9 Questions Every Brand Should Ask Its Customers Regularly

May 18, 2010

In my experience with organizations of various sizes and types, market research is most commonly used when the organization has a specific question to answer.  The specific question can vary significantly, but some of the more common ones deal with the appeal of a new product idea or the interest in a new positioning or in a new creative marketing message.

While it is absolutely correct to field research to help answer these specific questions, organizations would benefit from performing market research on a more regular, ongoing basis to answer some brand questions repeatedly, over time. This would help to monitor customer perceptions and behaviors consistently — not just when a specific marketing project question arises.  If organizations only complete research when they have specific initiative-based questions, they run the risks of missing shifts in customer perceptions of their brand, failing to spot new trends in how their product/service is being used, or even misdiagnosing who their customers really are.

I should note that many organizations do routinely field customer satisfaction or product/service performance surveys, and while these are very important, this isn’t the type of research to which I am referring.  I am suggesting that organizations also implement a program to regularly understand how customers are thinking about the brand, based on the collection of all of their experiences with the brand over time.

The implementation of ongoing brand research does not have to be complex or expensive.  Some organizations make a significant investment in brand tracking, and it becomes a major initiative. However, for most others, it can be as simple as fielding a few customer focus groups or interviews every six months or even distributing an online survey among their customer base regularly.  The method of research can vary depending on the size of the organization, its customer base, and the category/industry of the organization.  Most importantly this research should be done frequently (at the very least annually), consistently, the results should be reviewed and tracked over time, the organization must be willing to adapt its marketing strategies based on the results, and the questions should focus on the target customers and their brand perceptions.

With all of this in mind, for those of you interested in initiating a brand research program for your organization, I’ve developed a general list of questions for you to incorporate into your research among your target customers. Listening to how your customers respond and tracking how these responses change over time will unearth some significant opportunities for better understanding who your customers are and what motivates them, adjusting your marketing messages to your customers, and strengthening your brand in the minds of your customers.

Here is the list of 9 questions that every organization should consistently ask its customers about its brand:

  1. When you think of the brand (insert brand name here), what are the first words that come to mind?
  2. When and why did you first become a customer of the brand?
  3. Why do you continue to be a customer of the brand?
  4. Who do you consider to be competitors of the brand?
  5. How is the brand different from its competitors (in terms of being both better and worse)?
  6. How is the brand the same as its competitors?
  7. How can the customer experience of the brand be improved?
  8. Do you anticipate that you will be a customer of the brand in the future?
  9. If you were describing the brand to others, what would you say, and would you recommend it?

For those of you who already ask your target customers about their perceptions of your organization’s brand regularly, are their other general questions that you always ask?  Let me know!  I’d like to incorporate them into the list.

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Common Marketing and Branding Mistakes to Avoid: #1 Communicating Features instead of Benefits

November 12, 2009

Introduction to New Series:  Common Marketing & Branding Mistakes to Avoid

One of the things that I enjoy most about being a marketing and branding consultant is helping others solve their marketing questions.  When I was working as a full-time marketer for other companies, I didn’t find many people outside of my place of employment asking me for marketing guidance.  As one would expect, now that I am a consultant, I am finding that I get asked a lot more questions and receive a lot more requests for help from a wide variety of businesses and not for profit organizations.

A lot of the questions that I answer or challenges that I help solve are ones that I think a lot of brands and businesses face.  As a result, I’ve decided to start a blog post series that addresses some of the mistakes or pitfalls that I am seeing, and I try to suggest ways that each can be avoided or corrected.  This post is the very first of the series.

Mistake #1  Communicating Features instead of Benefits

One very common, but critical problem that marketers can face is understanding the difference between a feature (also known as an attribute) and a benefit.  As a result, marketers can fall into the trap of promoting features to their target customer instead of benefits.  This is a big mistake that can ultimately impact a brand’s success. As Phil Kotler and Gary Armstrong, renowned marketing gurus, state in their book Principles of Marketing, “Consumers do not buy attributes, they buy benefits.”

So to help clear up this problem, let me distinguish the difference between a feature and a benefit.  A feature or attribute is a characteristic of a product or service.  Examples of features are:  high quality, durable, well-built, etc. Features don’t do things for the target customer or make him feel a certain way.  Features don’t fulfill a customer’s needs.

