It’s easy to underestimate the huge changes that have taken place in the dynamics of the brand-customer relationship in recent years. Brands and consumers are now engaged at whole new levels of familiarity. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn et al haven’t just brought people closer, they have enabled entirely new types of brand community to evolve and develop. But as we shall see, they have also expanded expectations in terms of responsiveness.
I’ve dubbed this heightened connection Familiarity 2.0 (because to me it really does equate to a new era of acquaintance).
Research shows consumers increasingly valuing brands that they feel fundamentally understand them and that interact with them as human beings. According to the Brandfog CEO, Social Media and Leadership Survey 2012, customers now expect to have direct access to brands and brand leaders. What’s more, the survey shows, there is a direct connection between social media participation, purchase intent and increased brand loyalty.
The days of the brand being on one side of the counter and the customer being on the other are coming to a close. Increasingly, transactions are part of a wider and more open exchange. Purchase is an expression of the brand-customer relationship rather than its sole goal.
The opportunities arising from this social shift are enormous. Familiarity 2.0 paves the way for brands to continue to extend relationships so that, more and more, the relationships themselves are two-way. In fact, Familiarity 2.0 dynamics will change how brands evolve by redefining who they involve. Customers will literally become participants in a brand’s business. They will have opportunities to be active contributors in exchange for recognition, rewards (perhaps) and the thrill of collective involvement.
As these dynamics mature, brands could well look to their customers to help them:
• Accelerate product development and improvements;
• Enhance and personalise experiences;
• Drive market-powered innovation;
• Test ideas in specific or developing markets; and
• Realise responsibility initiatives.
More and more brands will globally source competitive ideas across the full range of their activities from an engaged community of brand advocates. Kickstarter meets Skunkworks.
That’s the upside. It’s already here in places. But to me, it is far from pervasive.
However, a heightened sense of familiarity will also generate interesting challenges. Here are four:
1. As the lines between “them” and “us” blur, and brands act much more like communities, the lines between those working inside the brand and those who buy and believe in the brand must also blur. People from both “sides” will interact more openly … That will inevitably raise many more questions than are already being asked about what can be shared and what can’t, by whom, how etc
2. Shared beliefs will cement brands and audiences more overtly. That in turn will evolve what communities talk about amongst themselves. Inevitably brand managers will want to know how those conversations can and should be managed. Marketing managers for their part will need to find new equations to more accurately correlate activity and profitability.
3. Impatience will increase. As consumers think of the brands they buy as increasingly ‘like them’, they will expect those brands to respond not only more personally but also much more quickly. As the infographic with research conducted by Software Advice shows, we are a long way from that reality, so brands will need to find a way to temper the advantages of familiarity with the judgements that consumers will make about brand-quality and customer service when responses are not as forthcoming as they might like.
4. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing brands though will be where they draw the line in terms of customer intimacy. When is close too close? When does data become invasion? For that matter, at what point does conversation just become banter? How do brands avoid becoming too familiar – so well known, so understood, so much a part of everyday life that they lose any sense of mystique. As George Sands once observed, “Admiration and familiarity are strangers”.
Photo titled “realizing” taken by The Alieness Gisela Giardino, sourced from Flickr