22 October 2007

The value of relationships

I live in an apartment building of sixteen flats. My neighbours don’t seem to be very friendly. I’ve wished them on several occasions, but they’ve never wished back. I’ve opened the gate for their cars a couple of times when the security guy was not around and I was passing by, but they’ve never thanked me. Once when there was an electric power problem in the building, I came home at night to find that no one had bothered to switch on my ‘mains’ connection while they all enjoyed full electricity in their flats.

Gauging my neighbours’ response and rudeness as, perhaps, a big-city Mumbai syndrome, I’ve kept more or less to myself. So, imagine my surprise yesterday, when a neighbour of mine approached me out of the blue and asked me for a favour. Apparently, a wedding was soon to take place in her family and the neighbour wanted to shift some for her furniture to my flat, temporarily, for a week. She said, “Since you’re single, living alone, you’re bound to have extra space in your flat.”

In seconds, a montage of her husband ignoring my ‘good mornings’, her son not thanking me for opening the gate for his car on a rainy night, and her shutting the door on my face when I requested for help during the electric power problem danced through my mind. I replied, politely, that I had no space to accommodate her furniture in my flat. She got up and left, commenting that this was a dastardly (as I looked like a nice person) and a very un-neighbourly behaviour. She said, “Neighbours are expected to be nice to each other.”

In life, as it is in business, we often expect a return from others (our family, friends, colleagues and customers – not to mention neighbours) without, first, building a relationship with them. We handle our lives, our work and our businesses, one transaction at a time… without a sense of a rapport, a bond, a continuity. We expect others to accommodate us simply because we need something, right then and there. We, what we want, what we have to say, what we have to sell is all that matters.

The trouble with a transaction-based life, or business for that matter, is that we treat them in isolation. And, in the process, we consider others’ position, feelings and the need for affiliation irrelevant. The value of a transaction is not determined by itself, in isolation, but by what comes before and after it. It is determined by the relationship that governs and guides it.

18 October 2007

On loyalty

I’ve often come across managers in the corporate world who talk about loyalty. They insist on it. They expect it from their team members and their consumers unconditionally. And, what are they prepared to give in return? If anything at all, it’s bad behaviour. These managers are usually mean and oppressive – and insecure to the core of their hearts.

People in corporate organisations, like their consumers in the wider world, and the rest of us, balk at mean and oppressive behaviour. What we look for everywhere is a relationship – a connection, a kinship. A giving and accepting. An opening of hearts. An exchange of information and appreciation… empathy and even kindness. Such relationships are based on trust, not on bad behaviour.

Yet, many corporate managers fail to understand this. They demand loyalty without, first, building a relationship with their team members or their consumers. Is it any wonder that loyalty eludes them?

16 October 2007

That elusive thing called loyalty

I have more faith in dogs than I have in human beings. Dogs offer their love and loyalty unwaveringly, and unconditionally… well, perhaps, for some food and a place to sleep. Humans are more demanding. They simply want more and more. With such precepts driving human behaviour, how can brand marketers ever expect loyalty from their consumers?

The task of garnering consumer loyalty makes most brand marketers shudder. Just when they think they’ve succeeded in getting consumers to stay loyal to their brand, consumers wander off, lusting after a competitive brand. Infidelity is quite common between consumers and brands; forcing many marketers to believe loyalty is either a myth or, at least, an elusive target.

What drives the consumers away? No one knows for sure. It could be a change in the product formulation, the packaging, or the advertising. It could be a price increase, or an attractive promotion by another brand. It could be the overall shopping experience, or the insensitivity of the sales staff. It could be the availability of a technologically superior product, or the novelty of a new brand entering the marketplace.

When my clients complain to me about a drop in consumer loyalty, I bowl them a googly. I ask them: should consumers be loyal to the brand or should the brand be loyal to its consumers? You see, because we are here to sell our brand, we become a little self-centred and myopic in our selling. The brand means everything to us.

