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What motivates a customer to choose one brand over another?

That's a question that branding consultant Bruce Philp has been thinking about for over three decades. A self-professed advocate for brands, Bruce is the author of Consumer Republic, a book that dissects the power of the customer in the digital era. The highly acclaimed book won the National Business Book Award in 2012. Bruce is also Principal of the brand consultancy Heuristic Branding.

The Vision Critical team is excited that Bruce is bringing his brand expertise to our upcoming webinar, The Four Motivations That Drive a Winning Brand. In this Q&A, Bruce shares why data alone can't deliver great brand experiences and reveals why the future of online communities rests on shared customer interests.

"Brands today are doing a great job of listening to their customers." Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

A little of both, actually. I think most brands have a healthy regard for engaging with their customer communities now, even if they haven't figured out how to do it.

At the same time, though, I think there is a worrisome urge to delegate marketing to customers, to get permission for everything, and even to ask them to do the work of marketing for us. That's not fair, and it's not a very good idea. The customer's sovereign right is to respond to what we do, but they can't be expected to do it for us. We have to think of this as being like any relationship: it's imperative that we listen, but it's not going to last if we say "just tell us what you want, and we'll do it."

Steve Jobs once said, "Customers don't know what they want until we've shown them." Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

I agree with it, actually (I think he was channeling Akio Morita here, by the way). Corporations have a duty to create, to be the one that takes the risks in the relationship. People expect this of us. But Jobs' quote is often used to defend cultures that exclude the consumer altogether, or to paint Apple as a fascist state. I don't see it that way.

It's a brand's responsibility to start the conversation, but then we need to shut up and listen and respond sensitively to what we hear. Like any evolutionary process, brand building involves iteration. It's iteration with intent, but it's still iteration. That's not possible without listening.

How can listening to customers help companies create a winning brand?

In most categories today, brands largely depend on social capital to survive. Very few products live exclusively on their own functional merits anymore. So you have to tend that garden. You have to know how sturdy that capital is for you, where it comes from, what builds or damages its value. The brands that do this best aren't the ones that do all the talking or rely on some Skinnerian stimulus/response process. They're the ones that have the courage to expose themselves to the truth, early and often. That's the secret behind those brands that somehow always feel alive and naturally 'right.'

What are your top tips for marketers who use customer insight and data?

I have just one: remember that all hard science begins as soft science. Even the most rigorous empirical process begins with a hypothesis. That's what data is for: to help you shape your hypothesis or to validate it. Don't use data as an excuse to stop listening, stop thinking, or stop creating. Data is your servant, not your master.

Bruce Philip quote

How can an online community of customers help a company's business and marketing strategy?

"To see ourselves as others see us," in the words of Robbie Burns. A lot of marketers look at participation in online communities as a form of risk mitigation. It certainly can be that. But I think, more fundamentally, they give us the great gift of a mirror to look into. The earliest indications that we're on the right or wrong track won't be in cold metrics, they'll be in the way people talk about us. Everything we ever say in an effort to sell our products is going to be considered in the context of how much faith people have in us, of our character as a brand, of our apparent concern for what people want. These things will always be best discovered in conversation. By the time you've moved the needle in a tracking study, the reputation train has left the station.

How do you see online communities - specifically in the business and marketing context - evolving in the future?

We may be nearing the end of the free-for-all commons online. People aren't always enjoying the experience of this, the incivility, the fraudulence, the din of it all.

I believe we are going to gradually retreat back to communities of shared interest, which is the thing that built the internet long before there was even a web. The more clustered people are around common interests, the more useful a community is, the more civil (usually), the more determined to stay vital, and the more rewarding to participate in. The past of online communities is also its future. Caring about something will be the glue that holds communities together.

What are your top tips for delivering a great brand experience?

I have just two pieces of advice, both deceptively simple. First, know who you are as a brand. A great customer experience isn't just functionally beneficial to the customer, it also has to be the experience they expect to have from you, a chance to prove to them they were right to trust you. The more in-character a brand experience is, the more authenticating, the more value it will add back into your brand's social capital. If you fail on this point, you do more than disappoint people. You raise the possibility that your brand was some kind of lie all along.

Second, know where your customer is in their process and make sure the experience serves that. You have to be the same brand in every aperture, of course, but what people experience at, say, a promotional event, versus a visit to your web site, versus a customer service intervention each one of those things is a chance to not just display your values as a brand, but also your sensitivity to the person on the other side of the exchange. A great brand experience is proof that you have been actively listening, and still are.

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was formerly a Content Marketing Manager at Vision Critical.

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