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Be a Better Brand Manager

Be A Better Brand Manager: Be Willing To Look Within

We all use a mix of rational and irrational criteria when making our purchasing decisions.

An integral part of building a successful retail brand is having a dedicated core of customers who love your store so much that they can’t keep themselves from recommending it to their family and friends.

What inspires this behavior?

Many brand managers are stymied by this question. They fall into an all-too-common mistake, acting as if their customers were an alien species of life, prone to completely incomprehensible behaviors that can’t possibly be understood, much less predicted.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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The Connected Consumer: How Social Media Has Changed Retail

Facebook-Logo1.15 billion people use Facebook. Half of those users have made checking Facebook part of their regular morning routine, with nearly a third logging on before they get out of bed in the morning.

Social media has become central to our customers’ lives. Our customers put tremendous time and energy into constructing their social personas—their digital presentation of their idealized self—through Facebook posts, Tweets, Instagram photos, and more. They’re also extremely responsive to the information being shared by their friends.

Through technology, the average person has an ability to connect with people and organizations on a scale that was unfathomable a generation ago. It’s time we talk about what this change means to our customers, especially in terms of their purchasing decisions.

Technology Changes, People Remain the Same

When you walk down the street, pay attention to how many people are “plugged in”—their focus on a smartphone screen, almost completely oblivious to the physical world around them. This behavior may seen to be a relatively new phenomenon, but it has its roots deeply planted in mankind’s history. As long as there have been people, we have been driven to communicate with each other. We have an innate need to connect.

Maslow first articulated how important it was for humankind to belong to a group of like-minded individuals. The drive to belong to a community is one of the strongest motivating forces shaping human behavior. We make all kinds of decisions—what types of clothes to wear, what entertainment we enjoy, where we go to school, even who we consider a suitable romantic partner—based in large part on how it will strengthen our connection to our communities of choice.

This is a very biological aspect of our being. Stress levels drop off, with lower blood pressure, less gastrointestinal distress, and fewer associated complaints in environments where people feel like they belong. These environments can exist online or off: our customers see the two interchangeably.

Examining Your Customers’ Idealized Selves

When we look at our customers on Facebook, it’s important to understand that the information they choose to post and share, from photos of their vacation to their favorite music, movies, and books, is an elaborate communicative dance designed to signal to all viewers essential elements of that individual’s idealized identity.  Our customers put a tremendous amount of time developing their social media presence, and they pay a lot of attention to the information their friends are sharing.

Social media has become a driver of demand. As Brand Managers, we need to understand what communities our customers belong to, and watch those communities to identify emerging trends. The conversations that occur on social media don’t necessarily tell us who our customers are—they tell us who our customers want to be.  This is a critical understanding for the brand who wants to put customers first.

Be A Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

  • Social media is a platform for your customers to present their idealized self. Look to social media to discover not who your customers are, but who they want to be.
  • All customers are motivated by the need to find a community where they belong and are valued.
  • Social media has become a driver of demand, as customers seek out items they’ve seen members of their community of choice post about.

How Brand Managers Should Use Humor

Humor is a surprisingly complex phenomenon. At first glance, it seems straightforward: something is funny, we laugh. But upon examination it turns out that humor and laughter play several roles in our lives, influencing the way we communicate with each other and how we see the world.

“First and foremost, humor is a disruptive force. The experience of laughter, especially unexpected laughter, jolts people out of their routine and creates heightened awareness. You’re reminded that the world isn’t exactly what you expect it to be,” says Karyn Buxman, neurohumorist and former president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, “so you pay more attention to what’s going on.”

Humor is particularly effective at capturing attention when it is appeals to the unconscious mind. In Carver & Scheier’s seminal work, Perspectives on Personality, we find that “Humor often rests on threatening desires or impulses that are transformed in amusing ways.” The longing to use ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ language manifests very early in our development — ask any first grade teacher, and they’ll tell you the most popular punchline ever is “Poop!” — and it stays with us for our entire lives. The Kmart commercials very deftly give people a way to enjoy the naughty impulse without any social consequences. That’s the comedy bulls-eye!

