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Image: UNSPLASH/DAYNE TOPKIN

The customer is king. The king is dead. Long live the customer. While these phrases might confuse the living you-know-what out of most people, it will make perfect sense to marketers. As marketers, we are all too aware of the fact that our long-recognised customer has been mutating. No longer the static, regal recipients of our products or services, they have matured into watchdogs of our corporate behaviours, our most vocal critics or cheerleaders, and mutable consumers who might cast us aside at a moment’s notice.

There is a well-documented decline in customer brand loyalty, which is arguably a symptom of the changing customer. Statistics from surveys and research papers over the years underscore what in-tune marketers have already been seeing in their own efforts. Brand loyalty “is on its last legs”, says media website Visual Capitalist. Just 23% of people, it suggests, had a relationship with a brand.

This erosion has also been consistently captured by customer engagement and loyalty solutions companies. A Verint survey in 2019 of more than 34,000 consumers around the world found that two-thirds of respondents claimed they would switch to a competitor that provided the best customer service or experience. In 2020, CrowdTwist, a cloud-native customer loyalty solution (now owned by Oracle), observed in a survey that 35% of women and 33% of men would consider switching from their preferred brand in exchange for a better price.

Customer brand loyalty has been a foundational pillar of marketing for almost a hundred years. (One of the first to articulate this in marketing literature was US marketing specialist Prof Thomas Copeland, in 1923.) Brand loyalty is defined as that special attachment customers have to a certain brand, which they consistently turn to above its competitors, even in the face of new purchasing opportunities. Today, the accelerating challenges to brand loyalty include not only the price point but also aspects such as customer service and brand experiences or interactions – not only of the customer themselves but those of their family, friends and influencers as well. 

A question worth considering is, might we be seeing the “death” of the customer as we have conceived them, rather than the death of brand loyalty? Might it be that our relevance to the customer is waning?

Jamie Modalfsky, chief marketing and communications officer of US information, data and market measurement firm Nielsen says consumers have an increasing expectation of brands being able to understand them, not only at the product or service level but more broadly in terms of what might be going on in their lives. She says: “Brands have to balance their understanding of consumer needs with an increasingly nuanced sensitivity about the environment at large and an appreciation of the uncharted world that consumers continue to navigate.” 

Modalfsky says this requires marketers to be highly focused on their target market, and to increasingly adopt a real-time understanding of what works and doesn’t.

Simon Moore, chartered psychologist and CEO of European customer engagement consultancy Innovationbubble, talks about the emotional relevance of brands to their customers. If you want to predict where your future lies, he says, you have to understand your relevance in that future state. “It relies on understanding your position. It requires listening, empathy and a large dose of humbleness. Arrogance, assumption and brand ego will be the death of your relevancy.”

Marketing’s environment is nothing today if not complex. An abundance of media platforms – and the resultant content that we produce – provides consumers with wide choices for engagement. Our access to big data can assist us in meeting our customers where they are with enhanced, relevant and personalised messaging. But these tools can also lead us down the wrong path if we begin to copy and paste according to the data.

Forbes columnist Paul Talbot cautions that the journeys our customers take with our brands are not necessarily the intricate customer journeys designed and defined by marketers. He says one research project (by Rakuten Advertising) pointed to almost 42% of surveyed marketers believing that at least 20% of their marketing budgets were lost on wrong channels or strategies.

Despite big data, the many interactions that our brands have with our customers daily make it impossible to quantify the relevance of all the marketing messages that customers are exposed to. But their loyalty will wane if we are not consistently interrogating whether our offering is relevant to them or not.

Our customers are the only reason that marketers exist. But they are no longer the old-school loyal kings of the past. And we are no longer delivering marketing messages to them in a one-directional manner. Talbot frames it nicely when he says that there is an evolving compact between the marketer and the consumer – where the consumer cracks open the door and invites marketing in.

Dale Hefer is CEO of the Nedbank IMC, Africa’s foremost integrated marketing conference billed as Marketing is Business™ and aimed at local and African marketers. For more information on the Nedbank IMC, go to Nedbank IMC Conference.

The big take-out: Customer loyalty will wane unless marketers consistently interrogate the relevance of their offering.

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