Brand Matters: Are You Listening?
What do Charles Schwab Corp., JC Penney, Netflix and The Vermont Country Store all have in common? Great branding conversations with their customers.
What does your brand say to customers? Is it a lot of meaningless yada yada yada, or is it a truly productive conversation with your valued customers? Is it a monologue or a dialogue? What’s the flavor of the conversation: lighthearted and playful, serious and informative, whimsical and humorous? More importantly, does the tone and voice match your brand positioning?
Your brand is a series of intimate and not-so-intimate conversations with customers. These conversations occur through your printed word, online presence, the customer service experience you offer and word-of-mouth among customers. Are these conversations compelling? Do they entice your customers to want to pay attention to what you have to say?
If you haven’t done so already, conduct a thorough analysis of your brand conversations during the past six months. Try to remain unbiased about the results. Evaluate your message pattern from both your own perspective and that of your customers’.
Here are some branding strategies used by those who excel at the task.
Right on the Money
Financial services firm Charles Schwab Corp. took the idea of brand conversations literally. Its award-winning and long-running “Talk to Chuck” ad campaign is a series of talk bubbles that mirror real customer conversations.
According to Becky Saeger, Schwab’s chief marketing officer, “‘Talk to Chuck’ is the invitation to a dialogue—our call to investors to bring us the very real issues they face in their financial lives. Our promise is that we’ll listen and respond to their individual needs.”
On its “Talk to Chuck” Web pages, Schwab offers dozens of questions that investors should ask brokerage firms. The questions are written in a down-to-earth fashion, such as, “If my account grows or contracts, how will your fees change?”. All are important questions written in a real-life dialogue.
This campaign is a role model of what a brand conversation should be, because it nails the true and unscripted thought patterns of most consumers who are worried about the pain points of financial services. It’s obvious that Schwab executives spent hours listening to customers. The campaign is well thought out and consistent across TV, print, online and direct mail ads, as well as its branch merchandising. Undoubtedly, customers look at the messaging nuances and feel comfortable that Schwab understands their true needs.
Shopping Made Supremely Easy
Another great example of attentive listening is JC Penney’s “Know Before You Go” program. It provides detailed and updated information about products and promotions before customers head to the stores. Say you found a great pair of boots on the Penney’s site or in its catalog, but you want to try them on first. Simply click on the item on the Web site, then select color and size. Under “check on item availability at stores near you,” plug in your ZIP code and up pops a box telling you where you can find this exact item in a store near you.
John Irvin, president of J.C. Penney Direct, recently talked with a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily about the program. “Our shoppers are more frequently using the Internet before ever stepping foot in a store. We’ve done extensive research that shows that nearly 70 percent of customers are online for a purpose other than shopping, including viewing merchandise, comparing prices, finding sales and promotions, and exploring fashion and shopping tips.”
JC Penney employed the “WIIFM?” (What’s In It For Me–the customer?) principle and structured an engaging conversation that maximizes customers’ time and money.
Susan Scott, author of the book “Fierce Conversations,” believes that the conversation is the relationship and that nuances matter. In the Schwab example, you can sense the type of relationship consumers expect from this firm: down-to-earth, personable and trustworthy. In the Penney’s example, customers expect to “shop with options” and therefore anticipate the brand relationship to be one of convenience and friendliness. Because these brand conversations really do set the tone for the customer experience, it’s imperative for brand managers to think strategically about their messaging and pay close attention to subtleties.
It all starts with careful and active listening. Schwab and Penney wisely placed the customer first and didn’t hog the brand conversation with their own corporate-focused agendas. How can your company get better at listening?
Silence Speaks Volumes
Peter F. Drucker, the father of modern management, reminds us: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
No doubt the founders of Netflix were excellent “read-between-the-lines” listeners. They wowed customers of competitor and long-time industry giant Blockbuster and wooed new ones through groundbreaking services such as free DVD delivery, no late fees and prepaid return address envelopes. They continue to listen to customers’ spoken and unspoken needs. Blockbuster now is playing serious catch-up.
Before your brand has to play catch-up, check your listening attitude. Who in your company is paying attention to what customers are not saying? And how are you acting upon that information?
Read ’Em Their Rights
Catalog and online merchant The Vermont Country Store also listens well, and therefore speaks its customers’ language. As “purveyors of the practical and hard to find,” The Vermont Country Store takes its customer conversation and relationship seriously. Long before JetBlue wrote one for airline travelers, this company had a Customer Bill of Rights. It’s prominently displayed on page two of its catalogs, printed on its shipping boxes and displayed on its Web site (see image below).
The company also understands customers’ needs. I recently received its postcard that asked simply: “What products have become annoyingly overcomplicated with gizmos and gadgets you just don’t use?” This question gets not only to the heart of one of its customers’ greatest frustrations, but to the heart of the company’s product line. The Vermont Country Store listens, cares, responds and keeps those communication lines open.
Andrea Syverson is president of IER Partners, a strategic branding and merchandising consultancy based in Colorado. She can be reached at (719) 495-2354 or asyverson@ ierpartners.com.
Andrea Syverson is the founder and president of creative branding and merchandising consultancy IER Partners. For 20+ years, Andrea’s joy has been inspiring clients with innovative approaches to branding, product development and creative messaging. She’s the author of two books about brand building and creating customer-centric products that enhance brands: BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants and ThinkAbout: 77 Creative Prompts for Innovators. You may reach her at email@example.com.