Successful brand building is determined more by customer experiences than by slick advertising campaigns

Far too many companies, whether Multi National Corporation (MNC) or Small, Medium sized Enterprise (SME) think or are led to believe that the fast track way to branding acceptance is to spend large amounts of money on high quality TV commercials, billboards or print advertising campaigns that showcase their products or services and communicate corporate driven messages to consumers.

But just because telecommunications companies, banks, oil companies, soft drinks firms and others spend considerable amounts of money on advertising doesn’t mean that the advertising is the reason for their success or that it is right for you.

In fact quite often, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the advertising campaigns initiated by these companies. A case in point is the current Celcom campaign “Ini Wilayah Celcom” prominent on billboards across Kuala Lumpur. With current mobile penetration in Malaysia around 125% of the population, it doesn’t make sense for Celcom to be creating awareness with expensive outdoor campaigns.

Unsurprisingly, at end of many such campaigns, there is often very little change in the fortunes of the brand. Which is why many of these advertising campaigns, do little to build brands and should not be emulated by other companies.

Because a key element of whether or not your brand building is successful will depend not on what you tell consumers through paid media but on the experiences consumers have with your personnel, your business and your products.

Put simply, if you manufacture furniture and spend a lot of money advertising a new furniture range but the furniture breaks all the time, you may make some sales but your brand will suffer as consumers avoid making a return visit and worse, discuss their issues with other consumers on and off line.

Likewise if your staff are slow, rude, inattentive, badly groomed, lack product knowledge, unhelpful and poorly trained, you may make a sale but the customer is unlikely to return and you can be sure they will share their negative experiences with others.

Furthermore, these negative experiences will be spread across the Internet using social media tools and in coffee shops, bars and so on will have a negative impact on your brand. Even sales of previously successful products may be affected negatively.

However, treat customers well and they will remain loyal. In a recent survey by Spherion, 97% of those questioned said a great experience makes them more likely to buy more of a product or repeat a service. However, once they have a bad experience or their trust is lost, it’s very hard to win back. To have a chance of winning back their business, 22% want a simple apology, 10% want a complete refund, and 8% would want incentives or coupons and even then there is no guarantee.

But 46% said that it would take an apology, a complete refund AND coupons or further incentives to have a chance of winning back their business. The implications therefore on your brand, of delivering a bad experience is costly and time consuming.

For the record, 15% said absolutely nothing would atone for their bad experience.

So you can try to shape the perceptions of your products or services with advertising, PR, advertorials, nice brochures and with content across social media and elsewhere but the reality is that the success or failure of your brand will be determined by experiences and how customers discuss your brand after the experiences.

Apple for example charges a premium for its products. It sells the sort of stuff – computers, smart phones, MP3 players – that lots of other people sell yet sells them at a premium. Margins for Apple iPhones are in the region of 50% compared to a meagre 6.2% for Nokia smartphones.

Furthermore, Apple ‘only’ spends US$250 million (2009) on advertising compared with Microsoft US$1.4 billion and Dell US811 million. In terms of a percentage of sales, this equates to 2.4% for Microsoft, 1.3% for Dell and 0.5% for Apple. RIM, manufacturer of the Blackberry spends 3.6% of revenue on advertising.

New technology companies that have sophisticated digital strategies and use email to market themselves spend even less on traditional advertising. Google spends only US$11 million on advertising or 0.05% of revenue. Amazon is a little higher at US$43 million or 0.17% of revenue.

As a general rule of thumb, spending less than 2% of revenue on advertising is considered low. For the automotive industry average advertising spend is nearer 3.5% of revenue. For alcohol it is more like 7% and for packaged goods and most other industries, as high as 10%.

Firms such as Apple, Google, Amazon and others are not successful because they spend huge amounts on short term advertising campaigns to create awareness but on innovative design, quality products and excellent service that is uniformly outstanding across all customer touch points such as in stores, whether bricks and mortar or online.

Consumers will pay more for Apple products because they are guaranteed a quality product (as well as inclusion into a not so unique club of Apple users) that will not fail them. And if it does, customers know they can go back to the store and seek a replacement or have repairs carried out under warranty.

Unfortunately most MNCs and SMEs don’t appreciate just how important the customer experience is. And the increasing popularity of social media means that consumers are voicing their dissent, not just to a few friends over teh tarik at a local Kopi Tiam but now to thousands and thousands of friends and followers and to their friends and followers across communities on Twitter, Facebook and more.

So as you try to build a successful brand, a core component of your strategy must be to build relationships with prospects and customers. You must learn how to manage relationships with customers, not just offline and during office hours but also online and at weekends.

Because unless you have a unique product or service (and few companies have unique products or offer unique services today), customers may buy from you if they have a bad experience but they are unlikely to come back again. And because of increased competition, it is impossible to build a brand on a business model that relies on new customers all the time.

Make sure that at every touch point where consumers interact with your brand, the experience for those customers is a positive one. This becomes a greater challenge as a company grows and if you get it wrong, what was once a nice little niche business with a manageable group of customers who all spoke positively about the company can become, almost overnight a loss making enterprise with fewer customers and a bad reputation for over promising and under delivering.

Ensure that every sales contact, service delivery and customer service interaction that the customer comes into contact with is positive as this will have a positive impact on your brand. Even suppliers need to be treated with respect.

But even if you invest heavily in customer relationships, and even if you keep 99% of your customers happy, there will always be some who are not happy and are dissatisfied with your service. What do you do with them?

The first thing is not to ignore these important customers. Try to get them to explain to you what is the problem. Be prepared to listen and hear stuff that may sound unreasonable. Some customers will be rude, personal and even physical. But you have to make sure your people are trained to listen and empathise. Think KFC!

And where possible solve their problem in a way that is satisfactory for them, not you. I know this might be a problem for you and will certainly cost you money on that particular transaction but in the long run it will offer far greater returns.

If you try to take care of every single customer, both those that are not a problem and those that are you’ll create a positive reputation. Even if customers are frustrated with their experiences with your brand, if you show empathy and provide a solution that makes them happy, there is a good chance they will tell others that they were impressed with you and how hard you worked to solve the problem for them. And with a little incentive, you can probably convince them to come back.

Despite what you may have been told, mass advertising across mass media is not the holy grail to building a brand. Which is fortunate because it means SMEs won’t waste hard earned money on campaigns to compete with large conglomerates. But if you look after the customer and try to make every experience a positive one, you will speed up the process of building a brand.

Thanks to zendesk for the graphic above.

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