Friday, August 21, 2009

Brand Experience - First Contact

There are many ways consumers experience your brand.

Eventually, consumers can become customers by experiencing your brand - that is the goal. But, to get to that stage the consumer will go through many experiences, and they all begin with the first contact.

First Contact
These days, it is likely that a consumer will have their first contact with your brand on the web. This is not from your brand's web site either. The fact is, your brand may be found in some form or another, on a discussion forum or social media site. Total strangers, may be mentioning your brand, ranting or raving about it or consumers may have seen an ad for it on their favourite search engine - there are so many different ways to discover new brands online. However, if you're not on the information superhighway but rather on another road in life, consumers may see your brand on a passing vehicle with decals on it, or perhaps in an advertisement in a magazine or newspaper or overheard in a discussion at one of the thousands of local coffee houses on your street.

No matter how or where the first contact happens, a first impression is made based on your brand immediately. And, consumers are either interested or they're not.

If the first contact is favourable, a consumer may be intrigued enough to go look for more information on your brand at which time many will turn to their favourite source of information and go online. This is where and when they may discover more customer comments, threads, videos, blogs or perhaps an official web site.

Now, as the owner of your brand you have to ensure that your first contact makes a positive impression. In a lot of cases, brand owners have little control over the first impression so they focus on improving the second and third impressions - although this is useful, but it's not the full remedy. You see, often times, the first impression is created and influenced heavily by existing customers and is representative of their experience with your brand. For example, a customer of your brand may start a discussion thread on a web forum (or Facebook group) discussing a specific experience - positive or negative, this is available for all to see. This is why the first reaction of brand owners is on service - good service begats good reviews, non?

Well, as a brand owner, you may think there is little you can do other than be better on service to keep first impressions in the positive light. But, there is actually a lot you can do... but it is a lot. And, most companies just don't dedicate the online time it takes to manage this properly. In large companies, this should be a full time job - brand owners need to be plugged into their brand online, 24/7.

With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to influence your brands' first contact and make it a positive one:

  1. Advertise. There is no better way to communicate your brand message than with your very own message. There are many options in placement, with online options growing by the nanosecond, you have to choose your platform carefully and not spread yourself too thin. Online advertising allows you to pinpoint and hit your target customer better than any other form of advertising, hands down.
  2. Awareness. Be aware of what is being said about you online. Subscribe to Google Alerts and don't just track your company name, track slogans, brand extensions, owner names, and competitors. Each day, you should receive a report that tells you what's being posted around the world about you and your brand. Use these to leverage interest and to respond where needed.
  3. Participate. OK, so you've gotten your first Alert and there's a discussion about how poorly your retail staff handled something... you can monitor it, but that won't solve anything. The best course of action is to address the issue with the staff then participate in the discussion online and explain who you are and what you did to ensure that type of situation does not happen again. Be honest and clear. When posting online, don't make excuses, just tell the truth about what happened and don't try to be a spin doctor. Transparency is how the web works and news travels fast.
  4. Encourage. Ask customers to tell their story online and provide them a platform for this, good or bad these are real stories about your brand that would take you millions in advertising to recreate. Obviously, you can't do #4 without #2 or #3, they are prerequisites. A large fan base that contributes to your brand story can help you in product development and refining your customer service. Your customers become part of the brand - which is really how it should be if you want them to promote it.
  5. Service. Treat every customer like your best customer and it will bring out the best in every customer. Consumers love hearing about brands that overachieve and talk about these experiences sometimes not even having experienced the experience first hand.
Here is an excellent example of how service can be talked about... from a posting about Nordstrom on Wikipedia:
"Nordstrom is well-known for its customer service, so much so that several urban legends have appeared regarding the store. One of the best known legends is purported to have taken place at the Anchorage store soon after its 1975 purchase from Northern Commercial Company. A customer, unaware that the store had changed hands, returned a set of tires. Although Nordstrom had never sold tires since opening, it was determined not to be the fault of the customer the store had changed hands, and the return was accepted. Many Nordstrom customers will attest that Nordstrom will refund items at any time purchased from Nordstrom stores."
Here is the instruction that Nordstrom stores gives to their new hires:

Welcome to Nordstrom

We're glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

How cool would it be to deliver top notch service so consistently that your spawn urban legends about your service? That is the absolute pinnacle of first impressions. I'm not sure if the story above is true or not, but it has been told over and over by customer service experts and by consumers that love the concept of the story so much that they tell friends about it. What does this do to Nordstrom's reputation?

We don't have Nordstrom's in Canada, but I've even told the story a handful of times, without setting foot in their store, I already think very highly of their brand.

What I find interesting, is how they empower their staff with such a succinct mantra. Provide outstanding service and use good judgment to do so. Wow. I'm sure there has been the odd hiccup, but you can't argue that this hasn't worked in building their brand to be at the top of the service chain. Nordstrom is a brand whos service culture continues to breed good first impressions.

