Lending a Helping Brand

In the face of the economic downturn, consumers have had to make significant choices to keep pace with the impact of a changed economy. And brands have suffered as a consequence.
In the slow and unpredictable process of the economy righting itself, as well as the ongoing progress of technology as a brand driver, brands should focus on how they can help consumers, not only in these trying times, but in the times to come. Now is the time to solidify loyalty through understanding, people and always being there to help.
First, focus your brand’s messaging on value and empathy, not discounting, which tarnishes brand strength in the long term. People don’t forget when a company compromises its brand values for immediate gain, especially if that gain is for a person’s hard earned and hard kept dollar. 

Taking the above into consideration, brands should communicate promotions that help consumers minimally sacrifice the experience they’ve had with the brand to date. Immediate and tangible empathy will go a long way in retaining customers.

In this spirit, Hyatt’s Random Acts of Kindness allows staff to offer free meals or services to their Gold Passport members. Similarly, Hyundai’s Assurance campaign — in which it would take back a new car if a consumer lost his/her job — has been successful precisely because it communicates empathy, addresses a real customer concern and allows customers peace of mind, all without compromising their experience with the brand or its value.
Second, engage your frontline staff in your social networking initiatives. In a time where a personal touch is invaluable, face-to-face contact inevitable and the impact of social networking incredible, there is enormous opportunity to deepen connections. People are going to be the ones to restore consumer confidence and trust.

This is especially relevant given the higher expense associated with acquiring versus retaining consumers and the value of highly engaged enthusiast brand advocates.

Success is dependent on staff clearly understanding how they and their brands are expected to behave in the social networking arena, and a commitment to maintaining the relationships carried over from the face-to-face to the digital space. A vital component of that relationship is listening. Once your staff engages in conversations at the “digital picket fence” it is imperative that they are empowered to react to what they hear.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is a stellar example of company personnel being available in a meaningful way not only to consumers, but to employees as well. His regular blog and tweets provide a new level of transparency to even suppliers and competitors.  
Finally, “informationalize” every step of the brand experience. A consumer’s brand experience is marked as much by the product and service as it is by the points of sale and “sites of sale,” as well as by the surprising times when the brand isn’t expected to be present but is.

With over half of the world’s population carrying a mobile phone and the likelihood that, as McKinsey & Co. predicts, applications will become “the new Web sites,” brands have an opportunity to entirely “digitize” and expand an individual’s experience of their brand.

Yelp’s blended reality application allows consumers to point their camera at a physical destination to bring up the relevant reviews for the destination. Using GPS technology, the application is able to provide consumers with similar alternatives in the immediate vicinity.

So far, few branded applications have proven successful, simply because they’ve jumped into the app race without fully understanding how and what to deliver consumers that complements their particular brand experiences. As brands take a step back to appreciate what consumers want from them when, the brand apps market will undoubtedly soar. 
No matter the industry, and no matter the economic times, brands have always had to stand for something and provide meaningful value to a consumer. Today, that value begins with clearly understanding what the consumer’s personal circumstances are and, as a result, their needs from a brand. Today, those needs are met through product and price, but also information and inspiration that makes sense for the brand to provide.
The people behind the brand are vital in proving that a brand “understands” and are essential in forging and furthering a relationship with a client. People empathize and inform, not products. With employees being ever more loyal to their companies, leverage this depth toward deepening consumer loyalty to your brands.
And, while the trends and tendencies have been to manage consumer relationships online, use the digital means only as a means, not the end. While we can and do keep in touch with an e-mail and a status update, there is nothing like a “personal visit.”
The real lesson, as it always is, is a simple one: always lend a helping hand.

Eduardo Braniff is global insight director of Imagination. He can be reached at Eduardo.Braniff@imagination.com.