(This post originally appeared on the iMedia Connection blog on June 19, 2012.)
Wedding season is here, and brides and grooms everywhere are making what is hopefully the most significant and lasting commitment of their lives. But in today’s world, a lifetime of loyalty requires more than love: a lifetime of loyalty means hard work and compromise.
Just ask any marketer.
As consumers, we all have relationships with brands—and we’re more loyal to some than we are to others. We might even feel “married” to our favorites. But just as marital longevity continues to decline in the twenty-first century, brand loyalty has declined in the digital age.
Now that nearly every brand has an online presence, the game has changed, and the new rules are making it harder for companies to earn brand loyalty. Unprecedented access, digital marketing, e-commerce and rapid technological innovation are breaking up brand relationships—or even preventing them from forming in the first place.
The trouble is that the internet gives consumers access to copious information that brands can’t control. Thanks to social media and review sites, consumers often hear about brands from other consumers, as opposed to the brand itself. If shoppers deliberately search for information about a specific product or brand, they get a much broader sense of the market, options, and prices online than they would from a retail experience. One-stop shops like Amazon encourage consumers to make purchase decisions based on convenience, shifting loyalty from the brand to the distributor.
This generation may be fickle in romantic and brand relationships, but they are completely devoted to their personal devices. Forward-thinking brands are discovering that by adapting quickly to technology and the consumer habits it forms, they can rekindle cooling brand relationships—and spark new ones.
As a channel, mobile is all about intimacy; we carry our smartphones (and, to a certain extent, tablets) everywhere and feel lost without them. We interact with them in deeply physical ways: we keep them in our pockets, hear them ring, feel them vibrate, and activate them with the heat of our hands. We take care of them and they take care of us. Our relationships with these small devices are proprietary and emotional, and many of us value them over any other personal belonging that we use on a daily basis. Mobile boasts a constancy and closeness to consumers that print and TV media, store environments, and even laptops can’t rival.
Brands that truly understand their customers are crafting mobile experiences—usually either highly entertaining or very useful ones—that integrate seamlessly into customers’ connected lives. Nike is a great example of a retail brand that has translated its value proposition into a mobile presence. Nike offers apps stuffed with tools and technology designed to enhance athletic activities, such as the Nike+ GPS app, which tracks pace, distance, and progress over multiple runs, letting runners set goals and even cheering them on. In this way, Nike gains popularity and swagger among its customer base.
Other apps make “long-distance” brand relationships—the ones where you have to travel from home to a different location—much more intimate by allowing users to access their services virtually anytime. Mobile banking is the best illustration of this category, and anecdotal evidence seems to favor Schwab’s app, which lets users deposit checks just by taking a picture. Schwab customers who get used to this feature won’t be easily persuaded to bank elsewhere.
Internet brands, whose storefronts have always been virtual, court consumers by designing straightforward, easy-to-use versions of their websites for mobile. Subscribers to Zip Car or Seamless Web, for example, develop habits around these brands because of the straightforwardness and reliable function of their apps. Media brands, such as the New York Times and Pandora, also encourage subscriber monogamy with their clear and intuitive interfaces.
Perhaps the most seductive apps, though, are the ones that didn’t exist until the mobile channel existed, the ones whose product and value are intrinsic to the mobile experience. It seems like just about everyone is falling for (even obsessing over) Instagram, including Facebook. And something tells me it won’t be just a fleeting crush.
The new digital order doesn’t have to mean the end of happily-ever-after. Just as the most lasting couples learn to let their marriages grow and evolve, brands need to stay flexible and in tune with customer habits and preferences. Brands should view the internet and mobile technology not as challenges, but as opportunities—to redefine, modernize, and very likely strengthen customer relationships.
About the Author
Barbara Apple Sullivan is Managing Partner of Sullivan, a brand engagement firm she founded in 1990.
Barbara holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Follow Barbara on Twitter @bapplesullivan