How the Best Brands Build Relationships: Insights from Virgin Atlantic, Nike, and MailChimp

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The way that most companies think about customer relationships has gotten boring.

Many companies only focus on a single, generic process for building customer relationships: Stay in contact with your customers, learn as much about them as you can, and personalize when possible.

This is a two-dimensional approach because there’s no one-size-fits-all way to build great customer relationships. There are just as many ways to build relationships as there are to build products.

The best brands take their own unique approach to building customer relationships. These brands are the heavyweight champions—showing us that companies who prioritize customer relationships are the ones who win in their industries.

To build the type of long-lasting relationships that make you stand out in an industry, you have to deeply understand what your customers want, and then build this core value into your company’s DNA so you can deliver it to customers again and again.

Virgin Atlantic, Nike, and MailChimp are examples of companies who take nuanced and out-of-the-box approaches to building customer relationships. They center around the core idea that lasting customer relationships are one of your best competitive advantages and best levers for growth.

Virgin Atlantic: Strong relationships help you capitalize on competitors’ weaknesses

Strong customer relationships aren’t just a nicety once you’ve built a product or established your business. These relationships can be your defining competitive advantage and your one crowbar into a crowded market.

This is how Virgin Atlantic found a successful niche in the airline industry. Virgin entered the airline industry specifically to compete: British Airways was the incumbent, and Virgin founder Richard Branson felt that these big airline industries had become corporate and soulless on the customer-facing side.

Branson wanted to make airline travel fun again for the customer—so he specifically created Virgin to be a “fun, irreverent airline” that would stand out with its exceptional service.

But the company also takes its relationships several steps further and find the nuances of customers’ needs that other airline companies aren’t addressing. For example, while most airline companies’ messaging pushes you to book the flight, Virgin wanted to continue the relationship past entering credit card information. They created a campaign to highlight passengers’ unique experiences while on their flights. Their #FlyPE Free Ad Space contest called customers to tweet at them and explain how Premium Economy on Virgin helped their business.

This celebrates how customers’ in-flight experiences can connect with the rest of their lives—something that not a lot of other airlines take note of in their messaging. By acknowledging that their customers are more than just airline passengers, Virgin finds a way to fit into a customer’s bigger ambitions as more than just an airline.

Virgin shows that being creative and genuine about your customer relationships can be your best competitive advantage. Virgin’s promise to prioritize the customer helped them see where competitors were failing and understand how they could make customers happier with air travel. This was how they broke into a very competitive market and became known as the cool kids of the airline industry.

Nike: Emotional currency paves the way for lifetime value

Nike’s greatest marketing and customer relationship win has been its ability to establish an emotional connection with its customers. Through carefully crafted marketing campaigns and ads, Nike sets up a “hero’s journey.” In this narrative, the villain is the voice inside your head telling you that you can’t do it—you can’t run another mile, or score the winning shot, or get out of bed to go to the gym. Then they position themselves as your biggest advocate and show you that you can overcome your doubts.

This emotional connection doesn’t directly promote the sneakers or the workout clothes that Nike sells. But it does create a framework for Nike’s products to fit into customers’ narratives of their own lives. Nike provides the emotional encouragement to inspire a customer and then, almost as an afterthought, they provide the technical equipment that will help a customer reach their goals.

Nike can do this because they understand that emotional currency can be just as valuable as revenue. On a practical level, a lot of the tactics that the brand takes to connect with customers mean sacrificing sales. For example, Nike has created free apps like the Nike Training Club app that competes with gyms and personal trainers.

Nike’s success in the sports apparel market—which is predicted to grow to over $100 billion by 2020—shows that the most valuable long-term customer relationships take up-front investment. Metrics that companies use to measure the financial value of customers like customer acquisition cost and lifetime value are not strictly black and white. They include some non-quantifiable factors, like brand loyalty and emotional investment. Companies can build better and stronger customer relationships when they don’t overlook emotional currency.

MailChimp: Thoughtful plan structure and pricing helps you grow with customers

You can’t build genuine relationships if you can’t evolve alongside your customer. To show that you’re in it for the long haul, customers have to know that you’ll provide a great solution for them even as their needs change.

MailChimp, the email marketing automation platform, has championed this key insight to build solid relationships with customers who have a lot of other options for marketing software. Even though the email marketing space is crowded with competitors like Constant Contact and Marketo, MailChimp is doing $400 million in yearly revenue and growing. This is because customers know that they can trust MailChimp to support them from their scrappiest days to their ultimate successes.

MailChimp originally built their product to help small companies create email marketing campaigns as a way to scale. But they’ve also made sure that they can support these same customer businesses as they grow and as their needs change.

An important part of this was creating plans and pricing that could cater to companies at different stages of growth.

Their most basic plan, the free plan, is for new businesses that just need the most basic email marketing tools. The other plans offer increasingly advanced functionality like multivariate testing and reporting. This is important because if MailChimp is doing its job correctly, customers’ businesses will grow and they’ll need more than just the basics.

MailChimp’s success shows that planning for the future with your customer matters. To build long-term relationships, you have to create a structure that allows customers to keep finding value in your company even as their needs change. This ensures that your customers don’t outgrow your product or your company.

Heavyweight brands build relationships that transcend the products

For Virgin Atlantic, Nike, and MailChimp, customer relationships are about a lot more than just importing data on customers. They use what they know about customers to go the extra mile. They do things that are weird and unique to capture their customers’ attention for the long haul.

To apply this idea successfully in your own company, worry less about making a grand gesture, and focus more on finding personal ways to show your customers that you’re listening to their needs. By allowing your employees the freedom to find unique ways to engage with your customers, you open the door to a more concrete relationship that lives beyond the product.

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