Branding & Positioning

Brand Advocacy: How to Become the Downton Abbey of Brands

On February 17, 2013, Downton Abbey‘s season 3 finale aired on PBS.  8 million Americans tuned in expectantly to witness the ongoing saga between Matthew and Mary, Bates and Anna, the Dowager Countess and whomever dared to ruffle her feathers.  In fact, just say one sentence about Downton Abbey at a party or on Twitter, and you will see just how enthusiastic fans are of the show.  It’s obvious: we not only love Downton Abbey, but we are (extreme) advocates for it.

Although we can’t all have a Maggie Smith on our team to woo people into becoming our fans with snarky one-liners, we all should be striving for brand advocacy from our customers.

We all want our customers to become our advocates, but what does it take to get there?

Take It from a Rock Star

A few months ago, Mark Collier wrote a poignant post comparing Coke’s efforts to create brand advocates to the efforts of various rock stars.  His ultimate conclusion:  Coke’s goal is to get their customers to tell stories for the company, whereas rock stars just like to focus their energy on appreciating their fans (and then the fans tell the story anyway).  Take a minute to read what he has to say:

“The first thing that pops into most brand’s minds when it comes to their advocates is ‘How can we leverage this connection to result in a sale?’  The first thing that pops into most rock stars’ minds when it comes to their fans is ‘How can I show them that I appreciate them?’”

Collier then goes on to strike at the heart of the issue: “Rock stars have an emotional relationship with their fans, while most brands have a transactional relationship with their customers.”

Admittedly, it’s easier for TV programs and rock stars to garner an avid and outspoken following than a business.  In fact, you might be reading this and thinking, “I’m a business — there’s no way I’m going to get my customers as emotionally connected to my brand as they would be to Doctor Who.”

And yet this is what you want, and ultimately what you need.  In case you missed it, let me reiterate: your goal is to create an emotional relationship with your customers that goes beyond mere transactions.

Before you stop reading, let’s look at a few businesses who are doing just that — and then we’ll talk about how B2B companies have the advantage in building emotional connections between their brand and their customers.

Starbucks: Changing Customer Behavior

StarbucksIf you are or know of a devoted Starbucks customer, you know that they go out of their way to get their Starbucks’ coffee.  Whether that means making Starbucks’ coffee at home, stopping at a local shop during their morning commute, or scheduling meetings at various Starbucks’ locations, for loyal customers, Starbucks has become a part of their routine.

And that’s what you want.  You want your customers to go out of their way to use your brand, and you want to be part of their routine.  In the book Brand Rituals, Zain Raj talks about how, “The stages of enriched brand experiences move from current consumer behavior to a magnified interest, to modified attitudes and ultimately to a new behavior. The mindfulness that aligns with each of these stages is a customer transaction, attraction, connection, and bond, respectively.”

Zappos: Exceeding Customer Expectations

zappos logoEvery company wants good customer service, but what type of customer service builds a relationship with the customer?  The type that anticipates their wants, meets them, and then exceeds them.

Take Zappos, for example.  If you’re buying shoes online, your worst fear is they won’t fit right and you’ll have to go through the hassle of returning them.  Realizing this fear (and that it would keep potential customers away, especially if they have or hear of one negative experience), they offer the following: 1) A free return label with your purchase (so there’s no extra expense to you); and 2) A 365-day return policy (so you can mull over that purchase for a long while or take your precious time getting to the post office).  By enacting this policy, Zappos exceeded customer expectations.

Having trouble thinking of a way to do this?  The first step is dialog: ask your customers, and then take their answers and make tangible changes.  Whitney Wood, managing partner of the Phelon Group, told Inc. Magazine:  “If you handle it right, the dialog between you and your customers can become the lifeline of your business. To establish and maintain a healthy flow, customer feedback must result in change your customers can see. Change is the most powerful currency to reward vocal and consultative customers.”

Apple: Closing the Back Door

Apple logoI think we can safely say that Apple users define the word fan; they are indeed fanatical about Apple products.  Some have even used the term, “Apple cult” to describe the way Apple users feel about their Macbooks/iPads/iPhones.  Say anything negative about Apple products, and you will see just how emotionally connected Apple users are to the company.

So how did they do it?  It’s not easy to boil it down to just one thing, but overall, Apple “closed the back door,” so to speak.  They created a top-notch product that was user-friendly and marketed it as “cool” so that users became hooked.  Those that are part of the Apple cult don’t want to leave because they have no reason to do so.  Apple has closed the back door.

Howard Tullman wrote about “closing the back door” for Inc. Magazine.  He says, “The winning game is to own your customers for life. To do that, you need to anticipate, meet, and try to exceed their needs and their expectations.  Your job is to monitor your customers’ progress and jump in at the appropriate juncture to make the next connection and the next sale.”

In a tech world previously dominated by Microsoft, Apple met the needs of consumers, and then exceeded them.  They have won their customers for life.

Your Advantage as a B2B

How do you change customer behavior, exceed customer expectations, and close the back door in a B2B marketplace?

The first step is coming up with a coherent and actionable value proposition.  If you know exactly why and how your product adds value to your customers’ lives, and if that value is communicated throughout all aspects of your business, then you are in a good place.  This is true for all companies — B2C or B2B.

The second step is where you have the advantage as a B2B company: knowing your customers as individuals.  “We live in a culture where knowing your customers one by one as individuals is more important than ever before,” a researcher with the BRS Group told Inc. Magazine.  Depending on the size of your company, there are various ways of achieving this goal, but I would recommend that this become your focus in the upcoming years.  Whether it’s a matter of assigning sales reps to make a huge push towards showing appreciation to the customer or you personally reaching out to every customer, make sure you have a plan for, as my good friend Ed Wallace says, “building relationships that will last.”

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s vitally important that B2B companies become THE company for their category.  And if you’re working towards creating emotional bonds between your customers and your company, then you are well on your way to becoming the Downton Abbey of your market.

What other companies are building relationships between their customers and company?

What companies are trying to build relationships, but are not succeeding?

What would you recommend for companies attempting to establish an emotional connection between their brand and customers?

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