Is Speed Dating a Viable Marketing Strategy During Digital Transformation?

Embarking on a digital transformation can be compared to adopting a speed dating strategy. You might “meet” a whole lot of prospects a whole lot faster, but if your behavior is product-centric instead of customer-centric, you’ll simply succeed in inoculating a lot more people to your charms a lot faster.

Imagine you have a friend who has had no luck at dating. Instead of looking into the reasons why they’ve had bad luck and changing their behavior, they tell you they’re going to start speed dating. Twenty dates a night! Surely they’ll have some luck! But the same behavior, 20 times faster, means 20 times the same results — even in marketing strategy. Embarking on a digital transformation can be compared to adopting a speed dating strategy.

You might “meet” a whole lot of prospects a whole lot faster, but if your behavior is product-centric instead of customer-centric, you’ll simply succeed in inoculating a lot more people to your charms a lot faster.

A marketing digital transformation requires deploying, adopting, and coordinating the technologies and programs to enable you to communicate digital content over digital channels with your customers and prospects. The behavior change that must go hand-in-hand with digital transformation is that of becoming customer-centric in how you engage, and the content with which you engage.

Why Customer Experience Drives Success

Take Uber and Lyft, for example. Cars with drivers still take you from A to B in exchange for money. So it’s the same service as regular taxis, right? Wrong. If all Lyft or Uber did was enable you to digitally order up a cab with your smartphone, it really wouldn’t have changed the customer experience. But Lyft and Uber disrupted the transportation industry by changing the ordering, the visual tracking of the vehicle, the payment, the tipping and the rating of the drivers. They changed the entire customer experience, and ultimately bankrupted the Yellow Cab Company. These weren’t direct outcomes of a digital transformation; they were the outcomes of building a business that put customer experience first. Digital transformation was a means to that end.

The point is that we need to embark on a digital transformation and decide the aspects of it we wish to prioritize, based on the customer experience we want to achieve and the behaviors of our company we therefore need to support. And if you thought deploying digital technology was hard, try changing behaviors!

Pop Quiz: Are You Customer or Product-Centric?

How do you know if your customer-perceived behavior is customer-centric or product-centric? Here’s the pop quiz:

  1. Is your website organized primarily by product/services/solutions?
  2. Does your site include more pictures of products or satisfied customers?
  3. Does your 1-800 number ring through to a phone tree or a human being?
  4. Can the service rep see your entire customer record while on the phone?
  5. Do you have a preference center?
  6. Do you segment your communications based on where people are in their buying journey?
  7. Do you use personas for segmentation?
  8. Do you plan and develop content based on personas and prospect information needs at each stage of the customer buying journey?
  9. Can your sales development reps (SDRs) and sales reps see all of the digital interactions prospects have had with your company?
  10. Does marketing have a defined role in the onboarding of new customers?
  11. Do you identify and treat loyal customers differently?
  12. Do you have reports and dashboards that measure marketing performance after the close, including onboarding, adoption, value delivery, loyalty and advocacy?
  13. Do you have an executive responsible for customer experience?
  14. Do you measure the quality of customer experiences other than by revenue?

This list should make it clear that getting to great customer experiences is much more complicated than fiddling with GUIs. It is a company-wide initiative, where marketing has a leading role. Marketing’s job is to help customers and prospects buy more by delivering great customer experiences in all stages of the buying journey.

WARNING: There will be plenty of resistance to this behavior change.

Embrace Customer Intimacy

Twenty years ago, I spoke with the CIO of one of the largest video store chains in NA. I asked him why they didn’t cut a deal with the USPS to allow customers to return the videos for free via mail, because they had sturdy plastic cases with the store address on them. His response was that a majority of their profit came from “late returns,” so they didn’t want to change it. I shared with him that a profitability model predicated on a bad customer experience would not end well. Today, all 6,000 stores are closed.

So don’t be one of those firms that thinks deploying a marketing automation platform or email platform empowers you to spam 100,000 people with one click. Don’t dream that if you build a product- centric website “they will come.” Don’t inject yourself into social media conversations with self-promoting materials. Don’t believe that marketing technologies are narrowly focused lead generation.

Instead, decide what improvements you can make to the customer experience this year, and plan changes to your behaviors in marketing, sales, support, operations and finance. That will drive the digital transformation requirements and priorities and prove that blindly deploying martech will not lead to better dates.