Finally, it’s important to understand that humor can be used to both capture and direct customer attention. Both commercials have, at their core, messaging about Kmart’s online sales and gas savings — areas where the brand has reasonable hopes of being a viable competitor. If enough shoppers associate the pleasurable experience of laughing at Kmart’s messaging with interacting with the brand, the chances they’ll give the online store a try themselves go up. After all, doesn’t everyone want to ship their pants?

Be A Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

Humor is not one-size fits all. What makes one person laugh may alienate another. The more robust and complete your understanding of your customer is, the easier it will be to create messaging that tickles your customers’ funny bone.

Be strategic. While humor is generally always welcome, it’s best used when it helps reinforce a specific marketing message.

Pay attention to your metrics when assessing what types of humor work best with your customer base. Humorous content tends to be among the most highly-shared content on social media in general, so make sure you’re making apples-to-apples comparisons (examining how one type of funny material works compared to another type of funny material rather than funny material compared to more serious content) when judging effectiveness.

Be A Better Brand Manager: Look Your Customers In the Eye

Eye contact is on the decline, according to the Wall Street Journal. There are several reasons why we’re not looking at each other as often as we used to: the ubiquity of smartphones, the rise of remote employment, and attention spans that have shrunk like a cashmere sweater in a hot dryer.

Adults are making eye contact between 30-60 % of the time, Quantified Impressions report, and our own field observations have revealed that the younger the adult is, the more they tend to skew toward the 30% end of the continuum. What does this mean for retail?

Eye Contact: Understand the Opportunity

Eye contact is a largely unconscious behavior. The majority of people seldom put thought into their decision to look another person in the eyes or to instead, look away. There are many cultural factors operating behind the scenes that influence how often a person initiates eye contact, as well as how long they’ll be willing to maintain that connection. Gender, social standing, community traditions, and even emotional states all factor into the eye contact equation.

Cognitive neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen has stated that eye contact provides information about the target of others’ expressions and clues about their communicative intentions and future behavior. This information enhances and augments any verbal communication we may have, making it easier for both parties in the conversation to understand each other. A shift in the culture that means less eye contact can mean less understanding.

One of the keys of being a successful cult business is developing a comprehensive understanding of your best customers. It’s essential that this understanding is possessed by people at every level in your organization, from the leadership team to the front line associates. Developing your team’s understanding of and skill with eye contact is a simple, no-cost way to promote that understanding. When your team uses their eye contact skills effectively, your customers will feel like they’re listened to and valued. This subtle touch helps drive sales, strengthen customer relationships, and can contribute to your customer’s decision to recommend your store to their family and friends. If the current eye contact decline continues, the fact that your team is committed to meaningful eye contact can even serve as an important brand differentiator.

It’s important to recognize that encouraging your team to make eye contact more often is not a one-time deal. Individuals throughout your organization will have differing levels of ability and comfort when it comes to establishing and maintaining appropriate eye contact. Integrating ongoing education and reminders into your regular staff communications helps keep your team committed to making meaningful connections with your customer base.

Be a Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

Provide your team with specific education regarding eye contact. You can’t just say “Make more eye contact!” As a rule of thumb, we should be making eye contact approximately 70% of the time throughout the conversation, for approximately 8-10 seconds at a time.

When dealing with a group of customers, it’s important to acknowledge each of them individually with eye contact.

Too much eye contact can be as problematic as not enough. When the gaze is held too long, it can feel invasive, even vaguely threatening. Be aware of cultural differences where eye contact is involved, and adjust your company’s practices based on your customers’ ingrained preferences.

Be A Better Brand Manager: Know The Emotional Landscape

target-logoIn early May, Target announced a limited roll-out of a new service offering. Shoppers in the Los Angeles and Orange County area will now be able to consult with a brand-agnostic beauty concierge who’s there to offer advice and insights about the cosmetics and personal care products available at Target.

At a time when retailers are scrutinizing every expense in order to cut costs, and pundits are predicting the end of full-time retail employment, Target’s actually adding an entire new category of employee — a group that by definition will need to have greater product knowledge and customer service skills than the typical front-line worker, which may make them more expensive to recruit and retain. What’s up with that?

