Friday, August 12, 2011

Building the brand-consumer relationship through technology, social interaction and personalized experiences

In recent years, forward-thinking brands have become smarter about building interactive, personal relationships with consumers through the use of innovative technologies like Twitter and Facebook. I always enjoy reading tweets from the brands and personalities I follow, but I especially enjoy the personalized, one-on-one responses to tweets regarding comments, questions, or problems from individual consumers. This sort of banter can be fun and interactive, and can make consumers feel as though the big, abstract, global brands they follow really care about what they have to say.

The implications of this kind of marketing are great. Having such conversations on an individual level can create experiences and stories around a brand, experiences that exist outside the use of a brand's particular products. Like the experiences formed around products and services, however, online interactions have the power to build brand loyalty. There is also great potential for spreading this individual loyalty to others through social networks, both in the "real" world and online, as satisfied consumers share their stories and experiences with their friends and family members, convincing them of the merits of a given product or brand. If this results in the ideal effect of additional consumers, loyalists or converts, the strategy has done its job. What more could a brand ask for?

The reason for this post is not unrelated to one such experience I recently had with one of my favorite brands. Browsing through my Twitter feed yesterday evening, I noticed a post by Coca-Cola that asked followers what they think is the best sport with which to enjoy a Coke. I like responding to such posed questions every now and then, but don't usually expect to get a response back, especially from brands or personalities with lots of followers. Here is the conversation that occurred (if you can't read the image, click it to make it larger):

I should preface the rest of this post with a disclaimer about my love for Coca-Cola, specifically the classic version of Coke. Basically, it's my absolute most favorite soft drink in the entire world. And it always has been; all the others, especially Pepsi, just don't compare to the sweet, refreshing, satisfying, nostalgia-inducing, thirst-quenching bubbliness that is Coca-Cola. Like Sam-I-Am in Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham (after he changes his mind about the aforementioned cuisine), I love Coke in a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train, here and there, and really just about anywhere. Of course, I'm not the only one who feels this way about the iconic brand and its globally famous beverages. By the way, Coke is also hands down the best beverage for burping contests.

My friends can attest to my fondness for not only the classic soft drink but of the brand itself, hence the vintage-inspired Coke signage hanging in my kitchen and my small collection of glass Coke bottles. I also make it a point to visit The World of Coca-Cola whenever I'm in Atlanta. My friends also make fun of me for this, but it is probably no coincidence that when I'm drinking any tasty beverage, I will often exclaim that "it's very refreshing!" (the word "refreshing" was used in Coke's earliest advertising slogans). I've even turned a number of people onto the amazingness that is Mexican Coke, with its sleek glass bottle and lack of high-fructose corn syrup (it's sweetened instead with sugar... check out this NYT article by Rob Walker on the Cult of Mexican Coke.) (For the folks in Memphis, Mexican Coke can be found at most any Hispanic market as well as Cafe Eclectic and the Asian-Hispanic market on Cleveland.)

That's me at The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia (2010)

But back to my conversation with Coke. When I first received a notification that they had replied to my tweet, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside, kind of like when I drink a Coke (as I referred to in my subsequent response). I messaged my friend Drew, who I thought would get a kick out of the tweet as well. I was right - he was quite impressed with what he described as Coke's "really f**cking good publicity."

At the time of this exchange, Coca-Cola had approximately 344,500 followers on Twitter. But this simple acknowledgment of my existence as a consumer-follower, my participation in this brand, and of course, my loyalty to Coke, made me feel all the more special, and succeeded in what I think is the point of such PR efforts, which is to create or build on brand loyalty. The two seconds it took their social media specialist to respond to my messages solidified my loyalty to the company and instilled in me an enthusiasm to spread the word about my experience to my friends, family members, and the readers of this blog. It was in this moment that I acted as a brand ambassador.

Coca-Cola essentially created a personalized experience by engaging me as a consumer, listening to my replies with sincerity (and what I perceived as genuine interest), building a relationship by replying to me directly (not just once, but twice), and making me feel as though my loyalty to Coke is truly appreciated (which I know it is, because they thanked me for it!) It's also a nice feeling because brands and corporations often seem like unreachable, unknowable entities to the everyday person. Many brands have realized that they can no longer stay walled up in their corporate towers and ignore consumer needs and desire. These same consumers are increasingly interested in learning about and interacting with brands, not to mention holding them accountable for their environmental and social impacts.

Such an experience can mean a lot to someone who isn't such a loyalist, but for someone who is already devoted to a brand or product, it can mean a whole lot more, because it reinforces what the consumer has always believed to be true about that brand or product. For example, I was recently on the job market as a new graduate, looking for consumer research positions at companies around the country. During one phone interview with a brand consulting firm, the interviewer asked me to talk about one of my favorite brands and to discuss how it has achieved success in some way. Coca-Cola immediately came to mind. I talked about how it earned its iconic brand status through smart marketing and maintained this status by continuously catering to changing consumer needs. They did this for the most part without alienating loyalists or drastically changing their image (ok, there was the 1985 New Coke blunder), and by adding to their classic product line through innovation and acquisition. Finally, Coca-Cola has a fascinating history and one that it is clearly proud of. Needless to say, I feel like I answered her question pretty well.

As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by why people do, say, think, and buy what they do, and how their desires and needs relate to the cultural, social, political and economic contexts in which they live. I am extremely excited to begin my new position as a consumer research analyst at a major U.S. company later this month, where I know I will be truly able to be passionate about my work. I am going into this field not only out of personal and professional interest, but because I want to be a part of a forward-thinking company that prioritizes innovative approaches to research (mixed-methods, online research, ethnographic research, etc.) and emphasizes the importance of building genuine, lasting relationships with consumers.

Coca-Cola truly deserves its status as an iconic brand. In fact, it is THE most recognized brand across the globe (according to BusinessWeek and others). They continue to set an example for brands that strive to gain such a status, and their success has provided a treasure trove of examples of what to do and what not to do to maintain and gain customers and grow loyalty. My experience yesterday is just one shining example. As for a return on Coke's investment in social media and consumer engagement, it was obviously worth the effort. After all, I just spent two hours writing this blog post, which will be shared via my networks on Twitter and LinkedIn, and possibly by others across the internet. Because of two simple tweets, Coca-Cola has reaffirmed my trust in, loyalty to, and love for their products and their brand. Keep up the good work.

1 comment:

  1. Please also see this Anthrostrategist post on brand loyalty versus rewards: http://anthrostrategy.com/2011/08/12/loyalty-and-rewards-are-not-the-same-thing/

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