The Changing Customer-Brand Relationship

While the concepts of ‘brand’ and ‘loyalty’ (of the attitudinal rather than behavioural variety) have historically been hugely important for marketers, technology changes surely mean that their authority as driving principles for the profession needs to be questioned.

This has huge implications for market research as tracking these core axioms of marketing has been a significant source of revenue for our profession.

The background that many of us are used to is that as markets developed and products proliferated, we increasingly needed shortcuts to guide us through the complexity of our everyday choices. Many of our purchases are pretty functional and, frankly, we either don’t have the time to spend evaluating the pros and cons of different toilet cleaners or we don’t have the necessary access to information to really gauge whether the claims made by one are really better than the competition.

Brand, therefore, became a shortcut for us, signaling a promise of quality and consistency. We did not have to do the legwork, we could simply rely on the brand. From the marketer’s perspective, the idea was to create an emotional connection so that consumers built a lasting affinity with the brand. Many times that I have heard companies saying they want to be the ‘best-loved’ brand in their category.

However, many of us are now arguing that technology has fundamentally changed the landscape. Consumers no longer need to rely on brand signaling to act as a shortcut for quality or delivery of the brand promise. Instead, there are huge swathes of information available online to support us when making decisions. This will not necessarily apply to very low cost / low involvement goods, but in many categories, this is fundamentally changing the way we shop.

When we book a holiday, buy clothes or higher value foods, for example, we don’t plunder the depths of our memories for past positive experiences or indeed rely on brand associations to determine where to go. Instead, we turn to Google to access other users’ experiences and expert reviews. That’s not to say that all consumers do this (and of course behavioural economics has a role to play) but when my mum is keenly using Google to establish which brand of electric heater she should buy rather than rely on John Lewis, I know things have changed.

So what does this mean for brand research? Fundamentally the traditional brand funnel is looking in need of rethinking. Simple awareness is not in itself sufficient and technology means that brands can quickly leapfrog into consideration. Brands will increasingly differentiate themselves on building relationships through delivery of engaging digital experiences that deliver genuine value- just look at Oral B SmartSeriestoothbrushes as a great example.

In which case the focus for market researchers will shift to measuring the extent to which the brand promise is being delivered through effective customer engagement. As a result, longitudinal tracking that integrates actual behaviours with stated attitudes is needed – more power to the use of community panels, which is designed to deliver on this. And, in terms of potential customers, it will become more about generating interest in the tangible aspects of the proposition rather than building simple brand awareness and consideration.

What does this mean for loyalty? The idea that attitudinal loyalty has a critical role to play for brands is increasingly debatable as Byron Sharp has long shown in his book, How Brands Grow. Instead, relationships are built through engaging services that deliver genuine value. Look at the success of Nespresso, which managed to build the home-brewed coffee category from transactional purchasing of ground coffee to the development of an engaging eco-system. And if the brand trips up on the delivery of that engagement then customers are likely to look elsewhere. Because if there are plenty of ways consumers can find out about alternatives, a brand is only a preferred choice if it can keep delivering rather than due to a residual ‘love’ or emotional affinity.

‘Loyalty’ research needs to understand how to innovate, optimise and personalise the customer experience to maximise behavioural loyalty. Again, community panels not only provide a means of tracking customer engagement using both attitudinal and behavioural data but can also double up as a test and learn environment where new forms of engagement can be innovated and trialed. Just look at the Starbucks app, which is a testament to the way in which well-designed customer engagement can not only appeal to existing ‘loyal’ customers but also, importantly, work to increase sales within the much larger volumes of low-frequency buyers.

The market research industry is in danger of holding onto methodologies that are not keeping up with changes in the customer-brand relationship. The importance of customer engagement in driving new sorts of relationships with brands has been underlined by a recent study by the IPA. The report, The Future of Marketing and Agencies, makes the point that agencies have a key role by bringing to brands sharper insights and more innovative creative solutions to this emerging environment.

According to the report, this will “allow them to move from reactively servicing brand owners to actively shaping a more benign ecosystem within which a wider range of new models for marketing services and communications businesses can flourish and prosper”. I think that’s a sentiment that the market research industry can sign up to.

By Colin Strong