Building Customer Relationships by Design

Discussion
Oct 25, 2005
George Anderson

Editorial by Ted Mininni, President, Design Force, Inc. (www.designforceinc.com)


The ultimate goal of corporate marketing departments is to connect with and cultivate meaningful relationships with consumers. It takes time to build brand relationships, and executive management must commit to this for the long term.


Retailers that sacrifice long-term relationship building for short-term top-line growth are short-changing their businesses and customers.


Consumer-directed campaigns (AKA sales promotions) drive traffic and sales in specific retail locations. While necessary, the transactional, sales-oriented promotional plan should be only one component of a balanced consumer campaign strategy.


The ultimate goal of consumer campaigns should be relationship building because that is what creates brand loyalty and equity over time.


Relationship-Building Promotions

There are four evolutionary phases in promotional brand building: Brand Initiation, Brand Involvement, Brand Affinity and Brand Devotion.


Every consumer relationship begins with Brand Initiation. This involves reaching out to the appropriate, targeted consumer demographics with the right message.


Brand involvement requires more extensive campaigning, gets more personal with the consumer, and explains product or service features/benefits in detail. By creating promotions that uncover what I refer to as the product’s “Enjoyment Assets,” positive consumer experiences with brands lead to emotional connections to those brands.


Brand affinity is the third phase of relationship building. Here, the relationship between product and brand has deepened. Smart marketers work actively on strengthening the relationships they have with existing customers, even as they seek new ones via transactional campaigns.


Brand devotion is very difficult to obtain; even harder to sustain. If products/services continue to deliver the brand promise, with unfailingly positive or enjoyable experiences, they cement emotional bonds with the customer. When corporate brands support worthwhile causes, charities, or tie into cultural icons like The Nature Conservancy, Disney, or the NFL, they create devotion among legions of fans.


The Home Depot illustrates my points. In spite of its giant corporate size, the retailer – 1900 stores and $70 billion in sales in 2004 – has an easy-to-shop format and neighborhood appeal. Knowledgeable salespeople inform DIYers with ease, elevating the customer experience.


John Costello, former EVP of merchandising and marketing, explained how the retail giant’s research led to building stronger relationships with its customers, acknowledging in recent interviews that even though the retailer knew 50 percent of its transactions were with women, the company was still marketing itself far more aggressively to men.


Since women initiate home renovation projects in large numbers, in-store “Do-It-Herself” classes, initiated in 2004, specifically targeted women. In a little over a year, 200,000 women signed up for these classes; a whopping 97 percent claimed they would attend more! By publicizing the workshops in local media and on its web site, The Home Depot has enabled women to easily sign up and give feedback on their experiences.


Additionally, The Home Depot has sponsored Kids’ Workshops. The company’s sponsorship of NASCAR is more than a sponsorship opportunity; The Home Depot also offers interactive activities and contests for kids at the racing sites.


In order to better educate customers: in-store kiosks are filled with product spec sheets and brochures explaining features/benefits of appliances, tractors and other category products. The corporate web site offers customers information online for every appliance category, making it easy for customers to research in advance of purchasing. This saves time for salespeople and customers alike.


When it comes to building customer relationships, The Home Depot has gone beyond offering special discounts and everyday low pricing. By mining customer data and engaging in meaningful marketing research, The Home Depot should continue to pioneer consumer promotional campaigns like these to build long-term brand loyalty and equity. And that is where the real profits of retail lie. 


Moderator’s Comment: Do you believe many, perhaps even most, retailers are sacrificing their ability to build equity for their brand by focusing on short-term
sales promotions? Which retailers have done the best job of finding the right mix between sales promotion and brand building? Which retailers have done the best job of continuing
to build their brand even while engaging in sales promotions?

George Anderson – Moderator

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9 Comments on "Building Customer Relationships by Design"


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Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
Yes, of course. It’s interesting to look at the store fliers, which remain the key communicators with shoppers, and see the focus on price in most of them. The best retailers, like Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and Whole Foods, to name a few, are clearly communicating their own brand message themselves, primarily by being the shopper advocate and romancing the products (and having a little fun along the way). I think supermarkets today are in the late stages of where black-and-white generic private labels were 30 years ago. It took private label 30 years to start to blossom, and I hope for their sake it doesn’t take supers as long. Of course private label sort of muddled along all those years with few leaders (aside from, arguably, President’s Choice) and thus progress was slow. We have shining examples of retailers branding themselves today, and despite what you may want to say about Wal-Mart, they are accelerating the trend of making (surviving) retailers better competitors, and better brand names. Kroger is among retailers who only a few… Read more »
David Mallon
Guest
David Mallon
15 years 4 months ago

Without question, Wal-Mart has done the best job of building their brand. They have a clearly staked out positioning as the lowest price all-the-time, they deliver the low price benefit to the consumer consistently, and no competitor seems capable of challenging this positioning. They have paired this benefit with greeters and a smiley face and real employees in their ads to put a human face on the company. Simple and hokey, but effective. Further, since they have a cost advantage, they are getting superior financial returns (high return on assets compared to other retailers).