Know The Emotional Landscape

Target has defined its role in the marketplace as the store where guests always find more than they expect. As a brand manager, that’s a tricky concept: what does it mean to know your customer’s expectations and surpass them? An intense amount of customer knowledge is required. You need to know more than who your customers are: you need a concrete understanding of who your customers aspire to be.

If the world was perfect for your customer, what types of experiences would they have? How would they be treated by other people? What types of merchandise would they be able to buy? What types of services would they take for granted? What types of emotions would customers be feeling, on a day when everything was going right?

We’ve already seen Target addressing these questions in terms of access to merchandise. Giving guests more than they expect translates into high-end merchandise at attainable prices. Beginning in 1999, Target began offering designer clothing, including collections from Michael Graves and Issac Mizrahi. The Go International Line, which launched in 2005, features collections from world-renowned high-end designers for a period of 90 days. In many cases, Target provided the only way for their best customer —typically female, college-aged, and in her mid-forties —to access the fashions they wanted and felt they deserved.

This has been a powerful and effective strategy. Target is the second-largest discount retailer in the United States, trailing only Walmart. The move to introduce beauty concierges to their offerings extends the paradigm into the world of services. The high-touch, personalized service a concierge offers is not a typical feature of the discount shopping experience, yet it would be something that Target shoppers would be able to take for granted in an ideal world. It’s a smart move that will strengthen the bond Target has with their best customers, also known as their Brand Lovers.

Be A Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

Spend time with your customers. Talk to them and listen to them, so you can learn who they are and who they want to be.

Consider every dimension of the retail experience through your customer’s eyes. Everything has an emotional impact: merchandise, services, environment, and engagement.

Look for ways to give your customers what they never thought they could have. Create an emotional landscape they never want to leave!

Be A Better Brand Manager: Measure Everything

It’s pop quiz time! Where do baby Geckos come from?

If your answer begins “When a Mommy Gecko and a Daddy Gecko love each other very much…” stop now. And this isn’t really part of the ever-popular live birth vs. eggs debate either. Geckos, or at least the Geico Gecko, which is the one we’re particularly interested in, owes its ongoing existence to a very proud set of data.

In an interview with AdAge, Ted Ward, Geico’s CMO, said, “The green scaly spokes-character you reference was actually born in a petri dish of data. The Gecko was ‘hatched’ with absolutely no research or even the intention of producing a long-running, iconic campaign. The fact is we analyzed results from running the first set of Gecko TV spots and liked the bump in business volume. We were able to attribute the increased business to the campaign and decided to move forward with additional Gecko executions. From that point on we have incorporated more traditional market research to track and monitor consumer sentiment related to the little green guy.”

Cult Brands Measure Everything

The measurement-centric approach definitely appears to be working. Geico appears to be on the verge of moving past Allstate to capture the #2 spot in the highly competitive auto insurance industry. Many pundits have attributed Geico’s success to their huge advertising budget, but as we all know, there are plenty of brands out there that do a ton of advertising without achieving a dominant position in their industry.

What makes the Geico story important for brand managers is the explicit relationship between marketing campaigns and the measurement thereof. When Geico knew, with a high degree of certainty, what types of messaging were most effective at capturing both customer interest and business, they were able to replicate the essential elements of that campaign in other campaigns.  Geico’s Cavemen and Maxwell the Pig campaigns were both powerful tools for the brand, but who knows if they ever would have seen the light of day if there’d been no data to support the fact that quirky humor helped sell car insurance?

Being unique in the marketplace is not easy. Creativity requires courage. That creative courage is sometimes at odds with institutional decision makers who prefer a more conservative approach. Measuring everything and making smart use of the data makes it easier to get the creative freedom you need to be an effective brand manager because you can say, with a high degree of certainty, that your campaigns will be successful before you launch them.

Be a Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

Data is your friend. The more you know about your customers, including how they find you, their path to purchasing, and how they talk about you online, the better you’ll be able to serve them.

Data needs interpretation to be a meaningful asset. Ideally, you’re looking for identifiable patterns of behavior held in common by significant numbers of your customers. This will allow you to figure out how well your campaigns are working.

