Brands need friends and an eco-system that attracts them

Building brands has changed in a big way.  Once it was all about what a brand said: the promises in its advertising. More recently it was about access: websites that let customers and prospects come and interact when they wanted to.  But now it’s about what might be called “marketing through relationships.”

I’ve talked about this in a number of presentations, mostly in an attempt to explain that social media is not about technology or platforms, but rather about how brands can create long lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with their customers.

A couple of days ago, poking around on some of my favorite blogs, I came across a presentation on BBH Labs’ site that included another smart way to think about this.

In a recent presentation that a couple of its strategists gave to students at VCU, the skunk-workers suggested that if a brand focuses on behavior, conversation, innovation, and utility (among other noteworthy qualities) it might actually make friends. A pretty good idea given that friends listen, share, support, forgive, come back and maybe even stay loyal when someone else has a better price.

Some pretty successful big brands — Panera*, Zappos*, Apple, and American Express come to mind – along with plenty of smaller companies — Timbuk2, the messenger bag maker, and AJ Bombers, the Milwaukee burger joint, for example– have also demonstrated the value of this approach.

These companies do it through their physical environments, interactions in social media, products and innovations, even their content and advice. What they all have in common is this: the experiences they create, digitally and otherwise, are mutually beneficial. They give their community as much as they hope to get back in the form of sales and business: Panera with its community involvement; Zappos with constant engagement and its knack for delighting; Apple with its one-to-one classes; and AMEX with it’s customer service. (If you’ve ever tried contesting a charge or fee with CitiBank or Chase versus American Express, you know what I mean.)

Timbuk2 treats its customers with genuine appreciation, taking advantage of everything from its website to personal thank you notes.  And AJ Bombers continues to set examples with its innovative use of social media.

Behavior – what these brands do, not what they say – results in their winning friends, at least in the loose sense of the word.

In the BBH Labs presentation, the assignment to VCU students goes on to ask for an eco-system — presumably based on insights and an understanding of how the community-to-be-engaged (I like that better than the term “target audience”) uses technology, media and content — along with propagation tactics for how the word will get spread.

This is yet another smart way to look at marketing. After all, if we’re trying to make friends, the last thing we need to do is blabber at them.  Better to create a warm, welcoming, entertaining environment where they might want to come and hang out rather than an ad they’re likely to tune out. Heck, they might even buy something while they’re with us.

We all know this is the new way to market. Every agency and CMO is starting to think this way. Granted some are getting there faster than others. After all it takes a different kind of team, a revised approach to strategy, and willingness to throw out the old way of doing things.

But I think the BBH Labs approach offers a good place to start: attracting friends (rather than targeting an audience) and building an eco-system instead of crafting a message.

Is that what you’re brand is doing?

Photo by Haags Uitburo

* Panera and Zappos are clients of Mullen, the agency where I work.

11 comments
Bibadibb
Bibadibb

It's funny that the concept of brands is so far removed from nature, yet when it comes down to it we are creatures of nature and are strongly influenced by our environment. Even if it is a manmade environment!

Ben Kunz
Ben Kunz

Have you considered that communication/social strategy may be based on the lifecycle of a brand?

The brands you mention -- Panera, Zappos, Apple, and American Express -- are all mature leaders in their fields. It makes sense for them to engage their customers e.g. defend their revenue stream from erosion. They've all build hot products that in turn built customers that now are loyal ... the first step toward being disloyal. Their only asset is a loving customer base; that asset, like a harem, comes with costs of maintenance.

But if you were *launching* a business today with a new product, you need to push outward with messaging, build a brand, stimulate demand, carve a niche. All the warm fuzzies of social media in the world ain't going to get you there.

Obviously any company can pick three ways to compete -- customer focus, product focus, operational/cost focus, a la Treacy and Hagel. But I think the firm's life stage also comes into play. Some companies are 40-year-olds trying to keep their spouses happy, engaging, curating, connecting... and others are 20-year-olds scouting for a new mate. For the youngsters, it's all about getting the signal out.
.-= Ben Kunz´s last blog ..Lap dances: Why Twitter won't fit on your TV =-.

Howie G
Howie G

Here is the Agency dilemma. We balance a fence. We want clients. We know their weaknesses in their business model or products. We often see on the street the same stuff they see. And we want to be honest. Yet we want the business and often the client doesn't want honesty.