Read more about operationalizing the customer experience.

Customer Experience Requires Seamless Integration to Reduce Friction

As customers and prospects use more devices in their personal and business lives, B2B and B2C organizations need to engage them on the devices and in the channels they prefer to ensure a positive user and customer experience.

As customers and prospects use more devices in their personal and business lives, B2B and B2C organizations need to engage them on the devices and in the channels they prefer to ensure a positive user and customer experience.

There’s a proliferation of devices with customers and prospects interacting with computers (laptops, desktops and tablet) mobile devices, televisions, voice assistants, watches, glasses, automobiles and whatever the future holds.

There’s also a proliferation of channels — brick-and-mortar, e-commerce, channel partners, social media, direct-to-consumer, as well as web and mobile apps. Customers and prospects expect the companies and the apps they interact with to know them, their activity, their purchase and search history, the questions they’ve asked and the answers they’ve received, interactions in every channel, and social media activity.

Lyft, Amazon, Netflix and Apple have all raised consumer expectations — the same consumers who are employees. Today, employees expect the same intuitive ease of use with the tools they use to do their jobs as the B2C apps they use in their daily lives.

Your customers, prospects, and employees want their product and service providers to know what they’re looking for and do everything they can to make their lives simpler and easier. Customers will not tolerate irrelevant content, apps, or tools that fail to make their lives and jobs simpler and easier.

Starbucks has done this with its mobile app. Spotify has done this for streaming audio. The Progressive mobile app has actually turned “fender benders” into an opportunity to provide “aha” customer experiences.

Listen to customers and employees to learn where friction is in their lives and explore ways to reduce that friction. Let your customers know you hear them. Doing so will enable you to disrupt your industry, earn customers for life and become the preferred place to work. All ensure a successful future. Failure to do so ensures a premature death.

Think of Customer Experience as a Marketing Investment

As products and services become commoditized, organizations need to begin differentiating themselves by becoming customer-centric and providing a consistently good customer experience. The bar is low; it’s pretty easy to stand out from your competition if you just make a commitment to do so.

As products and services become commoditized, organizations need to begin differentiating themselves by becoming customer-centric and providing a consistently good customer experience. The bar is low; it’s pretty easy to stand out from your competition if you just make a commitment to do so.

Here are eight reasons for your organization to invest in customer experience:

  1. Price Isn’t the Only Differentiator. People will pay more for excellent customer service and a great customer experience. In fact, American Express found consumers are willing to spend 17 percent more to do business with companies that deliver excellent customer service.
  2. It’s Not That Hard to Improve Level of Customer Service you provide and improve the customer experience of your customers. It does take commitment, focus, determination, measurement and listening.
  3. Happy Customers Are Good Customers. They buy more, they buy more frequently and they tell their family, friends and colleagues about your products, service and their customer experience. And referrals and word of mouth are still the most cost-effective marketing you can get.
  4. CX Doesn’t Require Leading-Edge Software. However, it does require good customer relationship management (CRM) software and a commitment by everyone in the firm to use it and listen intensely to what the customer is saying and how your organization makes them feel.
  5. It’s Cheaper to Retain Current Customers Than Acquire New Customers — some studies suggest by a factor of seven.
  6. Any Company of Any Size Can Provide Consistently Excellent Customer Service and “wow” customer experiences. It’s a customer-centric attitude that starts at the C-level and cascades down to everyone in the organization.
  7. Happy Customers Find New Customers for You. They provide referrals, testimonials, they share their positive thoughts and experiences with family, friends and colleagues, and they post on social media sites.
  8. Improving CX Pays for Itself. Think of providing good customer service as a marketing investment.

Most companies provide lousy customer service and a negative customer experience. CX is a great way to differentiate your firm from your competition. A customer who has an issue that is resolved is more likely to become a long-term customer and spend more with you over time, than the customer who doesn’t complain. Providing great customer service and a “wow” customer experience can help create “raving fans” who will sing your praises to family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers via the Internet and social media.

A dissatisfied customer leaves and tells their friends, and possibly many others, about what a poor job you did. As such, you’re much better off resolving the issue to the customer’s satisfaction.