For some of you reading my blog, this may be the first time you've heard of the Nordstrom brand - what are your first impressions?

Bottomline: Do all you can to get your brand out there and encourage your customers to do so as well, keep tabs on it and participate in the discussion. Your brand is a living thing, you can't pull a Ronco and 'set it and forget it' - you need to be involved in the growth and development. And, above all be consistent in your service... we'll get to that though, when we talk about the second and third contact.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Expectations and Promises

Do you know...

What your brand does?

What your advertising does?

What your marketing does?

Your brand and how you promote it, set an expectation and makes a promise.

The expectation is what the customer envisions they will get from your brand - this expectation is often based on the first impression or contact with your brand and like it or not, first impressions make an impact and opinions are formed. These opinions have to do with whether they like you or not, whether they trust you or not or whether your brand will make them look good or not.

So, put your best foot forward.

Its tough for people to recall their first impression of a brand they like - but we can ascertain that it was likely favourable or they would not have engaged with it any further. Negative first impressions are always hard to get past, especially in today's online environment.

Getting people to remember the first time they saw a major brand and finding out what their first impression really was about these brands can be difficult - through repetition and consistency a major brand helps solidify your first impression with follow up. Call it promotion or advertising, what this breaks down to is brand design.

A carefully crafted brand that embodies the spirit and essence of the company or offering will trigger response, even if just a way of thinking about the brand. Follow up with your messaging and keeping it consistent is important in identifying with the consumer what you want their expectation to be.

This is why graphic design plays such a heavy roll in the development and success of a brand.

Good graphic design will help communicate the essence of a brand visually. If done right, a brand will exude the feeling it wants to convey so that your expectation is in line with the brands offering.

When you create a brand, you market and promote it and in most cases, this is done through some kind of advertising. And, it is this outward promotion of the brand that makes the promise.

The promise is to the customer. And, the promise is that your brand will be as good (or as tasty, or hearty, or as durable etc, etc.) as the preconceived perception they have of your brand. Your look and feel, your essence, your personae is what your brand exudes through it's logo and word mark, its brochure, its website, what people are saying about it and how you are telling the brand story in your advertising and marketing.

This is a critical stage; the first interaction with a brand can determine continued support of the brand. This is because the brand needs to deliver on the expectation and solidify the assumptions that the consumer has made about it - this first interaction can be done a number of ways, but typically with a purchase, a visit to a retail location or even through other advertising.

If a brand fails to deliver on what the consumer is expecting, they will remember this in a not so fond way and will likely not engage with the brand.

These days, a consumer may have their first contact with a brand on the web, maybe in a forum or some social media site, where a friend mentions the brand or they have seen an ad for it, or it could be a good old fashioned way that they happen upon it like on the side of a passing vehicle with decals on it or in a magazine ad - either way, a first impression is made based on that brand immediately. Consumers are either interested or they're not.

This consumer may be intrigued enough to go look for more information on this brand at which time they may discover customer comments online, a tweet, or perhaps an official web site. This first contact with the brand will either confirm their assumption or change their perception of the brand.

Your brand needs to fulfill the promise made and meet the expectation, or your brand will cease to exist... it will just slowly disappear. You can throw all the money you have against it, but if you're not meeting the expectations you are breaking your promise to the consumer and for some reason this never seems to sit well with them.

It used to be said that consumers have the ultimate power, they choose what they purchase and can make their voices heard at the cash register. Back then, brand owners could manipulate and craft their brand as media was exclusive to big money (corporations, aka the brand owners) and communications were a one way street.

These days, consumers not only have the purchasing power, but they drive the media and communications through various online methods. Just think, 20 years ago, if a company wanted to convey a certain expectation about their product or brand they would spend a few million dollars on some TV advertising, Radio and Newspaper and consumers would get the message and understand the expectation (assuming their ad agency did it right). Fast forward to today, spend a few million dollars on traditional media and even if you reach a fraction of what you used to, views, listeners and readers will just go to the web for more info.

The information available online is not controlled by the advertiser, they put their rhetoric and propaganda out there, but in reality, they are merely a participant in the content... along with Gus from Albuquerque and Sara from Balzac and millions of others.

Considering how much information can be obtained online, you need to understand that you will not be the only one influencing consumers' impressions of your brand. People are Tweeting, Facebooking, having discussions through various chat mediums and in all these instances, they can be and are talking about your brand.

As a brand owner, you no longer have full control over your messaging. You can try to be 'plugged in' and put out the fires when they come up, post responses to negative postings, flood social sites with advertising... but when it comes down to it, you the brand owner, are now a spectator as well as a participant.

So, how do you manage to stay on top of this?

It's easy.

Deliver on the expectations and don't break your promise.

If you stay true to your brand, the people that discover you and 'buy in' to your brand will continue to do so and tell others... many others. Remember the TV commercial in the 70's for a hair shampoo... 'and she'll tell two friends and they'll tell two friends and so on, and so on...' well, times that by a million.

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