Customer GPS: How collaborative consumer engagement approaches can guide marketers

What was so surprising about the recent Brand Innovators Consumer Engagement held at Pepperidge Farm headquarters was the number of brand managers in the room who candidly disclosed how overwhelmed they felt. With the proliferation of digital, social and mobile access, as marketers we feel pressure to not let opportunities to engage consumers slip past us. It’s imperative that we have broad and comprehensive strategies that encompass multiple touch points with our customers in real time … or is it?

The age depicted in “Mad Men” is certainly and thankfully past. Campaigns aren’t just about TV and print, nor are they created over Scotch on the rocks anymore. Jeff Larson, VP of Global Marketing for Subway Restaurants, was right when he said that there is no room for lazy marketers. Platform and device fragmentation have led to the need for more planning, more assets and more resources in the marketing department. But they also present a powerful opportunity to meet the customer where she or he is, and on their terms, if your company is willing.

Digital is merely an enabler, Michael Simon, EVP and CMO of Panera, counseled us, and that before all else you need to know why you exist as a business. I’d simply suggest that your business exists because of and for your customers. Any consumer engagement strategy should start with connecting with customers on an emotional level and an intellectual level and not on a technology platform level.

For example, Starwood recently launched #SPGlife, asking people to share their travel dreams, thereby tapping into consumers’ inspiration, and creating genuine conversation among current (and potential) customers.

GE celebrated their corporate heritage through National Inventors’ Day. Jon Lombardo, who leads GE’s Social Media Center of Excellence, explained that this empowered people to think outside the box and share their ideas easily via Twitter at #Iwanttoinvent. GE then converted these ideas into illustrative designs, and sent them back to the would-be inventors.

What’s so striking is that customers are willing to be our GPS in this perplexing digital landscape. They’ll readily tell us if, when and how to reach them as long as we build a trustworthy and collaborative relationship with them. Customers will help us innovate brands but they need to be invited to participate in the innovation process, and not just serve up customer feedback to brands.

Our clients at Communispace use our private online communities to collaborate with consumers all the time, just as Amy Kleppinger at Heinz Foodservice did in devising a digital engagement strategy for chefs and food service operators. For marketers, consumer collaboration is the next simple step to understand the vast digital frontier of consumer behavior. Online communities and collaboration approaches can guide us in our quest to turn brand preference into brand love. We, as marketers, just have to be brave, and open to letting the customer in. If we do, we might not feel so overwhelmed.

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