The social sphere, with its vast pool of micro-content, offers advertisers and businesses an entirely new way to generate positive feelings from consumers toward their brands. The idea is not to focus solely on building brand loyalty, or convincing consumers to buy something immediately, but to foster brand affinity by providing those engaging in online social communities with meaningful information that helps them form a personal connection with your brand.
Brand affinity goes way beyond brand loyalty. Brand loyalty, in essence, is about buying a product because it stands for something, such as purity, or because it is a known quantity (e.g., familiar to you). The consumer thinks, “It works, I like it, I buy it.” However, while it can help to shorten the sales cycle and heighten adoption rates for future products, brand loyalty has its limitations. Often, there is no strong personal connection tying the consumer to the brand. So, while the consumer perceives that a brand has value, their loyalty may have little or no impact on a company’s ability to enhance its line extensions or grow its customer base and business more rapidly. All too often brands mistake apathy for loyalty. In this case a consumer has formed a habit, and as a rule buys the same product week-in and week-out, or even year-in and year-out. What could be construed as loyalty is in fact habit. Yet those habits can be broken, by something as small as a merchandising change in a store, new packaging design, or even price promotion by a competitor. Because there is not as strong a personal or emotional connection when talking about loyalty as there is with affinity, the barrier to change is a bit lower. And when the barriers to change are lower, lifetime customer value can easily become compromised.
Brand affinity, meanwhile, is about a consumer having an emotional connection with a brand. And as it goes with emotions, these feelings aren’t always logical – but are certainly real and strong. For instance, several years ago a well known travel magazine conducted a survey to see which airline consistently delivered the best customer service. Alaska Airlines service was rated highest, even though a very high percentage of survey respondents had never flown the airline. They believed Alaska was “better” because of the powerful personal endorsements of other flyers. So while frequent flyer programs were initially envisioned to build loyalty, i.e. get you to buy tickets with their airline and not a competitor, they were not designed to build and sustain strong personal bonds. As a consequence many frequent flyers have multiple points programs with different airlines. What was designed to build bonds, in fact has morphed into a reward or discount program which is incredibly costly for the airlines to service.
Think also of brands like Apple or Harley Davidson – while these brands stand for well understood attributes such as innovation, and freedom of personal expression, people often buy these brands because they identify with them and want them to be part of that shared identity. They perceive the brand as representing or complementing some highly personal aspect of their persona, or their values – or believe being associated with these brands makes them more “cool.” Brand affinity can be pretty powerful stuff.
Brand affinity also helps accelerate building of consumer loyalty, thereby making the process less expensive and time-consuming for advertisers and brands to successfully launch future products. In addition, brand affinity can have a tremendous impact on your business in terms of positive referrals by consumers – you can speed the expansion of your brand’s community of loyal followers.
Look at FedEx: Following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico through their social media monitoring programs, FedEx learned that a rare breed of sea turtles was at risk. The company donated “vibration free” trucks and logistics expertise to assist with the delicate operation of moving highly fragile turtle eggs to safer nesting areas. FedEx used social media outlets like Twitter to help tell the story about the eggs’ journey as it unfolded, and received high praise from consumers and environmentalists who shared this heartwarming story with many others. In turn, these same consumers now feel a far stronger emotional connection to FedEx. What was a very low cost project for FedEx, as the trucks were already in the area, netted them significant social endorsement and further strengthened their positive personal connections to their social community.
Successfully building brand affinity in the social sphere requires Social Intelligence. Listening to online social communities that are talking about your brand and taking advantage of sophisticated analytics to interact with your community and customers at an intimate level, makes it possible to capture and support your communities’ interests, causes and beliefs. You also can provide an unprecedented level of customer service by better understanding consumers’ concerns about your brand or potential service problems and taking swift action to make changes. A recent study by the Customer Contact Council, a division of the Corporate Executive Board, revealed that the true key to building brand loyalty is not by “delighting” consumers, but by reducing the time and energy they must devote to solving a problem.
With the insight Social Intelligence provides, you can share information with consumers about your brand in a way that will truly resonate and possibly, improve their lives. Not only will they end up feeling a positive connection to your brand, they will also be far more likely to tell others why they should feel that way, too. Remember, your brand is defined by the market’s perception. And when it comes to brands, consumer perception is reality, even if it differs from what you believe your brand stands for. If you can get consumers engaging in social communities not only to notice you, but warmly embrace you, the frequency of those people recommending your brand to others will increase dramatically – as will your business.
By Debbie DeGabrielle, CMO of Visible Technologies