in your network – one that become more or less relevant based on your own activities and current tastes. The size of the group often expands and contracts in line with these activities but often sits around the 35 mark. Often good friends but without an additional layer of connection and unlikely to develop into full friendship.
Finally, we have the truest form of friendship which is based on virtue; one that endures as it’s built around a common good. It’s about embracing each other for what they are regardless of qualities. It’s like ‘holding up a mirror’ to yourself – so how you see your friends is how you see yourself. I’d coin this simply as ‘shared value friends’– your sidekicks with shared common ideas and perspectives on what’s good and pursuing that belief to the end. Socially these are your immediate friends – often a core of 5 with an additional layer of 10 which can include wider friends and family. They are the part of your network that you spend the most face to face time with.
What this means for digital social circle?
Friendships based on ‘utility’ and ‘pleasure’ are often easily dissolved and, without the additional layers of time and familiarity, remain functional. They stay as a broader network that we check in with from time to time – this is fine for those with enough close friends to fill their desired face-to-face time, who then top this up with a digital periphery of ‘convenient companions’ and ‘playmates’. Plus we’d hope the majority of people are savvy enough to understand and acknowledge that’s how we use social networking. However the problem arises when we become too reliant on this to manage and maintain our ‘shared value friends’ group – the theory would state that our closest friends stick with us through thick and thin, however digital familiarity is not necessarily a replacement for real time calls and conversations.
This friend management is now a conscious task in a modern world of instant accessibility whereby we can upload, share and comment vicariously on walls, statuses and posts. We have moved from subconsciously seeking out connections as and when we felt the need for companionship to having a wider social circle on tap. Latest statistics from Ofcom show that 68% of adults say they use text-based methods – including text messages, emails, and social networking sites – to contact friends and family on a daily basis, ahead of 63% for voice-based services, such as landlines and mobile phones. This is the first time that digital methods of communication have overtaken the spoken word. As smartphone penetration continues to rise this trend is only set to increase.
There is a need to be aware of the potential knock on effects of this for your broader network of friends and even that of immediate family. The family was once seen as the core social circle. This bond has weakened due to the increased mobility of the workforce, with friends becoming more important as people moved to cities to find work. The recent economic crisis across the EU points towards a reverse of this trend as younger people are forced to stay at home. However, even though this would reinforce good old-fashioned family values, ‘digital’ friendships can still be built online via social media. As digital management of friendship continues to grow we’re in danger of losing real contact with our core group. The result of living out friendships online could be a breakdown of it in the real world. The outcome being more functional friendships that do not fully satisfy our social needs as human beings.
How can brands look to take advantage of the friendship theory?
All brands do harness this, whether by accident or by design. The key thing to get to grips with is how the more functional types of friendship can act as a gateway to a deeper engagement – one that builds familiarity over time to cement the role and relevance of a brand in our day to day lives. The output being increased consumption, brand loyalty and advocacy.
Let’s start with the first two types of friendship – these can be used as a conversation starter around utility or pleasure:
Being convenient companions.
From a brand perspective it’s a functional relationship with a focus on the physical availability and the utility of products so that you remain an option on a shopping list of up to 30 brands. These relationships are kept in place by consistently delivering a reliable product at a satisfactory cost or simply through strong distribution. The bond will break when one of these criteria is no longer there. For instance if you have moved house and Tesco is no longer convenient, or the recent technical glitches by Nationwide and Natwest which left their customer severely out of pocket. This type of friendship can lead to mass sales through distribution or offering a catch-all product in the market, however it will not lead to loyalty. As creatures of convenience we are happy to brand swap as required – the trick is to further cement the conversation once our brand has been trialled.
Being a playmate.
From a brand perspective this is about maintaining relevance to maximise your role in your audience’s life. Investing in experiential brand activities – ones based around areas of affinity; those that feel credible – not chasing a cultural wave as a means to stay topical but claiming an area and committing to it to truly own that territory. This year we have seen many brands attach themselves to sport (the likes of Kia/Hyundai with the Euros and the slew of Olympic sponsors) and music is increasingly being commoditised (the continued growth of festivals almost being fuelled by this demand), therefore brands need to start being smarter in how they approach pleasure as a strategy. Without time and familiarity this approach will never develop into true friendship.
A mixture of the two approaches adds an additional layer to the friendship which begins to build familiarity over time. However, to truly become valued as a brand there is a need to go that bit further.
Becoming a mirror image.
From a brand perspective these are your must-haves; brands that you name check without a second glance. The Cokes, Jack Daniel’s and Apples of this world. Your default brands that you can’t live without but also the ones you use to define yourself to others in your social group. “My friend Jack keeps me company” or “I’m a mac guy”. These are brands that people are happy to talk intimately about as they feel they have a real connection with them. In order to get into this top 5 status the ultimate aim is to become the mirror image of your audience’s long-term ideals and aspirations. Having a world view of your audience’s lives and an implicit knowledge of what motivates and influences them.
However it is more complex than this – true friendship is about seeing yourself in another – therefore the relationship needs to be reciprocal. The only way for a brand to achieve this is through being 100% true to its inherent values and personality. Only by remaining true to these values, time and time again, are they able to build an intimate relationship with their audience in the same way friends do. This is something a brand cannot fake with today’s savvy consumers and why many of the top brands are steeped in heritage. For instance Apple’s historic challenger position of “think different” is arguably still true today – even as the world’s most valuable company. Even with mass market distribution it manages to feel intimate, honest and a brand you can trust. And like true friends this bond is unfaltering, even in the face of unreliable iPhones or the discovery of Chinese sweatshop production, the friendships foundations are strong enough to win out.
Of course, like friends, we only have time for a limited amount of brands to occupy this space. The brands that win out focus on what’s unique about them; uncovering and embracing this bullet proof insight and communicating it consistently through a series of relevant brand stories. Embracing how they mature and evolving seamlessly to remain relevant and an important aspect of their audience’s life; building an enduring friendship that lasts the course. The irony being that whilst the digital world has the potential to corrode real life friendships it is often one of the most powerful tools to build a true brand friendship by abiding to its rules; staying in touch, sharing stories, rewarding participation and, most importantly, enjoying each other’s company.
By Anthony Reilly, Account Planner, Balloon Dog 1 Aug 2012.
Since beginning this piece the topic of friendship has recent seen National press coverage.
A recent NY Times articles discusses “Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?” By ALEX WILLIAMS
Additionally there was a follow up piece in the Guardian by Bim Adewunmi
The Wire: Aristotle and his view of Friendship
BBC: What’s the ideal number of friends?