I have been thinking of writing a piece about this for quite some time now, so here goes…
Admittedly, we don’t buy brands anymore. We buy experiences. Functional purchase funnels are a thing of the past and have been replaced by evolving, experience driven, highly emotional and engaged purchase funnels. Our need to be impressed all the time combined with the advent of visually appealing and emotionally charged media platforms have led to this evolution in how we buy things. I say ‘things’ and not ‘brands’ because experience is a holistic phenomenon and is not restricted to a ‘brand name’.
Experiential marketing is one of the hottest trends these days. In a connected world where the lines between physical and online is rapidly blurring, brands are increasingly jumping on the bandwagon of creating seamless brand experiences. There are numerous examples of these (and some of these do take creativity and visual expression to a different level). The luxury industry does this consistently across multiple product lines. Dulux’s ‘Lets Colour’ project is a great example. In February 2016, Samsung opened a massive store in New York that doesn’t sell any products but showcases the Samsung experience (with products available to order online). There are numerous such examples sprinkled across different categories and industry segments.
But there is a gaping hole between a customer’s pre- and post-purchase experience. Even with the advent of digital and real-time technologies, brands have struggled to provide excellent post-purchase experience. There is a huge gap between consumer perceptions before a product is purchased vs. those after purchase. This is especially true when a product develops a fault, needs to be repaired or restored, or even replaced. A very recent but classic example was Apple’s decision to make iPhones useless if they had been repaired or tinkered with in non-Apple stores (the proverbial Error 53). Compare this backlash with the long serpentine queues that form when a new model of iPhone is launched and the number of consumers flocking to Apple stores during every new product launch across its portfolio. If brands like Apple, epitomised and copied for its brand strategy, can get this wrong, then imagine the plight of other players.
Bad post-purchase customer experience is simply bad press. Take the example of retail banks and telecom operators in the UK (and also in the US). Both these industries provide essential services in today’s world but the associated customer service is routinely rated the worst by customers. Verizon’s absolute awful customer service in the US generates mountainous amounts of digital and offline press. Corporate reputation scandals are exacerbated by refusals or avoidance on the part of brands in admitting and apologising for their mistakes. This is again another example of bad post-purchase customer service.
In an age of declining brand loyalty, ensuring a seamless pre- to post-purchase experience is becoming critical for brands. Excellence in brand experience now needs to transcend the whole purchase funnel and the loyalty loop. Majority of brands stumble in getting this right. Consumers do not want to be treated like a dog, which means give them a bone to pull them near and then kick them away. But this kind of behaviour keeps on happening on a continuous basis.
To bridge this gap, brands need to understand the importance of the feedback loop and the challenges of generating loyalty. The biggest slackers on this principle are the ones who believe that they will continue to attract throngs of customers without concentrating on excellent post-sales experience. In an era of shorter than goldfish attention spans, a brand’s consumer is its greatest advocate. Enter advocacy or influencer marketing. Enter the world of vloggers and the next generation of YouTube stars. Will these influencers ever talk positively about a brand if they have experienced bad post-sales service?
Not placing emphasis on post-sales experience is akin to “draining the baby along with the bath water”. The amount of credibility and equity a brand builds up through communication and marketing campaigns can be destroyed at the point of purchase or immediately after purchase. The recent debacles of MARS and Johnson & Johnson are cases in point. So are the cases of Ford and Toyota car recalls.
A key question to ask here is “why does this gap exist”? Logically, every brand should understand the importance and value of an acquired customer. The problem that brands face these days is a never-ending thirst for the “next customer”. The proverbial “existing customer” gets lost in this din. No wonder traditional loyalty programmes are the biggest marketing failure of the decade. This thirst for the “next customer” gets translated into the need for the next page impression, next Facebook like, next Twitter retweet, next Instagram share and the next acquired customer in the retail front. Brands with very niche following understand the importance of an acquired customer and their potential loyalty. Pre- to post-purchase experience of niche brands does not deviate in terms of its excellence, focus and care towards details. In 2015, Porsche opened a $100 million worth customer experience centre in Atlanta. The centre would allow Porsche customers to buy new cars or to get their classic cars repaired and refitted. This is just one of many examples.
In my previous post I talked about the new 95/5 rule. Brands who are serious about retaining loyalty in their portfolio will jump up to strengthen post-sale experience. Those who remain transfixed on the “next customer” will have the 95/5 rule working against them.