Our client relationships usually begin with what we call the Brand Platform process, which consists of three steps:
(1) Internal Platform: in which we ensure all key decision-makers and influencers are on the same page (often more difficult than you’d think);
(2) External Platform: where we seek out existing customers and potential prospects perceptions of the brand;
(3) Final Platform: in which we align the internal and external Platforms into a final Brand Platform document.
While each step can be a challenge, we’ve found that the most frequent barrier to forming a viable, actionable Brand Platform is determining how the client’s customers view the brand.
Whenever I hear a client say, generally with great conviction, “I know my customer,” my heart freezes, because, much too often, it’s related to his own less than objective perceptions, anecdotes from his salespeople, or what the spouse says. But, you really cannot build your business on hearsay and assumptions. So, I ask one simple question: When is the last time you talked to your customer? And that is the point where I learn exactly how well a client knows who their customer is and why they’re buying their product.
In way too many times, the answer to my question is either dated – informal surveys done years ago – or, worse, the executives tell me they’ve been out talking to customers in the stores. Now imagine you’re that customer and the CEO asks what you think of his company. How comfortable would you be giving an open and honest answer? I’d guess, not very.
The simple fact is, your customer should and must be the central focus of everything you do as a company. They are the reason you’re in business and the driving force behind your success or failure. You need to know all you possibly can about their wants, needs, and, especially, how they perceive your brand, why they buy it, and the role it plays in their lives.
There’s no question that the best way to know your customer is through proprietary consumer research. And I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen the transition from traditional research to Account Planning, and I’m a very big fan. The Account Planning methodology was brought over from England by Chiat/Day, the ad agency I worked with, and is based on a simple assumption: the notion that the best brands are those that have established the strongest emotional bonds with their customers.
The result of a strong bond is that customers perceive these brands as extensions or reflections of the type of person they are or aspire to be. As I’ve said in a previous post about how to craft a brand story, people may explain their purchases rationally, but the heart controls the wallet, and Account Planning gets to those key emotions that explain and predict purchase behavior. Account Planners are trained to get underneath people’s rational explanations for what and why they buy and, instead, focus on the emotional reasons that are essential to the most successful brands. Let me give you an example:
Our agency was working with the new CEO of an established and well-known clothing brand. The executives were convinced their customer franchise was aging and even dying off, and wanted to find a new audience they could attract without losing their existing customers. They also believed that the brand was used almost exclusively for work attire and special occasions and that their current aging audience had left the workforce and went out less frequently for those special occasions.
The company hadn’t done any research in a very long time, so we initiated focus groups with their best customers, run by an experienced Account Planner. What we learned has changed the client's minds, their business, and their sales.
We learned that these customers, far from being retired and inactive, were full of life and extremely busy socially, as well as on the work and volunteer front. We also found that the brand had an incredibly strong emotional bond with its customers, who cherished the quality and classic design that never went out of style. In fact, given how active they were, the customers actually wanted more designs for more occasions so the brand could play an even more visible role in their lives.
Needless to say, armed with this new knowledge, the client immediately began broadening their product offerings to meet the unmet demand for more clothing on more occasions, tailored their marketing accordingly, and sales have continued to increase ever since. And all of this was thanks to going out and talking to – and learning from — their own customers.
It’s interesting that clients tend to recoil whenever they hear the need for research and I think it’s based on two concerns: time and money. They believe any research will take too long and cost too much. This just isn’t true, especially with the advent of online quantitative surveys that are easy and relatively inexpensive to field.
But even more important, the reality is that, without truly knowing your customer, there can be no greater waste of a company’s time and money than marketing without current and relevant consumer insights. Rather than marketing, you’re really only guessing. My advice is that Know Thy Customer should be one of the first commandments of any company that wants to succeed.