In a time when brands compete more fiercely than ever for customer loyalty, the way to success is a customer-centric approach.
This has two meanings: firstly, the core brand values, the brand identity and communications must portray an image fully integrated with the experience of the product and confirmed by it. For instance, Apple does this very well. The brand is all about innovation, about creating products that empower consumers giving them the freedom to be creative, original and individual. Everything -from the brand name, Apple logo and the promotional campaigns to the inspiring figure of Steve Jobs -makes customers feel special, smart, individualistic, and part of a closely knit community. The user experience fully supports Apple’s brand image. The gorgeous, user friendly products, deliver a superior experience creating an honest, reliable image for the brand and long term customer loyalty.
Secondly, while integration between brand image and brand experience is an essential part of the customer-centric approach, it can only be successful if brands build up an active communication structure with customers. Traditionally, brands use mass communication tools such as advertising to create awareness and transmit brand messages. However with the digital sphere growing fast, they have taken various approaches to make the brand experience more personal for customers. For instance, Oxo changed its traditional soap-opera type advertising portraying the iconic Oxo family into an engaging, interactive experience where people can post their own “Oxo family experiences” on the Oxo website becoming part of the brand. Oxo’s current motto is “every family is an Oxo family”. To see this transformation view the current Oxo Factor Competition here.
Nothing though has the enormous scope of talking to a massive, highly targeted customer base, in an unprecedented personal manner like social networking sites. The phenomenon of social marketing has brought an entirely new dimension to communications. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (the largest social networking sites) bring together millions of people around the world sharing just about anything, including their experiences with products and brands. Although still uncharted territory, brands attempt to engage their customers through social networking sites building awareness, introducing new products and special events and addressing customer concerns on an individual basis. Such initiatives “humanize” brands as they interact directly with their target markets. Furthermore, by addressing consumers at the individual level, brands now have the opportunity to influence their experiences and inspire positive word-of-mouth, “the most trusted form of advertising” according to the survey conducted by Nielson Online.
Browsing through the Facebook pages of Jeep, Coke and Nike one begins to wonder whether social marketing is likely to become the main way to build brand loyalty. The essence of such sites is not just the free exchange of ideas but also the virtual associations or “groups” that have the potential to create strong brand communities. It is clear that the members of the Jeep group are sharing a love for the brand, a sense of moral responsibility for the other members (for instance exchanging tips on how to use the brand) and have their own “rituals” that sets them apart from users of other brands. Such groups are easily accessible by anyone and members can invite other people to join, exposing non-users to the brand and encouraging them to become loyal users through the positive word-of-mouth generated by such communities. Some brands have already realized the potential of social network communities: Coca-Cola, the top ranking brand on Facebook’s Fan pages with 1.8m fans masterfully uses applications such as 'Facial Profiler', aiming to find people’s online “evil twin” or lookalike and “Alter ego” that allows users to create their avatar based on their photo. Such applications generate awareness, build brand associations and attract people to the brand’s Facebook page.
Brands also use social networking sites to transform their deeper connection with the target market into sales. For example, Dell used @DellOutlet, one of its Twitter accounts to generate an increase in sales of $2m. The site focused on various forms of saving, special offers and discounts is an excellent example of successful customer engagement and sales generation through a networking site.
The potential scope of social networking sites with regards to brands is obvious but benefiting from the direct, multifaceted ways of communication with the target audience can also backfire. Skittles decided to transform their home page into a live feed from Twitter. However as the brand did not previously focus on building its relationship with the target market it was subjected to a wave of unfavorable tweet comments with a negative impact for its image. Skittle’s example demonstrates that building a presence on social networking sites requires a deeper understanding of this level of communication.