However, features can be translated into benefits that are meaningful to the target customer.  Benefits fulfill the target customer’s needs or desires.  Benefits are the reasons why a customer chooses a brand and buys a product or service. Examples of benefits are: ‘makes me look like I have good taste’ or ‘won’t break so that I won’t have to buy another soon’.  Benefits can be functional (what the product/service does for the target customer) or emotional (how the product/service makes the target customer feel).

The key to translating a product or service’s features into benefits is understanding the target customer’s needs.  By understanding these needs, a marketer can identify the relevant benefits that fulfill the needs.  The benefits are based on the product or service’s features/attributes.

So with all of that said, marketers should look at the messages that they are using to grow their brand and promote their products or services.  Are the messages communicating the benefits to the target customer?  Or are they really just communicating the features?  Benefits are much more meaningful and impactful than features, so if features are being communicated, the brand is not realizing its full potential.  Marketers can stop making this mistake by translating the features into benefits for their target customer.


5 Ways to Activate Your Customers

October 28, 2009

It seems that it is a commonly held belief that a highly satisfied customer is one of the strongest marketing assets a business can have.

Despite this accepted assertion, I have recently been in contact with a surprisingly large number of businesses that haven’t given any thought to how they can leverage this asset.  These businesses have been hoping that word of mouth will be an inexpensive, effortless method for growing sales and their customer base.  To a degree, they are right; positive word of mouth will help.  But they could grow so much more if they thought about how to activate their satisfied customers.

What I mean by activating customers is very simple:  motivating customers and giving them tools to enable them to spread a brand’s message easily and authentically.  Customers generally like to share information that they acquire through their experiences with products/services and brands.  By activating this inclination, a business has a greater chance of having customers share their experiences with others and spreading the news or information that the business wants them to pass along.

There are many ways to activate customers.  Some of these are unique to certain industries, business models, or customer segments. However, below are a few ideas that should be applicable to most businesses.  None of these has to be complex or expensive, but these suggestions do require some thought, planning, ongoing management, and measurement to have the greatest impact.  Take a read through these to help spark some ideas on the best ways to activate your customers.

5 Activation ideas

  1. Create a program to formally recognize your best customers. Acknowledge and thank them for being good customers.  Make them feel valued and appreciated with special offers, ‘sneak peaks’ of new offerings, etc.  These customers will feel more loyal, and hopefully so special that they can’t help but tell their friend about their special treatment and great relationship they have with your business.
  2. Give your customers a voice and solicit their ideas and opinions in low or high tech ways. The medium isn’t as important as the act of listening to your customers.  The important aspects of this are that you can ask your customers what they think, give them a chance to respond, and consider their responses in the future to improve your products, services, or overall customer experience.  These things can be accomplished through social media tools, but they can also be accomplished through face to face discussions, phone conversations, focus groups, customer events, and other outlets.  The medium you choose really should be driven by your customers’ preferences.
  3. Keep your customers informed. Whether it is a new product launch or your next tradeshow appearance, ensure your customers are ‘in the know’ so that they can anticipate their next experience with your brand.  By keeping them updated on a regular basis on your news (such as through a newsletter, email, or blog), you can stay top of mind with them and further help them spread your news to other potential customers.
  4. Arm your customers with exclusive ‘marketing materials’. Ideally, this would be something that they can use in their daily lives, but that also happens to tell your brand’s story for you when they use it around others.  These ‘marketing materials’ could be product samples, special catalogs, or any other collateral that customers would find useful and better yet, would be proud to share with their friends because it is so unique or exclusive, and it has made them feel special by receiving it.
  5. Implement a ‘tell a friend’ referral program. For every person a customer refers to you resulting in a strong lead or a sale, give a ‘thank you’ in some form to the referring customer.  There are two things about the referral program that are very important.  First of all, the thank you has to be sincere.  The customer should believe that you really are thankful.  Secondly, the program should motivate the customer to continue to refer people to your brand.  This motivation typically means rewarding the customer in a way that is meaningful and valuable to them.  The hardest part about this is figuring out what that is (and this is where you refer back to #2).

I hope that these ideas encourage you to think about the ways that you are activating your customers currently and inspire you to develop some additional methods you can give to your satisfied customers to leverage.  And if you have some other suggestions of ways to activate your customers, please share them.  They would be much appreciated!


