Building Brand Loyalty:
Start with Customer Communication

Back in the year 2000, during branding’s medieval period, I authored a book called “Emotional Branding.” It was met with reasonable success, probably because it was the first book ever written on the crazy notion that brands are all about feelings rather than mere transactions.

Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but to paraphrase the old ad slogan, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

More and more marketers are realizing the truth and wisdom of what Richard Branson shared in the foreword to that book:

“It is my conviction that what we call ‘shareholder value’ is best defined by how strongly employees and customers feel about your brand. Nothing seems more obvious to me that a product or service only becomes a brand when it is imbued with profound values that can translate into fact and feeling that employees can project and customers can embrace. By profound, I mean simple. Everybody appreciates being treated decently. Everybody admires honesty. Everybody believes in excellence and value. Everybody likes to have fun and to feel part of something bigger than himself.”

Communication With Customers: An Evolution

The ways in which we communicate about our brands and connect with our customers have radically and unequivocally changed. I find it strange to realize that when I wrote my first book, digital technology was in diapers.

After “Emotional Branding” had been on the shelf for a good 10 years, it became clear to me that, while the concepts I wrote about were still very relevant, the context through which I illustrated the thinking was grievously outdated. It was clear the book still had good bones but badly needed a transfusion of digital-era thinking.

It’s not that preferences, trust, and desire have gone away; instead, attributes claimed by the brand are no longer blindly accepted.

Feelings are still at the heart of branding success. More and more, customers define the brand with the feelings and attributes they most admire and/or require. The simple old days of brand management by a brand’s managers have gone bye-bye. They no longer work for the brand: The brand’s users do, and those users feel free to express what they want the brand to do.

For the uninitiated, this is a difficult concept that doesn’t seem to make much sense until we read about the Maker’s Mark bourbon kerfuffle, where customers kicked up a storm about the brand people watering down the formula to give it what would be, in the brand people’s eyes, broader appeal. The same thing happened when Tropicana messed with the packaging and disregarded their customers’ feelings.

These are not accidental incidents. They signify the customer’s insistence on participation and brand ownership. People are saying, “How dare you mess with what is mine! How dare you think you can just go and do what you want to my brand without my consent!”

Collaboration Creates Relationships

Brand people have changed along with this shift in control. Just as customers want to participate in the brand’s business, the brand people want to participate in the customer’s lives – like Starbucks, Zappos, Amazon – and other brands that go out of their way to create interactive communications and experiences.

The brand and its users are collaborators. They work together in partnership to define and improve the experience. The next revolution in branding may be brands becoming members of the family. Or maybe our customers will actually be on our payrolls.

The message of the brand is now bigger than convincing your customers of a benefit that makes your product better than anybody else’s. It is now also concerned with questions of integrity, authenticity, candor, transparency, and the reliability of the brand’s word.

The ability of the consumer to evaluate these qualities has never been more possible or more acute, and their ability to communicate how brands measure up on these qualities has also never been so easy.

Creating relationships has taken over image creation. The watchwords are “participation” and “engagement.”

Do you remember the “Four Ps” of the old marketing: product, place, price, and promotion? They have gone to marketing heaven, where they hopefully rest in peace.

Brands now ask customers to have a hand in product innovation and promotion. If you’re not communicating with customers and asking them in, you may find your brand stuck in the old paradigms, wondering how it happened and wondering even more how your brand can ever compete again.

Because emotion is the driving force behind brand loyalty, what better way to leverage deep emotional drivers of consumer behavior than to invite them to engage with the brand itself?

A remarkable story of brand participation through mixed media is attributed to M&M’s candy. The National Post’s Hollie Shaw reported it as an example of a great idea. It is all of that, but I repeat it here as a 21st century textbook case of how to put multiple sources of media to work for collaborative social involvement and the kind of fun that any candy brand might envy.

It started as an idea when Rene Rouleau, the former creative director of BBDO Proximity Canada, became enamored with Google Maps. He saw Google Street View as an “amazing, immersive, unique, awesome experience.” It got him thinking about how to use it in advertising and in particular how to get M&M’s into some of the shots that would be on Google Maps for years.

The Google camera car does not announce its arrival, so, aiming for a bit of crazy luck, he took to the streets on a hot summer day, dressed in a giant M&M’s suit. When that didn’t work, the agency put a big red cardboard M&M’s “spokescandy” in front of the windows of 30 employees’ houses around Toronto. Bingo! The Google camera picked up three of them. This led to a virtual scavenger hunt contest called ‘Find Red’ that, as Hollie Shaw says, “tested the boundaries of both the legal and digital development departments.”

The “Find Red” campaign idea was to sleuth out where Red was hidden. The prize was a red Smart car. The agency made a video that explained how it all worked on YouTube, Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook, along with downtown posters and bar codes on M&M’s packages that could be scanned for Red’s location on the Google Street View app.