We expect consumers to stay loyal to our brand, without finding out ways to make the brand more meaningful to consumers over the long run. Our best efforts end up in offering discounts and points to consumers, expecting consumers to stay loyal against cash pay-offs. The costs of such pay-offs are heavy, cutting into business profits. In such business models, as profits dwindle, so do cash pay-offs to consumers, eroding consumer loyalty.

The thing to remember is, loyalty is not a one-time execution of a marketing plan. It is life-long – and deserves such commitment from the brand marketers. Keeping consumers loyal over the years is the real big challenge. Being sensitive to consumer needs and wants over the years, and maintaining brand salience in accordance with changing consumer lifestyles against competitive forces, hold the key to consumer loyalty.

09 October 2007

Differential marketing

“All consumers are NOT created equal. Some are vastly more profitable than others, and the marketers who succeed in an increasingly brand-hostile and technology-driven environment will be those who know how to capitalize on the difference.”

Although this quote came from Garth Hallberg’s book All Consumers Are Not Created Equal from way back 1995, I’m sure its philosophy is applicable today. Perhaps, even more so, as there are many more brands in the marketplace today than there were in 1995, a great many of which are technology-driven. To many marketers, today’s markets are truly hostile places for their brands.

As most experienced marketers know, old mass-market strategies of ‘one strategy fits all consumer segments’ are ineffective today. Consumers are now showing their true colours – each colour demanding full attention from the brand marketer. A move towards customised strategies to win over individual consumers seems to be the only answer.

Needless to say, the job for marketers has become difficult and less reassuring… setting them off in a quest to find (a) why consumers buy what they buy; (b) why consumers are more flexible in their preferences for brands – and less brand loyal; and (c) how a brand could profit from such an overwhelming marketplace.

One way to do this is to adopt neuromarketing techniques by putting (representative samples of) consumers under MRI scanners while exposing them to various brand messages, designs and colour options. If the pre-frontal cortex of the brain (which is apparently responsible for eliciting/controlling excitement and happiness) lights up, there is a likelihood that consumers will respond favourably towards brands that carry similar messages, designs and colour options… generating future sales.

But, besides being expensive and inconclusive (no one is sure if its results are accurate), neuromarketing is cumbersome to implement. For starters, it needs an MRI lab – with high-end medical equipment and trained technicians. In India, this type of investment is a far cry from what market research agencies are prepared for. No wonder neuromarketing has yet to find a place among Indian marketers.

That’s why I’ve always felt that Garth Hallberg’s philosophy of treating consumers differentially through ‘differential marketing strategy for brand loyalty and profits’ is an excellent idea for Indian marketers.

Differential marketing, a carryover from DM (direct marketing) and a precursor to today’s CRM (customer relationship management), is both a meaningful and a profitable marketing practice. It is information-based, with a good deal of data analysis and mapping at its processing centre. It relies on data generated from consumer sales and is, therefore, based entirely on facts from consumer response to brands (as opposed to experiments in neuromarketing). You can’t get any more accurate than that.

Differential marketing is not difficult to implement and can be adopted easily by small businesses. It requires small investments in information technology, a few data-entry operators, a programmer at the most… apart from a scientific-minded marketer. If consumer data-capture mechanisms are in place, the job is really half-done.

Alas, Indian marketers have been slow in responding to differential marketing as most of them don’t have adequate consumer/brand data in their hands. Even if they did, they don’t seem to be applying enough analytical techniques to mine information from their data banks – a fact that surprises me as we have some of the best marketing talent in the world. Instead, many Indian marketers have jumped directly to CRM, burning their fingers in huge investments with little returns.

Indian advertising agencies have shunned the differential marketing philosophy entirely. As usual, they have preferred to rest on their creative laurels rather than on accountability for building consumer relationships with brands. Even Garth Hallberg’s own agency in India, Ogilvy & Mather, has been reluctant in using this philosophy.