Be willing to accept that data doesn’t always dance the way you want it to. The results of inquiry will not always yield up  the answers you’re hoping to hear. Great brand managers listen to what their customers are telling them.

Be A Better Brand Manager: Understand What Doing Business With You Gives The Customer

Do you recognize that image in the corner? It’s a shot from NBC’s Today show, covering the Cronut phenomenon. Cronuts, in case you haven’t heard, are the legendarily delicious pastry creation of the Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City.  Only 200-250 are produced each day, and you can only buy 2 at a time.  People are willing to stand in line for hours to get a Cronut, and if you don’t have the time to invest, don’t despair. An underground Cronut economy has sprung up, with scalpers more than happy to sell you the $5 treat for a cool $30.

The media has been going nuts trying to figure out what’s going on here. Reporter after reporter has gotten testimony that the Cronut is, indeed, delicious. But there are over 4,000 bakeries in New York City — and that’s not even counting the street vendors and food trucks that have more than a few scrumptious baked goods for sale.

To understand the Cronut phenomenon, you need to know one thing. The Cronut may be very good. But it is the experience of getting the Cronut that is even better.

Cult Brands Deliver Memorable Experiences

Buying a Cronut is not a simple endeavor. The high demand and low supply requires New Yorkers to do something antithetical to their kind: stand patiently in line and accept the fact that they may, in fact, be disappointed. It’s a low-cost version of the heroes quest. Demands are put upon one, albeit only for patience and civility, and at the end, there’s the uncertain promise of a reward. You may get your Cronut, you may not.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve gotten the Cronut. What matters to the people lining up is that they’ve been part of the Cronut experience. They have a unique story to tell, their own personal angle of the story of the moment. Even those folks who pay scalpers for Cronuts are participating in the larger narrative: for the price of a few dollars more, they can position themselves as the possessor of the smartest sweet tooth.

The stories we tell about the experiences we actually have are most valuable form of social currency we have. Cult brands know this, and go out of their way to provide experiences that are worth talking about. Every time a customer lines up at the Dominique Ansel Bakery, they may or may not come away with a Cronut. But they definitely will have a story that they can tell to their family and friends for years to come.

Be a Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

Having great products and services is only the starting point. To create a Cult Brand, you need to identify and deliver an experience your customers will want to share with all of their family and friends.

The stories we tell about our own direct experiences are the most valuable form of social currency. Customers value these stories more highly than stories they can tell about things that happened to someone they knew or heard about.

Scarcity has its role in the marketing mix. Combining limited supply with a positive experience is an irresistible combination.

Be A Better Brand Manager: Know The Narrative and When to Disrupt It

As a brand manager, you’re well aware of how difficult it is to capture your customer’s attention in the current super-saturated messaging environment.  The ubiquity of smartphones and tablet computers means our buyers are always ‘plugged in’, consuming the content they’ve chosen for themselves; CNN reports that adult Americans are spending at least 8 hours of every day staring at a screen.

What can you do to stand out in that environment?

We think that the folks at the Discovery Channel might have a clue. Check out this commercial:

Know The Narrative and When to Disrupt It

In two days, the official Discovery Channel Youtube video has been viewed more than 30,000 times. What is it about this particular commercial that has captured the public’s imagination?

The spot is a variation on a classic story telling device, the Bait-and-Switch. The Bait-and-Switch is a narrative device where viewers are led to believe they should expect one thing, only to experience something completely different.

Traditionally, a Bait-and-Switch leads the viewer in with content they believe to be of high value, only to deliver content of lower value. But in this case, Discovery Channel, demonstrating a superior understanding of what their customers truly enjoy, lead the viewer to expect a heartwarming tale of a rehabilitated seal and delivered a massive shark having a snack.

High value content was followed by higher value content. A story that the viewer felt they ‘should’ care about, in order to be viewed as a good person under prevailing cultural norms, was replaced with a ‘guilty pleasure’ story that they truly enjoyed.

The experience of this unusual Bait-and-Switch is novel enough to make the viewer actually pay attention to what they’re watching. The commercial shocked the viewer to another level of awareness, forcing them to examine their perceptions from a new perspective.

