I know that many readers will see this as Holy Grail stuff, but today all customer touch-points—and this includes all aspects of marketing—increasingly need to be capable of providing a positively differentiating brand experience.
This is not just because we have all become more demanding. It is also because in today’s connected society, word of mouth is playing an increasingly important role in determining purchasing behavior—and brand success.
But exactly how influential is it? Well, a recent survey conducted by GfK NOP in the United States (Marketing, Jan. 25, 2006) identified that 92 percent of consumers now regard word of mouth as the best source of ideas and information about new products—up from 67 percent in 1977.
In the United Kingdom, the spectacular rise of The Arctic Monkeys provides further testimony to the growing power of this new "consumer channel." Effectively, word of mouth has propelled the band from nowhere to a position at the forefront of popular British culture (confirmed by a clutch of awards at the NME Music Awards 2006)—with a level of speed and impact that will make most music marketing executives green with envy.
Yet, the problem with word of mouth as a marketing force is that it is not always positive—and it cannot be controlled!
Truth be told, the majority of us are far more likely to regale our friends and family with negative tales of our brand encounters—simply because they are typically more numerous and more entertaining. As a result, we tend to hear stories of unsolicited "junk mail" blocking the front door or apoplexy-inducing contact center ineptitude way in advance of less entertaining stories about service excellence.
But whose direct marketing communications actually get the thumbs-up, to the extent that they are most likely to avoid a tongue-lashing and possibly even generate positive comment?
Positive word of mouth
In qualitative research where I have frequently covered this subject, brands that crop up with monotonous regularity are old favorites such as First Direct and Virgin. Why? Well, upon further investigation it doesn’t appear to be because their marketing communications are necessarily any better than those of the competition.
Instead, the research indicates that these brands have managed to create such levels of relevance, tangibility and differentiation that they become legitimate topics of conversation with examples being drawn from what they do and what they say.
Don’t get me wrong—I am not suggesting that marketing communications will ever displace the weather or politics as a primary source of dinnertime conversation. However, the research does suggest that within this context, direct marketing in particular plays a vital role, offering the potential to make or break positive word of mouth relating to the wider brand experience.
So, how have our brand conversation pieces achieved this? Firstly, respondent feedback indicates that they manage to demonstrate a level of customer understanding and empathy that sets them apart. How? Well, probably by using qualitative research to uncover fundamental and differentiating customer insight Eurekas! to drive brand experience and marketing communications development. And probably not by relying upon a thin layer of mass-produced customer segmentation data with a thick layer of creative icing on top.
Secondly, feedback suggests that our conversation pieces give the appearance of being three-dimensional. Why? Typically, because instead of ignoring their brand’s own capacity to deliver inspiration and differentiation, (leaving it on the page as a beautifully constructed iceberg, onion or eggplant stuffed with adjectives that few pay attention to) they have then managed to combine compelling customer insight with a fundamental understanding of their own brands. This has created the additional empathy that is ultimately capable of setting them apart from the competition in everything they do and say.
Thirdly, research feedback suggests that these brands appear to do things differently. They have combined customer and brand understanding with operational insight and left-field thinking to ensure that their differentiating brand elements are made tangible across all touch-points and channels—including those involving marketing communications.
Finally (and this comes right back to marketing communications) they treat every interaction with the customer—no matter how apparently mundane—as an opportunity to contribute to—and draw from—the wider brand experience. This is in contrast to their more one-dimensional brand competitors who have little more to fall back upon than an uninspiring list of features and benefits delivered in an ad-hoc fashion.
Why not try an experiment with your brand right now? Run a research group looking at for example your most recent piece of DM. First and foremost: Does it avoid a tongue-lashing? If so, does it provide evidence of real customer understanding and brand differentiation? Does it stand up to comparison with our brand conversation pieces—and is it capable of sparking spontaneous and positive brand comment in its own right?
If you’re honest, then I think you’ll know the answer already and can save the money on the group.