The new reality of customer-centric marketing (Column)

Cundari CEO on creating content that provides value, engages brand advocates

To remain relevant, unique and needed by customers, brands face a daunting challenge. The root problem is that brands no longer drive the relationship, customers do. The sales funnel model that dominated the sales process for decades has taken a back seat, as web and digital media have completely reshaped brand-customer relationships and rocked the marketing ecosystem and customer purchase behaviours. The result? Customers now control how they engage with brands. With this new reality firmly in place, marketers need a Plan B to connect with these demanding customers. Despite these challenges, there is a relatively simple formula, which involves flipping your old brand-centric model, and putting the customer at the centre of all your branding efforts.

Put the customer at the centre of everything you do

Traditionally, the brand centred the marketing communications strategy and guided the business with a set of overarching statements. These guidelines were then transformed into advertising objectives to meet the needs of the brand, not necessarily the customer. For example, if you’ve been around a while, you’ve probably written something like: “The communication must articulate a clear and distinct long-term positioning for Brand X” or “The communication must raise  awareness by 10% (versus 26% recall in previous year).” Nice and linear, but not much in the way of customer engagement.

This thinking doesn’t cut it today. You need a new way of connecting and persuading customers to engage with your brand. It’s not about selling, it’s about influencing – less sales pitch and more nudging. Creating influence is a never-ending  commitment that revolves around listening, engaging, empathizing and understanding your customer’s needs, be they tangible or intangible. But understanding their needs is one thing, getting the right message to them at the right time in the right place is another thing altogether.

The sad news is, even if you embrace all things customer-centric, the power of your influence is somewhat limited. Mostly because customers don’t trust you; they’d much rather get advice elsewhere. A recent study on trust found 70% of online adults in the U.S. trusted family and friends for product recommendations, while only 10% trusted brand ads. Ouch.

So how do you exert influence in this upside down environment? Not surprisingly, the best starting point is to engage with the influencers. Also known as advocates or sharecasters, they are invaluable partners in getting your product or service in front of your customer.  On a cautionary note, they can also take you down more than a few notches if you don’t deliver on your promise.

Where does influencing the influencer start?

Engaging the influencer requires a delicate balance between the brand, customer, content and advocate. Content is the critical element you bring to the customer decision journey, because all content is not created equal. As noted before, customers will accept information from a trustworthy source. As a consequence, when a trusted advocate shares your content or promotes your brand, the assumption is that you can be trusted as well. This relationship between the advocate and your customers also highlights the need to build content that is sharable.

To build these relationships, the primary currency is content, and not just any kind of content. Like currency, content has to provide value to the customer, and its perceived value is directly related to how helpful, entertaining and memorable the experience is. You’ll find content ideas in every part of your business model, so start by breaking down the customer purchase journey at every touch point and capture the insights and activities around each interaction. At Cundari we call it journey mapping and the goal is to understand when, where, why and how customers interact with your brand, and how you can best fit your brand into the decision-making process. By doing this analysis, you’ll start to see where the most important connecting ‘moments’ are, and what kind of engagement and content your customers need. The desired outcome is a content strategy that resonates with customers and advocates alike.

To put it into context, when BMW launched the 1M Series in 2011, we created a series of films that set a new bar in performance driving.

The goal was to provide content that would ignite a conversation, and it did. Advocates began dissecting the films, providing their own points of view and even creating their own soundtracks and games. The spots also gained widespread coverage in the press, and on YouTube the Walls execution was the most viewed and commented automotive video. Also, from a business perspective BMW experienced three months of record-breaking sales. The whole process demonstrated how customer empathy, a great product, valuable content and willing advocates will accelerate results.

Achieving these results once could be considered an anomaly, but repeating and improving on these results each year for consecutive new product launches indicated there was more at work than just one great campaign.

Our advocates continued to play a major role after each successful release. As a way of demonstrating this, with each new release —  1M “Walls” and “Helipad” in 2011, M5 “Bullet High Performance Art” in 2012, and M4 “Ultimate Racetrack” in 2014 — the time needed to reach the 3-million-view benchmark shortened dramatically. While the 1M videos took a combined 25 days to reach the benchmark, the M5 and M4 videos achieved that goal in nine and five days, respectively.

When marketers say advocates are worth more than their weight in gold, they’re right! We’re obligated to constantly provide exceptional value with content that exceeds our advocates’ expectations, to keep them truly engaged and supporting our brands.

Becoming a customer-centric marketing organization is a long journey, both literally and figuratively. But, by understanding the new customer dynamic and combining that knowledge with powerful content and supportive brand advocates, customer centricity becomes a lot more achievable.

Aldo Cundari is chairman and CEO of Cundari and author of Customer-Centric Marketing.

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