The New, Real-World Emotional Dynamics of Brand and Customer Decision-Making Behavior

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Today, marketers must be aware that customers are so inundated and overwhelmed with messages, impressions and the availability of product and service information that they’ve gone, in large measure, to alternative, informal and less traditional methods of helping them decide what and where to buy. At the heart of seeking sources for decision input is trust, and its first cousins: credibility, relevance, honesty, transparency, inclusion, objectivity, and authenticity.

This is an era where spam, pop-up ads, telemarketing and other types of targeted, ‘push’ advertising and marketing communication, indeed most long-standing forms of electronic and print messaging and promotion, receive low trust and believability scores in survey after survey of customers. Beyond permission email, supplier and brand web sites and the like, customer trust is consistently highest for word-of-mouth. How high? While the aggregate value of print and electronic advertising as a decision-making influence has remained about the same since 1977, word-of-mouth has doubled in leveraging power to the point where it is the dominant communication device in our society.

Through public studies, it has been learned that more than 90 percent of customers identify word-of-mouth as the best, most reliable and relevant source of ideas and information about products and services. This is about the same percentage who find it the most trustworthy and objective source. More than trend, this is marketing transformed, bringing emotional connection to the brand into sharper, more contemporary and realistic focus.

As a result, no matter how well suppliers believe they understand their customers’ needs and their online and offline behaviors on an individual basis, they must have new insights, and both a strategy and array of tactics which will help customers create influence and personal leverage, peer-to-peer and situation-by-situation. What this means as an end goal is creation of active customer advocacy and brand relationship (advocacy converged with brand passion), states of elective, personal, often deep-rooted and emotional engagement between a b2b or b2c purchaser and supplier that goes beyond satisfaction, beyond delight, and even beyond loyalty.

Advocacy and brand relationship represent the highest level of customer involvement achievable; interaction with suppliers on an individual and emotional level well past the typical functional, passive relationship between supplier and customer; and having them proactively and voluntarily convey their experiences to friends, relatives and colleagues. Advocacy and brand relationship are not merely different spins on gaining insight about customer purchase, referral and communication behavior. They are also built on trust and brand excitement, through real, authentic experiences.

Arguably, because the name of the game is rational and emotional value optimization, learning about how customers perceive suppliers, brands, products or services and then having them carry their experiences and consideration forward as active advocates and brand passionate customers is, or will become, the only way to think about them. Companies will need to make significant adjustments from traditional ‘push’ marketing to an environment where customers expect personalized interest and collaborative, supportive communication and engagement.

Customer advocacy and customer sabotage, and brand passion and alienation, are subjects which have incredible bottom-line importance, but companies are really just beginning to learn about the concepts (and there is still some confusion among those who know the terms) and few have successfully applied outside-in or inside-out advocacy and brand passion creation in their marketing and customer experience initiatives. We see, however, that both customer advocacy and brand passion have become mainstream issues; so, application approaches are rapidly maturing.

Social media influence on decision-making and downstream customer behavior, and the impact of customer experience, particularly around advocacy and sabotage, and brand passion and alienation, are already tremendously important to all companies; but, the ‘what’s next’ and ‘how do I apply the concepts and tools in my work’ are key subjects now. Advocacy is still a fairly embryonic concept for most marketers, but there is already a strong groundswell of interest and investment in optimizing it. Companies are very actively looking for advocacy enhancement and brand-related solutions and methods of minimizing, or eliminating, customer indifference and sabotage.

And, customer disaffection, negativity and sabotage – from both the inside and outside of the organization – are powerful, but rarely discussed. All of the changes witnessed over the past several decades in customer decision-making and influences on corporate and brand perception have brought companies operating in business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplaces to an important inflection point. There is an increasingly critical connection between brand and service promise, corporate and brand reputation trustworthiness, the transactional experience (as delivered by people, processes, communications and culture), and downstream customer behavior.

Any small ripple in reputation change (such as through a product-related issue, online rumor or executive miscue), brand performance or customer service can have a tsunami-like effect on business outcomes which may last indefinitely. Worldwide, and industry-to-industry, about 20% of any company’s customer base is negative; and, through customer advocacy and brand passion studies, we have seen levels of alienation and sabotage that are signficantly higher.

This is especially true now because of the permanency provided by social media. As one example, Lehman Brothers, at the time the fourth largest investment bank when it declared bankruptcy and collapsed in 2008 and yet has nearly six million hits online despite the fact that it technically no longer exists. Companies like FedEx, Toyota, Enron, and British Petroleum can confirm the business-related impact of the electronic ‘long tail.’

Of all factors which can influence consumer behavior and brand success, employees have a particularly important ambassadorial role in building trust and reputation. Studies have found that employees are often less than enthusiastic about their employers and the goods they produce, particularly in the recent anti-business shift in public opinion during the economic downturn. Poor employee morale and responsiveness, coupled with inflexible processes, often drive customer complaints, a prime cause of customer churn as well as customer defection itself. Some complaints are expressed to the company; but most are either suppressed, mentioned in casual online or offline conversation, or posted on social media sites.

Why do people/businesses need strategic assistance with these concepts and optimizing their marketing, brand, customer experience, and communication goals at this time? Creating customer advocacy, brand passion, and brand relationships, from the inside-out (customer experience – people and processes) and the outside-in (neural, peer-to-peer communication), can make a huge profit impact on any marketing initiative and the overall enterprise, irrespective of size or industry. Every company has pressure on marketing, sales, and customer service budgets; and they are being tasked and challenged to deliver positive customer loyalty behavior through whatever cost-effective means are available to them.

Going forward, to generate lasting trust, positive reputation, and continued consumer confidence for brands, products and services, companies will need to focus on customer-centric leadership, as well as becoming more transparent and authentic. They will have to ramp-up inclusion of employees and customers, and more actively engage in offline and online dialogue with all stakeholders, particularly their advocates. These are the key new, real-world dynamics of what will be required to build and sustain customer advocacy and brand relationship.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.

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