Use simple math to convince the CEO to bring marketing and customer service together.

Listen intensely to learn customers’ needs and expectations.

Empower everyone in your organization to provide outstanding customer service to end-user customers and colleagues.

Attitude is everything. When every employee considers themselves part of the customer service team, your company is able to deliver a level of customer service that’s a competitive differentiator for your firm.

Pay back customers for their business with excellent customer service. Your customers will become “raving fans” and will evangelize your brand.

Marketing Strategy Must Co-Opt AI

Artificial intelligence is expected to change the way we market. And AI applications in customer acquisition and customer experience are already under way. However, effectively leveraging AI to expand strategic thinking will be the most difficult and rewarding challenge.

AI
“artificial-intelligence-503593_1920,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by Many Wonderful Artists

Artificial intelligence is expected to change the way we market. And AI applications in customer acquisition and customer experience are already under way. However, effectively leveraging AI to expand strategic thinking will be the most difficult and rewarding challenge.

Customer Acquisition

AI use in customer acquisition is probably the most advanced. Aside from programmatic buying, there are additional applications that will help marketers better target the right prospects and allocate spend to the proper channels.

The eventual goal is to better understand which campaigns work and which ones drive overall engagement. One critical development area is Virtual Assistant Optimization. This is an analog to SEO and follows similar principles. As consumers rely on virtual assistants, such as Alexa, to do what they used to do on search (find recommendations, find a business, etc.), the ability to set up information in a way that can be easily accessed and ranked by virtual assistants will transform the craft of SEO.

Customer Experience

The application of AI as a driver of better customer experiences is also well under way. Today’s AI applications are primarily driven by historical customer behavior, such as product recommendation engines or algorithms that predict preferences.

However, the future of AI-driven experiences also involves the inclusion of current and future context. This means understanding the customer’s location, weather, time, activity and immediate objective to understand the need better. This means understanding that a customer who bought milk a week ago and is headed on vacation today may not need milk for another week.

To achieve high contextual awareness, eventually, IOT generated data will be critical.

Marketing Strategy

Using AI to drive a better market strategy will provide the most significant differential advantage. This is because AI-driven solutions for customer acquisition and customer experience will be developed by solution providers and will be within reach of most companies.

The use of AI to drive strategic decisions, however, will be more bespoke. For example:

  • Can you use AI to help you make sense of the comments you receive on social media, call centers, customer surveys and other VOC platforms?
  • Can you also use it to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors?
  • Can you then identify universal pain points not currently addressed by the industry?
  • How about recognizing innovative and unintended uses of your product that can lead to new markets?

The ability to answer these qualitative and situationally relevant questions is unlikely to come in a prepackaged solution. Rather, insight mining teams, conversant with AI tools and hungry for data-driven insights will be critical to generating strategic advantages. That means a growing need for talent who can understand how algorithms “think” and still step away to see the big picture.

5 Data-Driven Strategies to Feed Your Customer Obsession

The digitization of our culture and marketplace has made it even more important for marketers to be customer advocates. Every bit of content we create, every retargeting campaign we develop and every customer journey we attempt to map … all this must be tied to superior and engaging customer experiences. It’s the only reason marketing exists.

The digitization of our culture and marketplace has made it even more important for marketers to be customer advocates. Every bit of content we create, every retargeting campaign we develop and every customer journey we attempt to map … all this must be tied to superior and engaging customer experiences. It’s the only reason marketing exists.

This Forrester Research recently claimed that companies obsessed with customer experience are more profitable and see higher growth. Consider Amazon, Nike or Mercedes Benz, where innovation is part of the culture. Consider how an obsession with innovation at Apple and Google translates to customer delight in their products. For the rest of us, it may be harder without that kind of a culture behind us, but frankly, there is no longer a choice for marketers: Each of us must adopt an attitude of obsession with customer satisfaction. Then, we need to employ a systematic approach to optimizing everything we do toward customer value. The key question to ask at every point in your day, “Is what I’m doing adding real value to a large number of high-value customers?” If not, change it or dump it.

Like any change, in life or business, it starts with attitude. If you don’t work for a customer-obsessed company, can you successfully meet the demands of your market and rise above the competition? At a minimum, companies must embrace that digital and customer experience is everyone’s business—great ideas and the seeds of change can come from anywhere, regardless of title, but do need to be cross-functional and valued to blossom.

