It seems like anytime I shop in a store or hear a commercial, a brand or commercial entity of one sort or another asks me to become a fan or a friend on Facebook and to follow them on Twitter.  As someone who tries to help businesses figure out how to use social media to connect with their customers through these channels, this post may sound strange and even hypocritical.  But there’s something that’s been bugging me lately, and it’s time to say it out loud-

I am not sure I want to be a fan or friend of every brand out there.

C.C. Chapman had a great post recently, with a video that asks whether or not a brand cares about you.  When I think about it, only a few brands seem to care about me as more than a wallet.  And to be honest, why should they?  A brand is usually a straw person, a legal construct- it’s a liability shield protecting personal assets in case anything goes wrong.  It’s not a neighbor, good or otherwise,  no matter what State Farm tries to tell you.

Yet we seem to want to anthropomorphize brands into people.  We ask questions, like “What’s a Brand’s personality?”  Yet the personality of a brand is decided frequently by committee and a team of marketers, and the proof of whether or not they’ve guessed right is whether or not the consumer buys into this story.  It’s a company, a corporation, a manufacturer, a retailer.  It’s not real.

The people that run the business are real.  The people who give voice and talk to customers and engage are real.  But how far does that relationship really extend?  When do I think or feel a company cares about me, personally?

The closest I come to feeling like a brand actually cares has been my experiences at Disney, where everyone at every level seems to go out of their way to make sure your day is going well.  It enhances the experience, and while you may not be inviting the shop clerk, bus driver or bellhop over for dinner and drinks, you get the impression that they are being engaged for more than just a tip.  They say things like “Welcome Home” when you check in, and make the experience as much like family as it can be, and this is about as close to reciprocity as I’ve seen a brand experience get.

In contrast, let’s take a typical retail experience.  For example, I am extremely fond of Williams Sonoma and many of their sub-brands like Pottery Barn.  (And I should disclose here that Pottery Barn was founded by Paul and Morrie Secon, and they were close family friends of ours – so I have some affection for the brand based on that alone.)

We have Pottery Barn furniture, dishes, and Williams-Sonoma is by far my kitchen gadget store of choice.  I have their cookbooks, and I am a fan on many levels.  But when I saw a prompting when buying something at the Pottery Barn to become a friend on Facebook, I started to think- maybe I don’t necessarily want Pottery Barn to be my friend.  Despite the fact that Morrie Secon was a lovely man, played french horn, and one of my parent’s friends who I always loved to see come over, Pottery Barn was sold long ago and is no longer Morrie and Jonnie, his wife, and Paul- it’s a company.  I’m not talking to Morrie if I follow them on Twitter or Facebook, I’m talking to a representative of a larger company.

Even as a company, it’s not that we aren’t fond of one another.  I have a long standing relationship with the Company.  I’ve written positive blog posts about their simply outstanding customer service.  I would highly recommend them to my friends.  But we have a largely transactional relationship.  They have stuff I want.  I give them money, and they give me the stuff I like.  Pretty simple and straight forward.  But the reciprocity of a true friendship pretty much stops right there.  It can’t give me a hug like Morrie used to, and ask me how things are going, and to be honest, it doesn’t really care, as long as I keep up my end of the relationship and keep buying stuff at regular intervals.

Chuck Williams doesn’t come to dinner despite the fact I cook “his” recipes  (the carrot soup is awesome) and even serve it on “his” dishes.  I get emails, but they never offer to come babysit, or just have lunch, or meet up for drinks.  Our friendship is limited to a one way exchange of sale emails from them to me, and my giving them money in exchange for goods- that’s where our relationship largely ends.  And that’s the way we both like it, 99% of the time.

However, I want to be able to get in touch with someone to solve any problems after the sale.  I want that level of friendship, and to be honest, Pottery Barn has held up that end of our relationship very well.  They are responsive by phone and in person, and I have even called headquarters to remark at how great my experience has been.  Even without Morrie and Paul answering the phone, I still feel like I get my concerns or feeling heard, which is great for any company, especially these days.

But do I want to be a fan?  Do I need more contact with Pottery Barn than the catalogs and emails?  Do I want to hear more from them on twitter?  They want to take our relationship to the next level, and I’m not sure I’m ready.  I feel pushed, a bit, and unsure of what this new level of commitment will mean.  Do they want me to attend their cooking and decorating classes and take a turn with other fans selling aprons in the lobby?  How much more of my attention and brain space do they want?

It’s ironic that I’m finding that I might just be ready to start placing sensible limits on my devotion and engagement with brands.  While I appreciate the efforts to strengthen our relationship, it’s starting to feel, well, a little bit smothering.   I’m not necessarily ready to, say, start seeing all sorts of other brands on the side, but you never know- too much of a good thing sometimes makes people stray to the wild side.  They might start perusing Restoration Hardware catalogs, and maybe even take a peek into an Ethan Allen on the weekend, just to see what such a walk on the wild side might feel like.   Before you know it, they’re buying new vegetable peelers from Bed, Bath, and Beyond and buying vanilla from Trader Joe’s, while insisting the quality is the same.

This is the crux of my problem with the new “Add Me”  and “Follow Me” frenzy-Companies and brands want to collect people like baseball cards or frequent flyer miles, with their data and email addresses acting as points- yet I’m not sure what the ultimate goal is.  He who has the most emails wins?  If social media is about building relationships, if friendship means something more than a typical customer-business transaction, then how does being your friend on Facebook or Twitter extend or enhance our relationship?  How much more of my attention and money do you want, really?  And what are you going to do for me in return to make this social relationship something more special than just more ads?   If you want a relationship, then let’s have one- but let’s understand the terms and conditions up front, and not pretend we’re friends if all you really want to do is upsell me at every turn.  That’s not what I would expect over dinner with Paul and Morrie, after all.

I’m not sure how all of the brands flooding into the social media space are going to find the balance between engagement with their customers, and possibly overwhelming them with such faux love and concern that it starts to feel like we’re getting stalked  in our in-boxes by bad boyfriends while trying to play solitaire on Facebook.

I’m not sure what my current limits are for giving Brands my attention all the time in all channels- after all, when does that kind of passive demand for attention start to feel like the neediness we all find pretty unattractive?  When does the scent of desperation start to fill the air?  When will you start to leave me alone, and accept that our relationship will be limited?

I am fond of brands and companies like Pottery Barn.  But unlike the real life relationship I had with Morrie,  I’m  starting to search for the boundaries of  the relationship with Pottery Barn, so I don’t have to feel we have to break up in order for me to get some breathing room.    That said, please don’t be offended if I don’t follow you on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook.  I think we’re close enough already.