Branding Perspectives (Part 3 of 4): Cultivating the Brand-Customer Relationship

Cultivating the Brand-Customer Relationship

In my last article, I discussed the importance of creating a relevant and compelling value proposition which communicates to your sales prospects the core reason why they should purchase your product or service. It has both functional and emotional components. Once you have a strong value proposition, you can begin to develop advertising and promotional materials that encourage and foster a connection or relationship between the product and the prospect.

The goal of all marketing communication is to build some degree of customer loyalty to your brand. But it’s a lot like dating. As the chart demonstrates, the relationship with your future customer moves through stages, in both a theoretical and practical sense. Let’s briefly follow that path:

Awareness. At this stage, your prospective buyer first becomes aware of your brand’s existence. Key marketing tools in this phase include advertising, public relations, packaging and word of mouth communication or referral. Your goal at this stage should be to create exposure for the brand name and brand identity.

Acceptance. At this point, your prospect has done some research and checked you out with various influencers (family/friends/retailers), and has decided that your brand is a potential purchase alternative next time they are shopping in whatever category you compete. I call that becoming part of their “considered set.” Key marketing tools in this phase are the Internet and retail stores, as well as product literature. Your goal at this stage should be to get educational information out in all communications channels that focuses on brand features and benefits.

Trial. At this stage, your prospect has become a customer by making a trial purchase of your product or service. Key marketing tools here include sales promotion incentives such as in-store displays, coupons, bonus buys and other price incentives, which enhance perceived value. Your goal here is to provide compelling reasons to purchase that make your brand a superior alternative to the competition. Keep in mind that this decision is almost always made at the actual point of purchase. For example, when I go into 7-11 looking for a soda this summer, whichever one is on ice near the counter is most likely the one I will purchase, even if I was thinking about another brand when I came in.

Preference. At this point, your customer would prefer to purchase your brand, all things being equal. Those last four words are important, because brand switching is rampant in most consumer categories and can be influenced by price, availability, word of mouth recommendation, and point of purchase activity. Which is why working to keep loyal customers happy has become the focus of relationship marketing programs for most companies. Tools at this stage include bounce-back offers or coupons, rebates, advertising and public relations. Your goal at this point is to stay prominent in the minds of your customers and give them reasons to come back. When I used to work in the men’s shaving cream category, we would offer a bonus buy or special on-pack promotion every time our competitor would introduce a new product. It’s all about keeping your prospects attention away from the competition in any way that you can.

Loyalty. It’s the Holy Grail of marketing. But it’s not easy to find or keep hold of. Studies show that brand loyalty across all categories is declining. A Bain & Company study revealed that the typical U.S. company loses half its customers in five years. The reasons for declining customer loyalty are clear:
• Overwhelming number of choices or options
• Abundance of education and information easily available
• Increased price competition
• Increasing commoditization of most consumer categories
• Growing personal insecurity reflected in bankruptcies
• Greater time scarcity

Key marketing tools here include loyalty programs, advertising, public relations and other “value-added” strategies. It’s no accident that every hotel and airline and dry cleaner and bagel shop in the country has a loyalty program. You should too. Your goal here is to keep your customer satisfied and provide incentives for them to remain in the brand franchise. It’s important to remember that the consumer you were likely selling to ten years ago no longer exists. She has evolved. She is savvy, selective and much too busy to care about how much money you are spending to persuade her to buy your brand. She has plenty of options. So in your quest to capture her loyalty, it’s not just about working harder. It’s about working smarter. Get creative.

In summary, the goal of every marketer should be to move their customers up the loyalty ladder, so to speak. And with a solid brand identity, a persuasive value proposition and sound execution, that goal should be attainable.

Jeff Hilton
Co-founder, Partner
Integrated Marketing Group

Previously published in Functional Ingredients

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