Take the Customer Experience Beyond Branding

By Mar 09, 2010

“Brands are dying,” we’re told. “Branding is no longer relevant.”

So what do we do now?

Let’s face it: consumers are jaded. Me-too products have proliferated, rapidly becoming commoditized in the process. Consumer trust has been repeatedly violated, often by long-standing companies. And in this economy, there are too many brands chasing too few dollars.

No wonder consumers are blasé. Let’s be honest. How many brands do you get excited about? Apple? Google? Nike? IKEA? The NFL? I’m betting you can’t come up with more than half a dozen, plus or minus a couple.

What does this say for brand valuation? After all, brand value is a significant intangible asset for companies; one that can comprise a significant percentage of their overall worth. But, as Young & Rubicam’s John Gerzema and Ed Lebar’s research has shown in their book “The Brand Bubble,” there is a wild discrepancy between the value financial markets are ascribing to brands versus consumer valuation of those brands.

The “Brand Bubble” authors’ statistics from their findings:
· Consumer brand trust has dropped 50% in just under a decade.
· Perception of brand quality has declined by 24% in the past 13 years.
· The perception of brand differentiation declined in 40 out of 46 consumer brand categories.

Ouch! Instead of making them hide in their shells, this should call marketers to action. It’s obvious what we’re doing now isn’t working, so why continue the same old marketing exercises and expect a different result?

Let’s think about this. Consumers have fundamentally changed, so we have to change. Ironically, this means going back to some of the basics we’ve left behind, even as we forge ahead, adapting to a new consumer in a different manner.

In companies’ efforts to become slick and sophisticated, style has taken the place of substance in many instances. The customer has responded by letting them know they’re not happy. Consumers always vote on brands with their wallets, right?

When will marketers take charge? When will they step up to reorient their brands? There’s a big difference between managing marketing budgets and planning campaigns to helping create cultures that are totally customer-centric. I challenge marketers to take the leap from marketing in the same old way to driving business with a new attitude—and proving their own value in the process.

First, let’s get back to focusing tirelessly on the customer. Let’s get the whole company on board with this. That means breaking down silos with buy-in right from the top. Changing the entire culture is imperative. Sure, that’s traditionally hard to do. But in a tough business climate, people should be more open to any change that will create results.

Next, let’s drive forward with honesty, authenticity and transparency. Consumers are yearning for something they can believe in. Plenty of companies are paying lip service to these ideals; few are really living them from the inside out.

Next, create excitement for our brands. Let’s be sticklers about pushing for quality. No cutting corners. No compromise. Real quality. Let’s get in touch with our customers—and stay in touch. We have a great opportunity to leverage social media to develop meaningful, lasting, one-on-one relationships with the customer. Find out what’s on their minds and quickly fix problems that lead to negative perceptions.

Let’s key in on consumers’ ideas that might lead to true innovations for our products and our service. It’s time to generate some new ideas to make our brands note worthy and buzz worthy. Think about it. Brands like Apple are constantly forging ahead with products that create excitement. That’s why consumers place a high value on Apple—not only the financial markets.

Commodity product brands might think there isn’t anything they can do to generate excitement. Really? Spice giant McCormick found a way to generate interest in mundane peppercorns. By fitting a grinder inside the cap of peppercorn bottles, home cooks can grind fresh pepper at home. By putting fill lines inside their measuring cups instead of the outside, OXO ingeniously made a household staple much more functional.

Speaking of OXO, Sam Farber made a line of simple household gadgets more user friendly for an aging population, and people with physical impairments. How relevant is that? Successful innovation can be product-based; but what about innovating entirely new business models? Take a page from OXO.

Engaging the consumer with better experiences, better service and greater responsiveness begins from the inside of the organization at all levels. It permeates every customer interaction with the brand. It creates engagement, excitement and loyalty. It feeds on itself and builds momentum.

These are the brands consumers will value. These are the brands that will pioneer the way forward.

Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc., Marlton, NJ.