Consumers are no longer just buying from brands--they're bonding with them.

That's according to a study by New York City-based branding agency MBLM. In 2020, MBLM (pronounced "emblem") and research firm Praxis Research Partners surveyed 3,000 consumers about their relationships with 100 brands across 10 industries. The report, released in October, found that respondents formed emotional connections with a greater number of brands during the pandemic (23 percent more than in MBLM's previous study) and deepened their existing intimate relationships with brands. The survey asked respondents how their emotional connection to brands changed during the pandemic, how well they felt brands responded to Covid-19, and whether they were willing to pay more for brands' products as a result. Its results suggest that having a better understanding of customers' emotional motivations can help your company improve its customer service and boost revenue.

To quantify a brand's level of intimacy with its customers, each brand receives a score, or "brand intimacy quotient," based on three factors: the percentage of users who are intimate with the brand, that relationship's progress along the three stages of intimacy--which MBLM defines as "sharing," "bonding," and "fusing"--and how well the brand performs in one or more archetypes of intimacy: fulfillment, identity, enhancement, ritual, nostalgia, and indulgence.

Amazon, with its fast delivery, scores highly in the "fulfillment" archetype, while Apple performs well in "ritual" and "enhancement," since customers use its products daily and perceive the brand as making them smarter and more capable, says Mario Natarelli, a managing partner at the agency. Natarelli adds that intimacy is not the same as loyalty. Paying a cellphone bill every month, for example, doesn't mean a customer has an emotional connection to their cellphone provider.

MBLM has conducted six previous surveys on brand intimacy and has repeatedly found that high-scoring brands outperform the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 on revenue growth, profit growth, and stock price. The company has also found that the more intimate a user is with a brand, the more they're willing to pay for its products and services. Both of these findings remained true during the pandemic, according to the study. 

To build brand intimacy, start by thinking of your brand as a relationship rather than a logo, Natarelli says. Instead of simply asking customers how they feel about the brand, he says, look at how emotion drives their behavior. Once you can identify and measure the emotional attributes of your brand that resonate with customers, you can enhance them.

While large companies such as Apple, Amazon, and Walmart have received the highest brand intimacy scores in past years, Natarelli says there's no one "right" approach, and that brands of all sizes can score highly. Zoom placed first in both increased usage and increased emotional connection during the pandemic, according to the study.

"There's a variety of ways that brands have built a unique relationship or bond with their customers and stakeholders," Natarelli says. "It's about understanding what's unique to your brand."