path through trees

CAREER LESSONS ON UTILIZING PERSONALIZED CONNECTIONS TO INDIVIDUALIZE BRANDS

By Simon Fletcher, Director, Experience Strategy and Design

In a previous post, I explored the importance of keeping a brand promise and how doing so requires individualizing the brand through personalized connections. In this follow-up, I'll outline the career observations that have brought that point into sharp focus.

My marketing career started off on more of the promotional side, which was highly focused on sponsorships to connect brands through people's passions. Sponsorships were the first true manifestation of branding, which aimed to garner a lifestyle and cultural connection back to a company's products and services.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, brand sponsorships took off and started to have a tremendous impact on culture. Major brands like Coke and Pepsi created brand affinity through music; Gatorade started sponsoring entire sports leagues in the race to be the “official drink of X”; and Nike created the player endorsement movement with Michael Jordan, which sparked a cultural movement and the introduction of shoe culture.

Brands started to represent a higher purpose, and they worked to strike a chord with consumers to associate themselves through personal identity. Through my early promotional days, I learned that the brand is the spark and that sponsorships were the underlying current to interweave the brand into people's everyday lives.

New Millennium, New Challenges

In the 2000s, I transitioned to a traditional agency, where I had the opportunity to work on some amazing brands, supporting legacy and emerging products. This was during the time when traditional TV, radio, and print media were being challenged for consumer attention with the emergence of digital advertising (and later social media). It quickly became apparent that the world of marketing and advertising would forever be more complicated as we competed for the hearts and minds of our audiences.

This also revealed that marketers had to go beyond a macro approach of connecting with consumers through mass campaigns and begin to think micro. With the rise of online product reviews, now a scalable outlet existed for consumers to turn to give a brand and associated products praise — or vent when the brand broke its promise or underdelivered. With the emergence of social media, consumer and brand accountability amplified exponentially, revealing that brands had to find authentic and real ways to individually connect and respond to their audiences.

Brands quickly realized that advertising isn’t just about garnering sales, but also about creating meaningful relationships with audiences. They also realized that they needed to deliver consistent experiences across channels — easier said than done, as consumer expectations continued to be heightened and their organizations became more complex. This led to rethinking how to craft smart brand and consumer contact strategies that go beyond marketing, but also connect to the corporate identity with higher purpose while also being intimately rooted in micro-consumer understanding.

A Perfect Case Study

My career then jumped to the client side, where I had the honor of working for Southwest Airlines. I might be biased, but Southwest Airlines is the perfect use case of a company having a clear brand promise and making every effort to deliver that promise day in and day out. It’s in the company's DNA, from its “people over profits” mantra (knowing that if you do the right thing for the consumer, the profits will fall into place) to following the simple “golden rule” (treat others as you would want to be treated) that is deeply ingrained in every employee.

I learned to always put myself in the customer's shoes during my time with Southwest. In fact, I remember sitting in meetings where they would leave an empty chair with a picture of a customer taped to the back (which represented the customer having a seat at the table) even if it was a technology or financial meeting. That had a profound impact that sticks with me today.

Through my time at Southwest, I played a role in helping to shape their new branding and visual identity, which resulted in the Southwest Heart logo that represents the compassion of the brand and in showcasing the people (employees) who deliver the brand promise every day throughout their advertising campaigns and brand collateral. I also had the honor of working on Southwest’s Customer Experience (CX) team as this new discipline was first being built.

Throughout my time on the CX team, I learned that the experience can and should be quantified. There is significant value in every interaction. Each one (small or big) contributes to each individual's brand perception and experience satisfaction, which is directly tied to their propensity for their next purchase — and ultimately influences loyalty and lifetime value. I also learned that every individual has a story and not all experiences should be equal. This is where taking great lengths to understand an individual level is instrumental to how you engage.

It's also where the power of profile and behavioral data (including noting when they have had a negative experience) can equip frontline employees. This data can also improve how communications should be crafted to best respond, support, nurture, and interact with customers to empathize, excite, and entice at the right time with the right message throughout their individual journeys.

Follow the Leaders

While the airline industry faces a monumental challenge right now, it also presents an opportunity to think differently to persevere. Doing the right thing for the customer and continuing to deliver on the brand promise through every interaction is more important than ever. Companies like Southwest will come through the other side stronger.

Plenty of other notable brands have achieved customer and financial success by delivering on their promises through all aspects of their corporate cultures, products and services, and customer experience. Disney's brand promise is “magical experiences abound," and the company delivers by going the extra mile in all aspects of what it does. Disney is relentless in dissecting every aspect of the Disney experience — from making waiting in line part of the overall experience (e.g., with interactive elements and an engaging environment) to hiring for personality and empowering employees to make every interaction meaningful and memorable.

The brand purpose for Starbucks ("to inspire and nurture the human spirit –— one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time”) is driven down to the individual in a powerful statement that's executable across all aspects of the organization. Starbucks aspires to personalize every digital interaction with a seamless physical experience translating down to its baristas. They make you feel valued and give back to their neighborhoods and customers (via free products and rewards). They make connections that create community and deliver on their promise to inspire and nurture the human spirit.

Apple's promise to "think different” is rooted in creating products that are simple and attainable yet culture-defining. Apple develops content to make humanity more functional and connected, all while improving lives and digital experiences.

None of these brands achieved success without a great promise and methodical approach to delivering an experience that pays off the promise. While the promise might be defined at the corporate/brand level, it's up to each individual within an organization to deeply understand and buy into it. Every employee makes a contribution to the customer, whether that is directly through a personal interaction or indirectly in rationalizing business decisions.

At the end of the day, we are all customers ourselves. If we simply balance what drives us professionally with what drives us personally, then the innate connection with the customer will always shine through.