It’s time to make this transformation personal. Consider how you can use the technology you have to adapt the customer experiences that you do control, and demonstrate success to the rest of the organization. This proof of concept approach is a great way to get more budget, too. Incremental change is great—improvements to a campaign for next time or an adjustment to the timing for a triggered message are good starting points. However, more is needed.

We must re-think the customer experience across an ecosystem, and not just a set of interactions with owned media or branded touchpoints. Collaborate with other suppliers and influencers to focus on digital efficiency so that you can react in “right time.” Right time is an alternate to “real time” that recognizes that immediacy is not the most effective reaction in all situations. This is especially true since the customer journey is non-linear.

Thinking differently can be difficult inside an organization—especially if you are successful. Often, good ideas are limited because of the way we ask questions about our customers or our marketing programs. A research experiment with third graders provides some proof of why creativity goes beyond tactical application of cleverness or humor. (The video is about two minutes long.)

The project gave two groups of third graders the same assignment—to make a picture out of a triangle. When the assignment was narrowly defined, the pictures came out nicely, but not that different from each other. When the assignment was not defined, the pictures came out wildly different—and much more creative!

Don’t just wait for disruption to come to your industry—learn to disrupt your own business. Truly aim to understand whatever is blocking your path to innovation and customer connection. Consider some of these strategic elements that can help you break free of legacy patterns and test new ideas.

1. Use the Data You Have to Zero-in on Key Segments. Use microtargeting to really get to know your customers. Dig deep into customization and personalization opportunities to find the small, yet potentially profitable subsets of your market and niche offerings.

2. Separate the Signal From the Noise. Being able to do so is a powerful intoxicant: If I can just repeatedly do that one perfect thing that will really drive our business forward, I’d dominate our market and be a hero. Problem is, identifying that one perfect thing is very hard. Marketing analytic models may be more accessible than you think—and perhaps are no longer a luxury, but an imperative for understanding the customer needs—and predicting future behavior. Bring these practices closer to the campaign management and segmentation strategy—and give your analytics teams a seat at the table. Consider some of these key questions that analytics models can answer:

a. What dynamic forces are affecting my customer and how effectively am I changing to meet these changes?
b. Are there new market opportunities developing that I can take advantage of and become the industry leader?
c. Would this new product be interesting to our current customers? What must be true for customers to feel pain? Who are our most valuable customers, and over time? What outside factors impact customer loyalty and retention?
d. What are the characteristics of our best prospects?
e. Which marketing messages and campaigns are contributing, and when do they contribute during the lifecycle?

3. Marketing Automation Tools Are Slowly Evolving to Help You Manage These Changes, but you may need to bolt together point solutions in the meantime (especially if a big upgrade is not in your budget this year). Look to consolidate applications into a platform with data and process level integration to improve efficiency and effectiveness; work to integrate marketing technology with the enterprise infrastructure to reveal deeper insights into customers, partners and market opportunities. Here is a good reason to establish inter-disciplinary teams with IT and sales and customer service and legal to improve marketing contribution, vendor management, due diligence and governance practices.

4. Paid Placements (Native Advertising) Are Here to Stay. Spend your money on the right content and platform and understand which digital properties are performing best. Build budgets and relationships around content placement, sponsorship opportunities, syndication services and content recommendation platforms. Content marketing can’t be limited to owned and earned media if you need to reach larger and broader audiences.

5. Focus on Quality Content; we are all publishers now. Mobile will continue to dominate, so master its impact on your content and targeting. All our writing has to be compelling and adaptable across platforms, and written to the tastes of narrowly targeted personas. Automation tools help to make sure your content is repurposed with panache and context.

Clearly there’s lots of opportunity for growth in many areas of marketing success, particularly as we align our investments in areas where vendors have incentives to innovate. Scouring your budget for “past success” might be a good place to start: Given the advances in technology, will what worked in 2010 or even in 2014 work now in 2015? Please share your own tips and challenges for creating a customer-obsessed culture in your organization in the comments section below.

Loyalty Programs? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Loyalty Programs!

