Love me, Love my Dog, Love my Brand
Getting customer-intimate in the 21st Century
“Branding needs to be less about broadcasting (one-way communication of adverts, jingles, billboards, packaging) and more about conversation (two-way communication with the people that use the brand).”
– Nicholas Runnalls
These words come from an article that appeared in last year’s edition “But Can Your Brand Hold a Conversation?” Direct marketing has always sought to have a conversation: its targeted nature presupposes and promotes that. And although precious little space is generally given to it in the overall brand discussion (witness the previous annual’s limited reference to direct marketing), I believe its time has, finally, come.
More specifically, I am sure that the creation and launch of new brands in the future will require far greater thought and consideration, to ensure that those brands gain and maintain true competitive advantage. So the old default of a pre-selected launch date with a Sunday newspaper splash, prime time TV slots and the well-placed urban billboard, all supported by aggressive multi-station radio advertising, needs considerable re-thinking. This is not the only way to bring new brands to market: forward-thinking marketers are considering – and using – other options.
The point is this: the clearer we understand who our customers are, and the more we know about them, the easier we can select the most impactful communication channel to attract and retain their attention. We are about to see, for real, the long-awaited shift away from the traditional branding channels to the more specialised below-the-line channels such as direct.
This will be reflected in marketing budget allocations as well, predominantly because, in an era where marketing spend accountability is critical, the below-the-line channels are measurable by their very nature.
Know your customers before you act
A decade ago, the rise of retailers’ own house brands (such as Pick ‘n Pay’s No Name brand) was born out of recession, when customers were unwilling to pay premium prices for the promise of better quality. And brand managers were caught napping, seemingly secure in the knowledge that their supposedly strong brand-equities would protect them. Meanwhile the retailers, through their POS systems, had their fingers on the pulse of the marketplace and were able to spot emerging consumer trends and respond to them.
It is now more important than ever to know your customer in the increasingly competitive environment of South Africa, where global brands have come to market and local ones need to shape up in response. And nowadays brand managers have more than enough information about their customers readily available – it’s a new and very valuable kind of brand equity: call it customer equity. But how many of them truly use that equity to create relevant marketing communication strategies so as to effectively communicate directly with their customers? I think the answer would be precious few, mostly because it is hard work to do so.
A prime example: cellphone companies can track every call, sms and mms a customer makes – but do they respond or communicate with those customers based on that extremely detailed knowledge? My experience is not. Perhaps out of complacency, perhaps out of ignorance. Brands ignoring their customers’ needs simply won’t survive. Those using knowledge of the customer in a balanced way, not abusing it, will stand tall.
Innovate or die: new routes to market
Brands that truly lead their game are those that constantly innovate. Once upon a time it was the likes of Proctor & Gamble who did this well: they found a way to access a US retailer’s customer information and piggy-back customer communications with P&G offers – innovative and forward-thinking.
Nowadays, companies have a proliferation of channels through which to contact their customers and are consequently under the mistaken impression that channel alone can drive innovation. Not so. Emailing a customer does not constitute innovation, not when the email has been constructed from a direct mail shot and then shoe-horned into an electronic format. The innovation must come from innovative use of the medium to drive the message, not as a bolt-on channel or after-thought to the communication strategy. Matching content to channel requires the most creative effort of all. So does offering the customer multiple channels to communicate with the brand.
As rightly predicted in the early 1990s, there continues to be a need for multi-pronged initiatives to build brand equity – with the proliferation of new technologies (e.g. mobile sms, mms, email) both fragmenting the marketplace but also offering more channel choice (hence the need to think more strategically). However, with the focus increasingly on driving returns on marketing spend, using the most measurable channels has become an imperative: and it is the direct channels, despite their proliferation, that score well here.
There are now almost limitless routes we can exploit in order to reach our fragmented customer bases in innovative and relevant ways. No longer is direct just about mailing and phoning, it is about using non-traditional settings to create novel customer interactions. Imagine harnessing combinations of media during major sporting events, from big screen AV messages to sms technology at half time to capture data that can be almost instantly rewarded at the end of the game – with prizes and giveaways.
Branding customers for life
In the past, the thinking was that the lifetime loyalty of the customer was first prize and no longer the numbers you can pull in any one market. The importance of building relationships with customers was cited, but the challenge now is how to achieve this when one has so many customers to talk and listen to.
With major purchases, such as cars, this should nevertheless be a given. The opportunity to use tailored and innovative digital print is huge when the exact make and model of car purchased is easily known and tracked. Yet how few do it successfully.
In building relationships, interpreting customer need is the key to branding success. This can be very cleverly and pertinently done – witness one of the best examples of direct marketing in action that I have heard of.
An insurance company in India approached schools and invited children to draw a picture of what they would like to become when they grew up. The children wrote their names and addresses on the back of their masterpieces so that they could enter a competition for the best artwork; but the company also used the names to build up a database. They then mailed the parents the exact picture their child had drawn, with the punchline being: “Your child would like to become a doctor/teacher/fireman/astronaut.” The question was then posed as to how the parents were going to pay for the education that would achieve that goal. The answer? “Talk to us: we can make it happen.” Clever.
My sense is that, like that example, the quest for lifetime value will mean that brand relationships will start much younger – in which case brands need to strategise and communicate what they mean at various life stages and predict what future values those young customers may eventually have. Banks have embraced this concept wholeheartedly. And what better way to do this than 1:1 with your customers – present and future, seeking to assist them achieve their dreams, every step of the way.
But direct marketing is just about promotions…
Sometimes direct marketing is about promotions but there is a real danger that lowering your price with discounts and offers can devalue brand equity for the sake of a momentary spike in sales. Cellphone companies are good at this, especially in Africa. Direct marketing is not solely about making special offers or financially incentivising your customers or prospects, although it is true that a lot of this goes on. And it only gets worse with spam, junk mail, junk sms and all the bad things that people associate with direct marketing done badly.
As the sports stadium example above indicates, it can be so much more: warm, informative interaction, rather than cold, hard sell.
Closing the conversation
Interchange is the opportunity here. Conversations – two-way interactions – lead to relationships. Much the same can be said about direct marketing. No audience, no interaction, no relationship. And it is only through carefully considered, well-researched, customer-intimate relationships that brands can be sustainably built. The other day, Hills’ Pet Nutrition wrote to my Dalmatian Emma to enquire about her progress on her weight management programme (the vet had her details – as does the Hills sales office). They knew her address, they knew her diet, they knew her name. I was charmed and impressed – and so was my best friend. Imagine the response if your brand was that customer-intimate.
Craig Townsend, founder and managing director of the customised direct marketing agency Greymatter, has been assisting brands to integrate and implement direct marketing for the past 17 years. With offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town he divides his time equally between the two cities – and does so gladly to maintain a close working relationship with his clients. While the business of speaking to people through response-driven communication is an all-consuming passion, raising his two young daughters is what drives Craig most of all.