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The customer-brand relationship

The secret to sales success is to move your customer up the loyalty ladder from brand awareness to brand loyalty. Branding guru Jeff Hilton walks us through the steps. Part three in a four-part series

In my April article, I discussed the importance of creating a relevant and compelling value proposition, which communicates to your sales prospects the core reason why they should purchase your product or service. It has both functional and emotional components. Once you have a strong value proposition, you can begin to develop advertising and promotional materials that encourage and foster a connection or relationship between the product and the prospect.

The goal of all marketing communication is to build some degree of customer loyalty to your brand. As the chart demonstrates, the relationship with your future customer moves through stages, in both a theoretical and practical sense.

Awareness: Your prospective buyer first becomes aware of your brand's existence. Key marketing tools in this phase include advertising, public relations, packaging and word-of-mouth communication or referral. Your goal at this stage should be to create exposure for the brand identity.

Acceptance: Your prospect has done some research and checked you out with various influencers, and has decided that your brand is a potential purchase alternative. I call that becoming part of their 'considered set.' Key marketing tools in this phase are the Internet and retail stores, as well as product literature. Your goal at this stage should be to get educational information out in all communications channels that focus on brand features and benefits.

Trial: Your prospect has become a customer by making a trial purchase of your product or service. Your goal here is to provide compelling reasons to purchase that make your brand a superior alternative to the competition.

Preference: At this point, your customer would prefer to purchase your brand, all things being equal. Those last four words are important because brand switching is rampant in most consumer categories and can be influenced by price, availability, word-of-mouth recommendation and point-of-purchase activity. This is why working to keep loyal customers happy has become the focus of relationship marketing programmes for most companies. Your goal at this point is to stay prominent in the minds of your customers and give them reasons to come back.

When I used to work in the men's shaving cream category, we would offer a bonus buy or special on-pack promotion every time our competitor would introduce a new product. It's all about keeping your prospects' attention away from the competition in any way that you can.

Loyalty: It's the Holy Grail of marketing. But it's not easy to find or keep hold of. Studies show that brand loyalty across all categories is declining. The typical US company loses half of its customers in five years. The reasons for declining customer loyalty are clear:

  • overwhelming number of choices
  • abundance of information
  • increased price competition
  • increasing commoditisation of most consumer categories
  • growing personal insecurity reflected in bankruptcies
  • greater time scarcity
Building brand equity
Key marketing tools here include loyalty programmes, advertising, public relations and other 'value-added' strategies. Your goal here is to keep your customer satisfied and provide incentives for them to remain in the brand franchise. It's important to remember that the consumer you were likely selling to 10 years ago no longer exists. She has evolved. She is savvy, selective and much too busy to care about how much money you are spending to persuade her to buy your brand. She has plenty of options. So in your quest to capture her loyalty, it's not just about working harder. It's about working smarter.

In summary, the goal of every marketer should be to move his customers up the loyalty ladder. And with a solid brand identity, a persuasive value proposition and sound execution, that goal should be attainable.

Jeff Hilton is president and co-founder of Integrated Marketing Group, based in Utah.

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