Without fear of (much) argument, it’s a fair statement to say that all companies want, and try to generate and achieve, optimum loyalty from their customer bases. They should want this, because study after study shows the financial rewards of having loyal customers. Some companies reach this goal through superior value delivery, built on quality products and services, and positive, consistent customer experiences. For the past several decades, many companies have relied on customer loyalty cards or programs, by which they can track purchase behavior and give rewards for repeat and volume buying activity.

Without fear of (much) argument, it’s a fair statement to say that all companies want, and try to generate and achieve, optimum loyalty from their customer bases. They should want this, because study after study shows the financial rewards of having loyal customers. Some companies reach this goal through superior value delivery, built on quality products and services, and positive, consistent customer experiences. For the past several decades, many companies have relied on customer loyalty cards or programs, by which they can track purchase behavior and give rewards for repeat and volume buying activity.

Customer loyalty programs are especially popular among retailers. During the years, retailers have found these programs to be powerful business tools within their highly competitive markets. But some retailers have completely disavowed loyalty programs, either never initiating them in the first place or canceling them, in favor of reduced pricing. In fact, this has become something of a trend. What’s behind it?

Let’s start with the biggest retailer—Walmart. The company has long claimed that a loyalty program isn’t needed because its prices are so low. Walmart believes that loyalty programs can, indeed, provide excellent information about customers who participate; however, as one Walmart executive put it: ” … some of the loyalty programs are very expensive, and we don’t think that serves everyday low cost and everyday low price.” Lower-than-competition everyday prices has been Walmart’s merchandising and marketing mantra since its inception. But, at least for groceries and sundry products, that often isn’t the case. Supermarket chains like Save-A-Lot and Aldi’s, neither of which has a loyalty program, will often beat Walmart’s item-for-item pricing by a significant margin. And other competitors can use their loyalty programs to selectively pick products, and individual customers, to offer pricing—which undermines Walmart.

As for generating customer purchase data, Walmart has a “scan & go” app for mobile devices, which allows customers to scan their own items as they shop; and this provides the company with valuable information on what customers are purchasing, the length of time they’re shopping in the store, and what offers and coupons might drive future purchases. Walmart uses additional methods of understanding individual customer purchases. One of these is Walmart credit cards. Another is reloadable MasterCard and Visa debit cards. A third is “Bluebird,” a prepaid debit card which functions as Walmart customers’ alternative to having a checking account, with which they can make deposits, pay bills—and shop at Walmart. Like Tesco is already doing in the U.K, Walmart has been considering development of its own bank, which would provide even more customer data.

Asda, a Walmart-owned supermarket chain in the U.K, also has no loyalty program. It’s the second-largest supermarket company, behind Tesco; and, as in the U.S., newer low-priced chains, such as Aldi, are actively competing with Asda. In place of a loyalty program, Asda believes it provides customers with what they want most, a “great multichannel retail experience.” The chain, according to executives, focuses on the key fundamentals: prices, quality, convenience and service. Alex Chrusczcz, Asda’s head of insights and pricing, offers two explanations of how the organization is endeavoring to build customer loyalty:

  • “Aspire to treat customers equally, or you’ll create a fractured brand and shopping experience. If you have someone paying one price and another customer with a coupon paying a different price, the perception of the brand is becoming fractured. Make sure it’s consistent.”
  • “Be pragmatic in terms of technology and analytics. They aren’t a silver bullet. Use these tools and combine them with the experience of your team.”

From my perspective, the second explanation is common sense; however, the first statement is really questionable—even counterintuitive, if a subordinating goal of loyalty behavior is to help drive customer-centricity. Simply put, all customers are not equal in value; and marketing strategies which treat them as such often create lower revenue.

In the U.S., regional supermarket chain Publix has no loyalty program. The company doesn’t have, as a result, the ability to track, at a household level, what customers are and aren’t purchasing in their stores. What Publix does, instead of loyalty cards, is try different alternative approaches to build sales. One of these, for example, was to test a program where shoppers could set up an online account where they could digitally clip coupons; and then, in the Publix store, the discounts they’d set up online could be automatically applied by typing in their phone numbers. Publix also has a BOGO program for their own brands, and accepts competitors’ coupons in their stores.

