Rethinking Brand Relationships: Closing In
What it takes to build loyalty in today's marketplace
By Wendy Lurrie
Economic setbacks. Warp-speed technological change. Shifting consumer psychology. Demands for
results right now. Given the challenges we face today, reevaluating the ways we think as marketers
and engage with consumers is imperative to building lasting brand loyalty. Last month, my article
Rethinking Brand Relationships explored implications for brand relationships and brand experiences.
Here, I put the spotlight on the ways consumers interact with brands along the path to purchase.
Purchase Process: From Linear Path to Limitless Maze
As the power of peer-to-peer communication has joined forces with the flood of information available
to anyone with Internet access, the way consumers seek and source information, make decisions,
and move along continuum from awareness to purchase and beyond has radically changed.
Yesterday's comparatively orderly, linear path has become a complex, multidimensional maze. In
some categories, especially those popular with Gen Y and Millennial consumers, peer opinions now
have greater influence than virtually anything marketers or so-called "experts" say or do.
Drowning in Information, Paralyzed by Choice
But as side-to-side (peer-to-peer) influence replaces top-down communication between institutions
and individuals, consumers must cope with a distressing consequence: The quality of information
keeps degrading as the quantity of information grows. And, at this point, the flow of information —
good and bad — is a deluge.
The Problem with Self-Serve Expertise
When confronted with too many options, consumers tend to opt out. This tendency is encouraged by the fact that the burden for decisionmaking
— formerly handled by professionals and experts — has shifted to the buyer's shoulders. It's not just the number of decisions
required to purchase a premium cup of coffee or a hair care or toothpaste product. Travel planning, which once involved travel agents, is now
largely self-serve. Even complex businesses like insurance and financial services now invite consumers to figure out decisions as difficult as
retirement planning for themselves.
The net result: The explosion of information, choice, and options and the simultaneous erosion of confidence in institutions have created a
world where true expertise is often needed but not readily available. People literally do not know who or what to trust.
The Opportunity for Marketers: Become Part of the Solution
Any consumer problem as prevalent and serious as today's information overload creates opportunities for marketers with solutions. However,
before consumers will accept the solutions we offer, we need to rebuild trust. And the way to start is by getting close-in — close-in to the
consumer and also close-in to the transaction.
Close-in to the consumer. It is typical in today's corporations for customer-facing activities like distribution and customer service to
be cordoned off inside the enterprise and managed by non-customer-facing professionals. That arrangement simply doesn't make
sense today. We need to tear down the walls and bring everyone in the organization closer-in to customers. Everyone needs to hear
what customers are worrying about and saying to one another about the company and its products and services. Everyone needs to
know what is and isn't working. Access is not the problem. We can easily listen to the conversations at customer service, in blogs,
wherever meaningful conversation is happening. This is the starting point that will allow us to constructively destroy the distance
between brands and consumers.
Close-in to the transaction. Before we can solve a consumer's problem, we need to understand where the important action is with
the consumer and the brand. Is it really about initial awareness, or is it about giving consumers the value they demand? To find the
answers, we need to get close-in to the transaction. By studying the consumer's experience with the brand, we can learn what they
like and what their frustrations are.
Navigating with the Tools We Have While Developing New Ones:
It's true that unconventional wars require unconventional weapons. To have true insight into the consumer and the transaction, we need
innovative tools, models, and analytics for understanding relationships, measuring experience, benchmarking, planning, and optimizing.
However, the means for acquiring at least a basic understanding of the transactional experience are already at hand. Marketing activities that
drive sales and behavior and allow for tracking with accountability and attribution (direct marketing, digital marketing, targeted promotions,
experiential efforts, and retail programs) allow us to see what works and what doesn't, even if they don't tell us precisely why. They enable us
to sharpen program planning and optimization with data and analytics.
Needed: Better Questions
But the development and deployment of new tools and ways of working is the easy part. The harder part is stepping back from our basic
assumptions about the business we're in and questioning what we're solving for. As a starting point for more successful travels on today's
confusing purchase path, here are three areas to explore.
Question 1: What do consumers want to know? In this labyrinthine new world of decision-making, brands can distinguish themselves by
providing information that consumers need — things like:
Wendy Lurrie, President,
G2 Digital & Direct
easy-to-reach, well-trained and friendly customer service
useful, credible, truth-vetted reviews and opinions
High-value information delivered at relevant junctures, combined with truly service-oriented customer service, builds trust — and trust builds
brands. As Tony Hsieh has proved with Zappos, great customer service can actually become the tie-breaker when consumers are faced with
choice. This neglected asset, which is so often outsourced and generally cordoned off from the rest of the company, can be the key to
Question 2: How do our customers make decisions? As the people who buy our brands travel along on the new, maze-like purchase
path, what are they evaluating and where do we need to be to facilitate their research? How can we raise brands higher in the consideration
Question 3: How can we make the most of the point where expectation meets experience? Companies who align their organizations to
manage the intersection of experience and expectation create a reservoir of good will that serves them well when mistakes happen — which
they will. JetBlue and Apple are good examples. When JetBlue had its weather-related breakdown, when Apple irritated early-adopting
loyalists by reducing pricing on iPhones to attract newcomers, long-term customers ultimately were willing to cut them slack and offer
The Basic Criteria for Loyalty: Get Them Right!
To achieve the kind of loyalty marketers like Zappos, Apple and JetBlue enjoy, marketers must meet certain key conditions. Here are five of
the most important ones:
1. A deep understanding of customers' expectations and where the real-life experience intersects with those expectations
2. An established relationship built on utility and functionality
3. Communication — sometimes over-communication — about how the company is addressing problems
4. A peer-to-peer tone that demonstrates empathy and understanding of the bond between the organization and the individual
5. A commitment to meeting and exceeding expectations that flows through and informs all the business processes of the organization
— those that are directly customer-centric and those that are indirect but influential (pricing, distribution, customer service, etc.)
As our digital culture continues to grow and give birth to new ways to communicate, the consumer's decision-making style and progress on
the purchase path will almost certainly grow even more complex. So let's fasten our seatbelts, keep our minds wide open, and our eyes and
ears on the consumer.
Wendy Lurrie is president of G2 Digital & Direct, a global marketing services agency network dedicated to brand-building beyond advertising.