Brand loyalty in digital: Lose control, but generate engagement

Brand loyalty in digital: Lose control, but generate engagement
Max Eaglen is a founding director of Platform, a brand consultancy that co-create Customer Experience Centres and work with clients including Vodafone, TAG Heuer and British Gas.

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A brand image used to be a thing that advertisers, PR and other marketers created. Think brands in the 80s – Levis, Haagen-Dazs, BT – they all conjure up strong brand images of men in launderettes, couples licking ice cream off each, Maureen Lipman as Beatie – even the music evoked the brand with Heard it Through the Grapevine the anthem of 1980s adland.

With brand image, came brand loyalty and of course, advocacy and sales.  This was a world of one way traffic, brand land created images, and consumers decided to buy them or not.

What’s happened to the brand since the Internet became a mass market tool? And how do online brands generate brand loyalty in a market where everyone has a voice and an opinion?

What does a brand mean in the digital world?

We have entered a world where the largest taxi company, Uber owns no vehicles, the most popular media owner, Facebook, creates no content and the largest accommodation provider, Airbnb owns no real estate. All these brands exist without any traditional assets, and all would not exist without the Internet.

For these brands, digitalisation is part of their experience, and part of their identity. Customers understand their role within their market, and their brand is entwined with the online experience. As Jess Sarsfield-Desai, Innovation Centre Design Lead for Accenture pointed out at the roundtable event, “If I go into a store, I have an experiential experience. However, if I visit ASOS, it is a different experience, one I understand, but still a different one.”

How can customers have the engagement with the brand that they have in a physical space? Many online providers are marketplaces for their products. That marketplace reflects their brand image, values, mission and assets.  There has been much thought, possible focus groups, brand development and strategy to get the environment, the retail experience right. 

Sarsfield-Desai continues, “When you have big shopping centres like Westfields, the environment sets the scene for the brand, already giving the customer an endorsement before they step into your retail space.” For brands online, they are dependent on customers finding them in the vortex of the Internet, and then engaging them within the first five seconds before they click off elsewhere.

Maybe this is why we have seen retailers shift their brands from physical spaces, to digital, back to physical, with the increase of pop up spaces. Complementing this mix are those brands that use the physical alongside the digital such as Waitrose and Tesco opting for Click and Collect services.

Back to online and another commentator at Platform’s recent roundtable, Roger Wade, the founder of BoxPark, a pop mall in East London, comments that where online retailers have gone wrong is that they haven’t tried to build a relationship with their customers.  Many got rid of the beautiful content they had and forgot that the content drove the traffic.  “So driven with the share price and the sales to the site, they forgot about the relationship with their customer.”

Simon Hopkins of Turner, Hopkins, digital media strategists goes a step further stating that the bigger places in content, media and technology haven’t got a brand at all.  Quoting the music industry as an example, he commented that customers might have a relationship with the brand they are buying – eg. the band whose concert ticket is purchased – but not with the provider.  Customer choice is based on price, convenience and ease of purchase.

“I give a lot of money to Amazon but am I loyal to Amazon? I don’t know.  I had relationships with (shops like) Rough Trade when I was growing up, it was about the experience. Online relationships are not comparable.” Simon Hopkins, TurnerHopkins.

Roger Wade continues, “It is about the sophistication of the customer – how they engage with them- it has to be more than sales per foot, or click.  What makes me scared about online brands alone is that their customers don’t have a relationship with the product or the brand. Ultimately people really matter – people want to feel special.”

A monopoly of channel, a platform without a brand?

Paul Halliwell, ex managing director of TalkTalk and now running his own digital consultancy, sums up the discussions stating that online brands can become simply platforms selling products or services. “What gives them the right to exist? It is scale, monopoly of channel. Where brands have other environments such as experiential, they can build relationships with their customers. When they build relationships, that’s when great customer experience starts to happen.”

So where does that leave marketers? Especially those whose brands have only existed online or whose only interface with the customer is digital? Brand image has been redefined by the Digital Revolution. Going back to the 1980s when the adman and the PR gurus were lauded for creating brand images that differentiated them from their competitors, today’s brands aren’t about control but about engagement with their customers.

The onset of the digital experience, and the tools that this gives both marketers and consumers means that we need to co-create our brand and their identities with our customers, our influencers.  We need to do more than project what we want our products and services to be onto our potential audience, but work with that audience to create brands that they want, and need in their lives. This is where physical spaces like Customer Experience Centres are flourishing, where brand guardians alongside customers, influencers, clients and suppliers deconstruct their brands and recreate them in line with need and demand.

Those who engage rather than control will be the winners in the battle of the brands and those who continue to have the human at the heart of their brand, whether digital or not, will always be the ones who continue to drive the loyalty.

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