With all due respect to Mr. Mininni, he’s presented the typical ad agency pitch that’s a little out of touch with reality. As a consumer, I don’t want a “relationship” with retailers or consumer brands. I just want a clear benefit — a reason to shop or use the brand.

Stephan Kouzomis
Guest
Stephan Kouzomis
15 years 4 months ago

Even though Wal-Mart has built a Brand, not sure that the ‘loyal’ shopper is satisfied. Has Wal-Mart made a quarterly
gross profit number yet? It has missed a number of times on the top line. It is hard to build on low pricing without an eventual decline in shopper loyalty.

As for the supermarkets that do have the needed balance of sales promotion/pricing, and are creating the engagement with shoppers, plus keeping their point of difference in front of the market’s consumers, Publix does it best! Yes, you can add Wegmans, the old Dominick’s Fresh Stores, Ukrop’s, Harp’s, and Nugget in northern California.
But, someone mentioned the key. The top executive and his
first line reports have to commit to the program, if you
will. But it is more than commitment; it is demonstrating
every day their support, and belief. Now we are speaking
about the hardest thing to gain; adjusting the culture. Hmmmm

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

The handful of retailers that are doing a good job in this arena have already been identified. Retailers need to think like a brand and act like a retailer. Branding does not differ by category (product, retail, person, etc.). The key branding question is does the product or service occupy a clear, distinct, and desirable place in the mind of the target market? What actions must be taken to achieve this unique position? The idea of building a customer relationship is the result of a great branding effort, not a goal in itself.

Ben Ball
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

BrandManager certainly does seem to grasp the essence of branding. Look at the retailers most often cited here as the exception to the rule. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Home Depot — all have one thing in common, a singularly focused positioning on a tangible benefit. “Natural”, “Unique”, “Everything Home”. All of us (and more importantly, consumers)can “name that retailer’s tune in one note”.

And then the granddaddy of them all “Wal-mart”. Perhaps the best single brand in the world in terms of global brand equity and value. And they built it all on a fanatic, maniacal (some might say demonic — but those are just now defunct retailers)focus on communicating and delivering low price.

Now the mystery question. How does Wegman’s do it? Does everyone who shops there know Danny by his first name, too? Is it as simple as “Stew Leonard’s on steroids”?

Art Turock
Guest
Art Turock
15 years 4 months ago

During the middle of recent day-long seminar, an independent grocery describing his brethren, said, “We chase dollars rather than investing in customer relevance.” Perfect! Retailers understand tactical short term sales. They don’t understand or execute long term strategic differentiation strategies!

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

Retailers are extremely focused on daily sales numbers. Most don’t have the patience required to build a brand. Barnes & Noble, particularly the bricks and mortar division, has built an excellent brand. I noticed that Home Depot has a great alliance with the AARP, which has 30 million members. Home Depot mails coupons to AARP members, recruits employees via the AARP web site, runs monthly ads in AARP magazines, and publicizes classes for AARP members. No other major retailer has made a significant alliance with the AARP, yet many non-competing categories are up for grabs.

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
15 years 4 months ago

Karen mentions Trader Joe’s–a perfect example of building customer loyalty. This company has a rabidly loyal customer base that spans several demographic groups who are almost cult-like in their devotion.

Why? Because the stores offer an unusual array of high quality, reasonably priced private label products which account for 85-90% of everything on the shelves. The products brand the store and create an unheard of level of consumer loyalty. And Trader Joe’s does it without sales and virtually no advertising.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 4 months ago
In a word, yes. Far too many retailers, manufacturers and service companies are sacrificing long-term brand-building for short-term gain. Low-value brands seem to have an easier time of moving up the ladder of brand affinity, e.g., how many consumers are not intensely brand loyal to their toothpaste or soap despite constant promotion? When there is more at stake financially, suppliers must work harder to win the long-term loyalty of consumers, and those suppliers seem to be those who are most prone to doing whatever is necessary to meet short-term numbers. Older generations, for example, tended to buy one brand of car for their entire lives; today’s driver is more likely to switch allegiances. Few hard goods are on deal as often as cars. Retailers are a tougher group to categorize. While I can appreciate that Home Depot does much that’s right (and I have personally gone to their website for information), they appear to polarize their audience, and, even among loyalists, I know of no one who feels they receive good advice from the people… Read more »
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