Some retailers do more than emphasize the sales and service fundamentals. They build genuine passion for, and bonding with, the brand by creating a more human, emotional connection. And, though there are few organizations like this, retailers such as Trader Joe’s are the exception that proves the rule. Trader Joe’s has no customer loyalty program. What they have is enthusiasm, achieved through differentiated, every-changing customer experiences, enhanced by upbeat, helpful employees. This has enabled Trader Joe’s to generate sales per square foot that are double the sales per square foot of Whole Foods. So, another way of stating that Trader Joe’s creates loyalty behavior without a program is to say: The shopping experience is, defacto, the loyalty program.

Now, we come to retailers which had customer loyalty programs, usually of long-standing, and elected to discontinue them. Actually, much of this has been done by one organization, Cerberus Capital Group, the early 2013 purchaser of multiple regional retail supermarket chains from Supervalu (Shaw’s, Acme, Star, Albertson’s and Jewel-Osco). Calling the new positioning “card-free savings,” and reflective of the first strategy stated above by Asda, each of the chains issued statements with themes like “We want buying to be simple for all, so that every (name of company) customer gets the same price whether a loyalty card has been used or not.” Additionally, and again like Asda, these chains have said they will go back to the basics: clean stores, well-stocked shelves, reduced checkout time, clearly marked sale items and creation of a more customer-focused culture. Some of their executives have also theorized that the chains will now adopt a more local-level approach, rather than customer-level, to their decision-making, and that individual store managers will now be more actively involved in driving successful performance.

So, the chains acquired by Cerberus appear to believe that “sunsetting,” or eliminating these programs, is a calculated risk and that they would still find good ways of providing value to retain more loyal customers, as well as incentives for those with the potential to move from purchase infrequency. Most analysts, however, felt that Cerberus eliminated the programs largely because the chains they purchased were either not mining card data, or not effectively analyzing and applying this material for better marketing and merchandising, thus making the loyalty systems too expensive to maintain.

Cerberus has entered into takeover discussions with California-based Safeway, which also owns Vons and Pavilion. If this sale takes place, it’s a good bet that these chains will also drop their reward cards, because Cerberus-owned supermarkets clearly don’t need, or want, no stinkin’ loyalty programs.

Building Customer-Centric, Trust-Based Relationships

More than a buzzword, “being human,” especially in brand-building and leveraging customer relationships, has become a buzz-phrase or buzz-concept. But, there is little that is new or trailblazing in this idea. To understand customers, the enterprise needs to think in human, emotional terms. To make the brand or company more attractive, and have more impact on customer decision-making, there must be an emphasis on creating more perceived value and more personalization. Much of this is, culturally, operationally, and from a communications perspective, what we have been describing as “inside-out advocacy” for years.

More than a buzzword, “being human,” especially in brand-building and leveraging customer relationships, has become a buzz-phrase or buzz-concept. But, there is little that is new or trailblazing in this idea. To understand customers, the enterprise needs to think in human, emotional terms. To make the brand or company more attractive, and have more impact on customer decision-making, there must be an emphasis on creating more perceived value and more personalization. Much of this is, culturally, operationally, and from a communications perspective, what we have been describing as “inside-out advocacy” for years.

Most brands and corporations get by on transactional approaches to customer relationships. These might include customer service speed, occasional price promotions, merchandising gimmicks, new product offerings, and the like. In most instances, the customers see no brand “personality” or brand-to-brand differentiation, and their experience of the brand is one-dimensional, easily capable of replacement. Moreover, the customer has no personal investment in choosing, and staying with, one brand or supplier over another.

A key opportunity for companies to become stronger and more viable to customers is creation of branded experiences. Beyond simply selling a product or service, these “experiential brands” connect with their customers. They understand that delivering on the tangible and functional elements of value are just tablestakes, and that connecting and having an emotionally based relationship with customers is the key to leveraging loyalty and advocacy behavior.

These companies are also invariably quite disciplined. Every aspect of a company’s offering—customer service, advertising, packaging, billing, products, etc.—are all thought out for consistency. They market, and create experiences, within the branded vision. IKEA might get away with selling super-expensive furniture, but it doesn’t. Starbucks might make more money selling Pepsi, but it doesn’t. Every function that delivers experience is “closed-loop,” carefully maintaining balance between customer expectations and what is actually executed.

In his 2010 book, “Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit,” noted marketing scholar Philip Kotler recognized that the new model for organizations was to treat customers not as mere consumers, but as the complex, multi-dimensional human beings they are. Customers, in turn, have been choosing companies and products that satisfy deeper needs for participation, creativity, community and idealism.