If you’d like to use the same technique to connect with your customers, there are two things you need to know: what narratives your customer expects to encounter in the course of their day, and what narratives your customer would like to encounter during the course of the day. This requires significant psychological insight. A nuanced understanding of your customer’s life experiences and the factors that influence their worldview is essential. You need to know what they truly enjoy, and what they feel socially or morally obligated to enjoy. The juxtaposition of the two is a powerful attention getter.

Be A Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

  • Familiarize yourself with universal narratives, and the stories that are most relevant to your best customers.
  • Maintain an awareness of the media your customers are consuming, and what tales they’re being told. You can’t provide something outside of the norm if you don’t know what the norm is.
  • Understanding the social and cultural pressures that dictate how your customers feel they should behave makes it easier to craft messaging that will attract their attention.

Be A Better Brand Manager: Know What Time It Is

imagesThe Gilt Groupe is a flash sale company. On their website, they host extremely short-term sales events (most last less than two hours!) featuring limited quantities of merchandise from top brands. The combination of short duration and limited quantities makes an appealing mix for competitive shoppers, who are legion. In six years, the brand has accumulated 7 million customers.

Why, then, did the Gilt Group recently take a 90-day break from sourcing new merchandise, adding any new services, or even trying to attract new business?

Know What Time It Is

According to the story Alexis Maybanks, Gilt Groupe’s co-founder, shared at the Women Entrepreneurs Rock the World Conference, the company was experiencing tremendous growth, and with that growth came some growing pains. The sales volume was overwhelming; the customer service department was swamped.

The Gilt Groupe leadership team faced a choice: continue pursuing growth at any cost, or put the brakes on long enough to focus the organization’s energy and resources on better serving the existing customer base?

This is not a unique challenge in the retail world. Every brand wants to grow; many brand managers have been duped into thinking that growth generation is the raison d’etre for their profession. And they’re not completely wrong: a brand that is not growing is a brand that is dying.

The Gilt Groupe demonstrated an understanding that not all growth is equally desirable. There’s a difference between sustainable growth (an increase in market share that allows a company to both attract and please new customers) and problematic growth, where the sheer volume of customer traffic rapidly outpaces the brand’s ability to provide an emotionally satisfying experience on an individual basis.

Problematic growth is the retail equivalent of a Bangladeshi garment factory: the building gets taller and taller, with more and more people inside of it, working harder and harder — all until the critical moment where the building’s infrastructure fails and everything comes down in a horrible crash.

A Time To Build, A Time To Grow

As a Brand Manager, you don’t want to build the Bangladeshi garment factory. You want to build a strong company with a robust retail infrastructure to support brand growth. That means you have to know what time it is. Consider your brand’s current circumstances, and examine how well you’re pleasing your customers. Be objective and analytical. Ask lots of questions, including:

  • How long does it take your customers to place an order or make a purchase?
  • Is it easy to reach your customer service department?
  • How long does it take for the typical complaint to be resolved?
  • How many complaints do you have, and what are those complaints about? (Be aware that customers can leave without ever once voicing their displeasure with how you’re doing things.)
  • What percentage of your business comes from repeat customers?
  • How much of your new business converts into an ongoing relationship?

It’s only after you have the answers to these questions, and you can compare the actual results to the benchmarks of performance that you’d like to see, that you can determine what time it is. Is it time to concentrate on building your company by improving and enhancing the customer experience, or do you have the justifiable confidence to focus your efforts on growth?

Sustainable growth is a balancing act, predicated on the understanding that it is always ultimately better for brand longevity to build a good company than a bad one. Customers are drawn in when they know they’ll be treated well; they’ll stay when you prove it to them.

The effort and energy Gilt Groupe put into building up their website and customer service capabilities is time well spent. So much of the brand’s appeal is dependent on a specific emotional experience: the thrill of competitive shopping, coupled with the triumph of getting in on the deal. Ensuring that there are no technical difficulties or overwhelmed staffers to short-circuit that emotional experience will result in brand growth.

Be A Better Brand Manager: The Essentials

Know what time it is. Assess your company’s performance regularly and objectively.

Improving the customer experience always pays off.

Don’t be afraid to put on the brakes. Going full speed is no good if it takes your company right into the wall of disappointing your customers.