These days, it can be challenging (and time-consuming) to find the ‘one,’ whether it be the perfect mate, the perfect pair of dress shoes, the ideal vacation, the beautiful brownstone apartment, or the best flight deal.

Across the last five years, the economic recession paired with a seemingly endless stream of data, inputs, resources, and options have made consumers more deliberate and active in their decision-making process than ever before. The result: Decision paralysis, aptly called decision fatigue. Days of ‘passive consumption’ be gone.

Should I buy now? Which seven brands of ketchup should I choose? What do organic and local really mean? Is there a better one out there? Should I commit to a date with John, or wait to see if Bob responds? Decision fatigue manifests itself in all facets of our lives.

Consumers have moved largely from an age of “conspicuous consumption’” to “considered consumption.” More apparent than ever, the new age of considered consumption has stripped brands of the power to stress urgency – and has encouraged them to think beyond “price wars,” a game that is bound to be short-lived and unsustainable.

The challenge that brands face rests in their ability to give consumers a reason to engage. Now, for the good news: Consumers actually want that end too. A brand that appeals to consumers decreases the burden of decision fatigue.

Brands need to humanize their interactions, drawing on what makes good relationships, good relationships: someone who engages you, listens to you, understands your values & your history, appeals to your feelings, and shares similar interests. Brands should aim to have consumers be an addition to their brand family.

Ultimately, you want consumers to say, “Your brand is the kind of relationship I want to be in. Now and moving forward.”

Four important strategies to consider when ‘wooing’ your consumers:

1. “Share your story.”
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Storytelling is the most powerful, authentic, and creative way to convey your brand message and engage your audience. It’s no longer sustainable to be “pretty enough” or offer the best perks and price. Expedia has told its story exceedingly well through the recession. In its latest online video campaign “Find Yours,” Expedia brings travelers’ stories to life. Without explicitly pushing price or packaged deals, Expedia effectively speaks its brand through emphasizing the main purpose of its service: To help its customers find theirs, whatever it may be: A loved one, a dream job, or a captivating adventure.

2. “Listen to their Needs.”

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Brands that listen are brands that excel.

The fast-food industry has historically been criticized for its over-processed, fatty, and adulterated foods. But Chipotle and Panera Bread have been able to overcome the stereotypes — and get people to their franchises, even when budgets were tight. Thanks to a strong understanding of consumer preferences for healthy and more interesting kinds of foods, Chipotle and Panera developed creative and healthy alternatives to basic pizza, burgers, and tacos. Chipotle saw $6.9 million in continued sales and revenue growth from 2008-2011, and actually fared better in the recession than before. Panera saw continued sales growth of $6 million. Their fast food competitors saw only one year of growth in 2008 and then a gradual decline.

3. “Empathize and Understand.”
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Hyundai’s Assurance program provides a great example of a brand that tailored its brand message to demonstrate understanding what its consumers were experiencing. In this program, Hyundai offered to buy back newly purchased cars from people who had, after purchase, lost their jobs, filed for bankruptcy, or went on disability. Within the first few months of the program, Hyundai saw a five percent spike in sales and experienced continued growth thereafter.

4. “Reach Out to Them.”

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A new look Target.

In July 2010, Target launched its City-Target initiative, half-size store prototypes for its urban audiences in Manhattan, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. A lofty task, Target had to convince and then demonstrate to its urban audience that it was more than your typical suburban shopping experience.

To do this, Target had to first be where its consumers were. For an on-the-go audience of heavy mobile users, advertising on TV and in Sunday circulars was surely not the best way to reach them. Instead, Target decided to own the commute of its audience, covering nearly every outdoor billboard, subway station, and public transit bus with print ads. Target also deployed mobile marketing ads to reach mobile device users.

Second, Target demonstrated its likeness to its urban constituency by customizing its product offerings. City-Targets offers 4-packs rather than 36-packs of paper towels, and balcony-size seats instead of large patio furniture. It also offers free Wi-Fi and QR codes for extra product info and price comparisons.

Now more than ever, brands need to develop relationships with their consumers.
Each of the four approaches outlined is a way to build a meaningful and trustworthy relationship — a relationship that, done right, will last far beyond the whims of the economy and certainly the changes in technology.