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August 23, 2007

Befriending consumers from the inside out: Part 2

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With the power of conversation, both good and bad, marketing now has to begin from the inside-out.  We have a saying at the agency, "it only takes 25 keystrokes to tell others about a bad experience."  Like it or not, the brand experience is the most important thing, and it's where marketing should begin.  How the company delivers the brand strategy is even more important than how marketing and ad communications delivers it.  Marketers will have a growing influence on how the brand experience is delivered.  While it may seem like a slow transition, progressive companies are looking at the product experience as they're biggest medium and are experiencing success.

As Eric Ryan, founder of Method put it, "we are a products company, not a marketing company."   He was contrasting Method with P&G, Unilever, SC Johnson and the like.  Meaning that Method's marketing is through its products, not for its products.

Here are some things to consider:

The power of empowered employees
There is much evidence that companies who give their customers a sense of ownership in the company tend to provide a better experience for the customer.  But even beyond stock ownership, companies can provide the autonomy to employees to serve the customer by principle and not just policy.  Southwest Airlines is a great example of this.  As far as befriending people, Southwest has done the best job over time in the airline category.  One big reason is because their employees are empowered to deal with situations and delight the customer.  They turn typically bad situations into positive  situations, where other airline employees are helpless and exacerbate the problem.  Anyone who's experience a ticket agent who pecks away at their hidden computer for 20 minutes, looks up and says, "that's the best I can do" knows what I'm talking about.

Selling a belief, a philosophy and a culture
Don't just provide products or services.  Provide a belief that people can identify with and be a part of.  Target does a great job of this.  They sell the idea that great design is for everyone.  And they make it possible for people to experiment and purchase great design easily, without much consequence.  Things like offering limited quantities of international designer merchandise like their Keanan Duffty line for guys.  Or making it easy for those coupon clippers to save money on everyday and fashionable items with the clipless coupon. 

Hiring people, not positions
The success of delivering a great brand experience starts with the people you hire and the culture they represent and create.  That means hiring the right kind of people.  For instance, Publix is one the biggest privately held supermarket chain in the US.  They differentiate themselves largely on providing a better shopping experience.  The way they maintain a service culture is by hiring people based on their interpersonal skills and personality instead of their retail experience.  Having people who deliver a brand experience that comes naturally to them is the most important thing.  Many times, skills can be taught and developed, but personality and social aptitude cannot.

Establishing ongoing communications to foster culture

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The most important target audience a brand has are its employees.  Companies must use communications to facilitate the brand culture.  In the past, Starbucks has done a great job at this.  The Green Apron book is often referred to as the Bible.  And electronic newsletters are used to recognize employees, foster creative and artistic expression and share best practices.  Having an ongoing communication plan helps keep the brand culture going. The Green Apron Blog is a perfect example of this, a site encouraging best practice sharing and examples.

Rethinking the role of communications
Part of befriending consumers from the inside out is re-examining the role of communications.  As I mentioned in my first post, my Honda Element brand experience was equally shaped by the dealer's ambivalence as by the loyal community of owners.  So facilitating community with your marketing will likely be the most high-impact and efficient use of dollars.  Eric Ryan at Method recognizes the value of igniting its loyal users.  Considering they are by far the youngest brand in the category, you'd think they'd be focused on trial.  Not so.  They focus more on cultivating loyalty and producing brand advocates with they're communications, and according to Eric, will continue to do so even more.  Check out the online version of their latest creation of helpful content: detox your home.

I'm sure there are more...feel free to add!

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