This sea change is why, according to Kotler, the future of marketing lies in creating products, services and company cultures that inspire, include and reflect the values of target customers. It also meant that every transaction and touchpoint interaction, and the long-term relationship, needed to carry the organization’s unique stamp, a reflection of the perceived value represented to the customer.

Kotler picked up a theme that was articulated in the 2007 book, “Firms of Endearment.” Authors Jagdish N. Sheth, Rajendra S. Sisodia and David B. Wolfe called such organizations “humanistic” companies, i.e. those which seek to maximize their value to each group of stakeholders, not just to shareholders. As they state, right up front (Chapter 1, Page 4):

“What we call a humanistic company is run in such a way that its stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, business partners, society, and many investors—develop an emotional connection with it, an affectionate regard not unlike the way many people feel about their favorite sports teams. Humanistic companies—or firms of endearment (FoEs)—seek to maximize their value to society as a whole, not just to their shareholders. They are the ultimate value creators: They create emotional value, experiential value, social value, and, of course, financial value. People who interact with such companies feel safe, secure, and pleased in their dealings. They enjoy working with or for the company, buying from it, investing in it, and having it as a neighbor.”

For these authors, a truly great company is one that makes the world a better place because it exists. It’s as simple as that. In the book, they have identified about 30 companies, from multiple industries, that met their criteria. They included CarMax, BMW, Costco, Harley-Davidson, IKEA, JetBlue, Johnson & Johnson, New Balance, Patagonia, Timberland, Trader Joe’s, UPS, Wegmans and Southwest Airlines. Had the book been written a bit later, it’s likely that Zappos would have made their list, as well.

The authors compared financial performance of their selections with the 11 public companies identified by Jim Collins in “Good to Great” as superior in terms of investor return over an extended period of time. Here’s what they learned:

  • Over a 10-year horizon, their selected companies outperformed the “Good to Greatcompanies by 1,028 percent to 331 percent (a 3.1 to 1 ratio)
  • Over five years, their selected companies outperformed the “Good to Great companies by 128 percent to 77 percent (a 1.7 to 1 ratio)

Just on the basis of comparison to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, the public companies singled out by “Firms of Endearment” returned 1,026 percent for investors during the 10 years ending June 30, 2006, compared to 122 percent for the S&P 500—more than an 8 to 1 ratio. Over 5 years, it was even higher—128 percent compared to 13 percent, about a 10 to 1 ratio. Bottom line: Being human is good for the balance sheet, as well as the stakeholders.

Exemplars of branded customer experience also understand that there is a “journey” for customers in relationships with preferred companies. It begins with awareness, how the brand is introduced, i.e. the promise. Then, promise and created expectations must at least equal—and, ideally, exceed—real-world touchpoint results (such as through service), initially and sustained over time, with a minimum of disappointment.

As noted, there is a strong recognition that customer service is especially important in the branded experience. Service is one of the few times that companies will directly interact with their customers. This interaction helps the company understand customers’ needs while, at the same time, shaping customers’ overall perception of the company and influencing both downstream communication and future purchase.

And, branding the customer experience requires that the brand’s image, its personality if you will, is sustained and reinforced in communications and in every point of contact. Advanced companies map and plan this out, recognizing that experiences are actually a form of branding architecture, brought to life through excellent engineering. Companies need to focus on the touchpoints which are most influential.

Also, how much influence do your employees have on customer value perceptions and loyalty behavior through their day-to-day interactions? All employees, whether they are customer-facing or not, are the key common denominator in delivering optimized branded customer experiences. Making the experience for customers positive and attractive at each point where the company interacts with them requires an in-depth understanding of both customer needs and what the company currently does to achieve that goal, particularly through the employees. That means companies must fully comprehend, and leverage, the impact employees have on customer behavior.

So, is your company “human”? Does it understand customers and their individual journeys? Are customer experiences “human” and branded? Is communication, and are marketing efforts, micro-segmented and even personalized? Does the company create emotional, trust-based connections and relationships with customers? If the answer to these questions is “YES,” then “being human” becomes a reality, the value of which has been recognized for some time, and not merely as a buzz-concept.