Retail brands don’t know how good they have it. Debate has recently centred on how online and offline retailers could provide consistent “customer experience”, and thus encourage loyalty. It’s a conundrum, sure, but more than that I’d suggest it’s an opportunity.
Any brand with a complex customer infrastructure has unique brand-building capabilities. This is not about providing great service, consistency, or usefulness (important as these things are), it’s about having a canvas on which to paint “strategic idiosyncrasies”, which build on your brand’s advertising proposition.
If you think about it, in this age of “word of mouth”, “social media”, and “the worldwide web”, the way a company actually operates gets a huge amount of exposure. However, people being people, the type of thing that hogs this exposure will not be timely delivery, or courteous service – it will be the quirky differences that are unique to that company. Talkable stuff. The geniuses in Apple stores, the navigation trails through IKEA, your name on the coffee cup in Starbucks – if you design these differences with your marketing goals in mind, then hey presto, you’ve created effective WOM advertising within your actual company, whilst simultaneously improving your customer experience and building clearer links between your brand and product.
Taking this customer-experience-as-strategic-brand-building approach makes complex brand/buyer relationships not daunting, but exciting.
Think about a car manufacturer. The touchpoints are endless. There are the phone calls, the test drive booking, the dealership experience, the test drive itself, the purchase process, the customisation, the servicing, the courtesy car, the process of selling the car back to them… all of these are brimming with potential for a unique brand twist.
And that’s only thinking about the “standard” customer moments. The manufacturer can build on these any way they want – events, anniversary presents, concierge services, valeting, foot rubs, you name it. Every tiny interaction has the potential to be something that will play as advertising to the world at large, and build the brand in the eyes of future customers.
So, retailers? They get no sympathy from me. The guys that I shed a tear for are those with such one dimensional customer relationships they never have the chance to exploit these processes – the poor FMCG brands.
When we look at Forbe’s list of the world’s top 20 brands, only one is FMCG (Coca-Cola, who are hardly a fair comparison), whereas 12 are brands with physical retail spaces. Now I wouldn’t suggest that this customer experience potential is the sole reason for this imbalance, but still it’s an interesting observation. Is a “strategically idiosyncratic” customer experience useful in building a powerful brand? Surely yes.
This insight presents a challenge to FMCG brands – how can they too develop customer experiences? As ever in these things, we can look to Red Bull to give us a clue.
Red Bull understood that to build customer experiences, they had to develop products and services that people could buy into which they controlled. They don’t control the sales process of the vast majority of their drinks, but they do control the sales process of their bars at festivals, of their events, and of their media outlets. By expanding the remit of their brand into non-FMCG spaces, they created “advertising” that worked extremely hard since as well as propagating their core “gives you wings” message, it produced customer experience flows. Indeed you could even argue that through clever in-bar merchandising, and the subtle propagation of concepts such as the Jägerbomb, they developed customer experiences by proxy – making ordering their drink in an independent venue a slightly different experience than ordering another.
The result is that people now have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to “deal with” Red Bull as a brand (just as they do with Starbucks, Apple, IKEA, and so on), whereas they have effectively no idea about this for the vast majority of other brands on a supermarket shelf.
The customer effect
There are plenty of different ways to achieve this effect for yourself. You could have people buy your product through a channel you control (like Red Bull’s festival bars), you could develop a subsidiary service related to your product, or indeed you could get them to buy an entirely separate product or service you’ve dreamed up that’s simply related to your marketing goals (such as an event). All of these things have the trappings of business expansion, but can in fact just be acts of marketing disguised as such. One way or another you just need to give people the opportunity to act as customers, rather than an audience, and your marketing will take on a whole new dimension.
Customer experience is an extremely powerful communications tool, and should always be used as such. The retailers that win will be the ones that understand this best. The FMCG brands that win will be the ones that understand it at all.