I wish we could pick and choose only the companies with the ecosystems you mention Edward. Your lucky to have won some of them. No your not lucky. A company with the DNA and Ecosystem won't pick 'the cheapest' or the 'biggest' or the 'one that kisses their butts with over promising'. Your one of the few shops in the big agency world that has a special reputation and its because Mullen has such an ecosystem yourself (from my humble observations). You should be proud. You lead by example.

edward boches
edward boches

Agree that young brands need awareness. But you forget that Zappos and Panera both build brands with no advertising to speak of. It was mostly through behavior and word of mouth. Additionally, I'm not suggesting this is all about social media, but rather about what brands do and how they think about relationships versus transactions. Finally, all this stuff works together in an ideal world. Brands need eco-systems that integrate everything from employee actions to product to POS and distribution, to advertising, and, yes, social. I plan to write more in the future on some of the things I'm discovering from clients. Cultures that still talk at customers rather than engage with, even in social. Companies that have built and created dozens of assets with no sense of how they relate to each other. And firms that have yet to realize that there are now tools -- Twitter, et. al. -- that can leverage individual employees to develop and maintain valuable relationships based on service. Thanks to both Ben and Howie for your thoughtful comments.

Howie G
Howie G

Ben I think you actually expanded on what Edward was trying to relay here. Maybe sharpened it. Social Media really doesn't have scale for mature brands. And I don't think it ever will have it.

But the message of community and caring for your customers I think is shown in everything these brands do. You have to spend money to make money. I think that is the real message. And empathy in what you do can be read no matter where you are in the life cycle. I think this is company DNA stuff. Communication strategy and executing is really important too. But even if you mess up a Brand who values existing customers is in your DNA will over come.

Now lets bring up 2 companies 1] that is cheap on the CRM end - Delta 2] doesn't give a flying Bleep - BP

I truly feel it is in their DNA top on down. Yet somehow they still succeed? We have Jaffe who really does have social media scale shredding on Delta. They don't care. BP?

A wise Accounting Professor told me when I interview ask where employees sit on the balance sheet- Asset or Cost. I think that goes the same for customer service. Zappos its an asset. Delta its a cost.

Mark Sargent
Mark Sargent

A pleasure to see you find the time for so much welcomed involvement, Edward. Rock on!
Social is not about technology and platforms but building relationships. The two things I find most amazing about all
what's been coined social:
• Discovery. Let's say Bob discovers a brand or its product. Bob will likely tell his friends about his discovery. He will also return to his discovery to learn more, eventually becoming rather familiar with the brand's product or service. Nobody will have to talk Bob into buying the product or service, he will decide so on his own if he hasn't done so already. Bob has become a returning visitor, a customer, a brand steward and evangelist of the brand's product or service.
• Learning creatures. We as customers and humans are learning beasts. Anything we'll come across that makes us want to say: "I had no idea" is of serious attraction and pulls us in. Learning experience is a major motivation and top ranking (as self-actualisation) in Abraham Maslow's Theory of Human Motivation.
.-= Mark Sargent´s last blog ..“That’s branding” =-.

Mike
Mike

"... if a brand focuses on behavior, conversation, innovation, and utility (among other noteworthy qualities) it might actually make friends."

It's always been true. It was once known as the customer experience. A customer service rep at our bank called us last night, an hour after his shift ended, because he finally figured out a Quicken glitch on their end. He spent days trying to trouble shoot, forgiving any late fees and calling us to offer suggestions. You can bet they've kept a 16-year customer for probably another 16 years.

Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)
Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)

Hi Edward, It never ceases to amaze me how we seem to be on similar wavelengths! I've got a post going up this week that dovetails right into your thoughts. I'm so glad you wrote this. It's so timely! You're right... The agency of the future will have to evolve into something very different than it is today, because the job of helping clients build an "eco-system" for customers takes a very different creative skill set... and a different perspective on team organization and management. Again, great post!!

Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)
Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)

It sounds interesting!

And "designing actions, not words" is poetry.
.-= Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)´s last blog ..The Search for Intelligent Life in the RSS Feed Black Hole (Why I Created a Podcast) =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Thanks. We're working on a lot of this new stuff. Different ways of looking at the funnel. Designing actions, not words. Involving consumers and prospects in the experience. Makes things way more interesting.