New product assessment of Starbucks Via: 5 things to consider when launching a new product

October 1, 2009

Over the past couple of days, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the new product launch from Starbucks known as Via Ready Brew (instant coffee).  Much of the buzz is being generated by Starbucks itself, but there is also a lot of chatter coming from people (customers, analysts, competitors, marketers, etc.), and many of them are questioning Starbuck’s rationale for launching the product.

Since I am a passionate brand supporter and former Starbucks marketing manager, I thought that this well loved brand and highly publicized launch would be a great example to illustrate some key questions marketers should consider when they are thinking about a new product introduction.  Below is my checklist of questions that any marketer can use when considering a new product or service launch, applied to Starbucks Via.

New product idea assessment checklist

  1. Does the product meet an unmet need? In my experience with product launches, this is the most fundamental question to consider.  New products that address and fulfill an otherwise unmet need for their target customer have a great chance of bringing more customers into the category and revolutionizing the category’s segmentation.  In Starbucks’ case, it claims that Via is meeting two needs:  portability & value.  I have to admit I am not sure that both of these really are significant unmet needs of their customer targets.  I am assuming that Starbucks has two target customers for this product:  existing Starbucks customers and ‘instant’ coffee drinkers.   With that in mind, from my previous experience working in the coffee category, I don’t recall ‘portability’ of coffee being something with which customers struggled (in fact they generally seemed to think Starbucks had become ubiquitous).  As for value, there probably is a need for a more ‘value priced’ coffee that is still high quality. My biggest concern with this, however, is that Via costs about $1 per serving.  This still seems a bit pricey for a cup of coffee to be considered a real value offering, especially among current instant coffee drinkers.
  2. Is the unmet need large enough to sustain the new product? Sometimes, even when a product does a great job of meeting an unmet need, the market size of the need is too small to really pursue.  At Campbell Soup, we used to joke that if we were considering a product launch that would perfectly meet the needs of campers, then the product shouldn’t move forward (because the market was too small to support the investment that a company the size of Campbell would make to launch the product).  With that in mind, I couldn’t help but cringe when I read that Starbucks was selling Via in REI.  Aside from that, my other concern for Starbucks is the size of the need for premium but good value instant coffee.  I am sure there are people who would really like this, but I am concerned about how many of them are out there who will become sustained customers.
  3. How differentiated is the new product from alternatives? For many unmet needs, a lot of customers find alternatives or ‘work arounds’ to try to fulfill what they are lacking.  A new product that is truly differentiated from and performs better than these alternatives has a tremendous chance for success.  This is one of the areas where Via is strong.  It is truly differentiated from every other coffee ‘solution’ out there.  It definitely provides a unique set of benefits.
  4. How much incremental sales will the new product generate? This question is always a hard one to estimate, and it often is the one that stops new products from getting to market.  New products can often make existing products obsolete, or at least considerably cannibalize existing sales if the new products do not appeal to a wider set of customers overall.  This is the issue I am most concerned about for Via.  Because it is a good value alternative to Starbucks coffee, and because it is being sold to customers who have already made the decision to go into a Starbucks store, it could significantly cannibalize the sales of both the beans and the beverages in the store.  To try to counteract this, I would suggest that Starbucks not target its existing customer base by selling Via in its store, but focus more on appealing to the instant coffee drinkers and focus distribution only in grocery stores and other retail venues where Via will not compete ‘head to head’ with Starbucks’ existing products.
  5. Do the product’s benefits fit with the core essence of the brand? This question is critical to ensure that the product continues to be brand building with its customers.  If the new product doesn’t fit with the brand’s core essence (what the brand ultimately stands for), this will hurt both the new product and the existing brand by confusing (or perhaps even disappointing) customers.  In Starbucks’ case, the core essence is about providing an excellent coffee experience.  Via’s benefits fit with this core essence, and so the launch of Via makes sense from this standpoint.

Based on this quick assessment of Starbucks Via against these questions, it appears that the new product has some key strengths, but its prospects aren’t entirely clear.  There are a few things that Starbucks might consider changing to increase its chances of success such as pricing the product at an even greater value to really make the benefit more meaningful and selling the product only in grocery and other retail channels (not its own stores).  Of course, the launch of successful new products is as much an art as it is a science, and so despite some weaknesses, the product may be a home run.

Hopefully these questions spark some thoughts for those of you who are currently considering new product ideas.  This list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives some good  ones to consider.   Are there others you might also add to this list?  Let me know and also how Starbucks Via would stack up against them.