The campaign was a big hit with social-media users spending more than four times the industry average – more than 19 minutes – on the “Find Red” website. It also racked up 8.4 million media impressions and 225,000 Twitter mentions and became a marketing “first” that won a ton of awards, including a top Cannes Lions advertising prize.

Needless to say, people enjoyed it to no end. It’s also worth noting that “Find Red” was the brand’s first foray into a major social-media initiative, which proves two things: The growing importance of social media as a branding fundamental, and an old-brand standby can indeed learn new tricks.

As with a great many effective ideas, other brands soon saw the wisdom of using social media. Volkswagen launched a contest asking drivers to find as many VWs as they could on the roads of South Africa. A Mercedes-Benz “Escape the Map” contest asked drivers to find a fictional character, Marie, inside Google Street View’s map of London.

The Value of Values

A big part of the old paradigm was the focused brand. To avoid any kind of confusion, the brand name had to be focused laser-like on one product category.

Apple’s focus was computers; Amazon’s was books; Zappos’ could be nothing but shoes.

This has changed to an emphasis on tribal connection and shared group values as in “I am an Apple fanatic. What are you?” Focus has changed from a product lineup to a values lineup.

Being the genuine article in character is just as important as the product’s facts. This allowed Amazon to become the world’s biggest department store, selling anything and everything online, including the kitchen sink, as long as they do it on time and with fantastic service.

No one knows the bounds of Apple’s imagination or what game changer they may offer next. Whatever it is, the Apple tribe of consumer partners will be chomping at the bit to get at it. Nike CEO Mark Parker makes it clear when he says: “The ability to connect with consumers is the most important competitive advantage in business today.”

Interaction with consumers that builds strong, emotional bonds is the way of all great brands. Real, dynamic, heartfelt customer engagement is not a frill or marketing add-on: It should be the passion of every great organization. It is the essence of branding and social media that makes it more possible than ever to get it right.

Companies face significant brand erosion if they do not pursue a concerted effort to take part in the one-on-one conversations available through social media.

As Sean Moffitt and Mike Dover point out in their 2010 book, “Wikibrands,” only eight percent of people trust what companies say about themselves, and only 17 percent believe companies take their customers seriously.

Ironically, people who actively engage in social media are twice as likely to believe companies are interested in them. These are shocking numbers, but at least there is a suggestion that social media is the way to go for better customer contact and the inculcation of trust.

In With The New (And In With the Old)

The number of new marketing options never ceases to amaze me. But, of course, it’s not old media versus new media. You now need to use all the media available to take advantage of the many touch points customers can encounter on the way to a relationship.

A person watching a TV commercial for the Toyota Camry might immediately use her mobile device to Google “sedans,” which might in turn pop up a paid search link for Camry and other car reviews. She then clicks through the Car & Driver website to find reviews, which might turn up a YouTube video that somebody made about their Camry and maybe the “Camry Reinvented” Super Bowl commercial that played earlier in the year.

Next day, while driving to work, she sees a Toyota billboard. When she gets home, there might be a direct mail piece in her mailbox offering a limited time deal. She then calls a friend who has a Camry to get his opinion before going to a dealer for a test-drive and finally buying the car.

MarketShare CEO Wes Nichols describes this process in an article, “Advertising Analytics 2.0,” in the March 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review, which examines how different ads interact in their contribution to sales.

A company he worked with used MarketShare’s new, highly sophisticated analytics techniques to discover that “TV ate up 85 percent of the budget in one new product campaign, whereas YouTube ads – a 6 percent slice of the budget – were nearly twice as effective at prompting online searches that led to purchases. Search ads, at 4 percent of the company’s total advertising budget, generated 25 percent of sales. Armed with these rich findings and the latest predictive analytics, the company reallocated its advertising dollars, realizing a 9 percent lift in sales without spending a penny more in advertising.”

Clearly, there are now many more ways to go than with just the old standby of conventional media; you have to know how all the parts work collectively to drive sales – the parts can and should be juggled to deliver the best results.

Nichols describes the old way of measuring each media part separately as “living in swim lanes.” When a marketer knows how advertising touch points interact dynamically in real time, sales improvement can go 10 to 20 percent higher.

The one-to-one revolution has brought exciting times. The tools it brings to the branding party give both brands and customers enormous newfound power to enter into absorbing give-and-take communication for the benefit of all.

People still discount what many brands have to say, but brands now have new tools to sharpen their focus so that authentic ways to improve the dialogue can be discovered. Make no mistake: Persuasion is still the business of marketing. But thankfully for all, we can go about it in more human terms.

“More human terms” means having empathy for the people you serve by deeply understanding and relating to them. It means embracing the idea that your brand is theirs even more than it is yours.

Yet, strange as it may seem, 14 years later, many business people are just now awakening to this human truth – that emotion plays the most crucial role in establishing social relevance and building brand loyalty. The simplicity of it confounds those who still think business is only about numbers and transactions and rational needs.

Here’s hoping even more brands will find new and powerful ways to prosper by embracing the reality that the business of business is to create lasting relationships.


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