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This chapter is from the book

The New Customer Contract: Authenticity, Relevance, and Transparency

All the changes highlighted in this chapter (the rise of digital and social marketing, a media landscape that’s quickly fragmenting, and an influx of new data sources) have led to a fundamental shift in the consumer/brand relationship.

Customers are demanding a new contract with the corporations they do business with. This contract includes a commitment from businesses that the marketing they produce will have these characteristics:

  1. Authentic
  2. Relevant
  3. Transparent

Every one of these elements is interlinked; every one influences the others. Separating them into individual foci for your business is unrealistic and simply doesn’t work. You take all three, or you take none of them.

Although each element has been an important part of a comprehensive marketing strategy for decades, each one has grown meaningfully in importance over the last decade. The most successful marketing departments of the next decade will be those that make each element work in concert, prioritize them at the top of their strategic goals, and design marketing strategies with them as the key pillars.

The New Customer Contract: Authenticity

  • “The backstory is as important as the tagline.”
  • —Andy Gibson, formerly of Bacardi

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. So began a global financial crisis whose aftereffects still course through the world nearly a decade later.

As significant elements of the global economy were revealed to have been built on sand, many marketers identified a fundamental shift in customer sentiment. Customers seemed increasingly aware that the good times (funded on credit and often focused on conspicuous consumption and “bling”) were impermanent and could not continue. They seemed to realize that a settling of accounts had begun. The crisis was a shock to the system. It encouraged consumers to become far more discerning in their brand choices and consumption habits.

Authenticity hasn’t been a discrete part of the history I’ve laid out thus far because it works on somewhat of a “deeper” level. Authentic communications and authenticity in the brand is something all companies have recognized to be important since the first company started promoting the date at which they were “established.” Authenticity is a powerful motivator—the customer is buying something real, something established, something with a backstory. This isn’t a faceless corporation selling you a mass-produced, high-priced but low-cost item; you’re buying into a company that stands for something, that is built on craft, and, again, that is real.

In my conversations with CMOs of companies in industries as varied as insurance, medical care, entertainment, and alcohol, the growing importance of authenticity became obvious. Senior global marketing leaders told me that they noticed that their customers were becoming more discerning, very aware of artifice and hungry for something more authentic.

The growing popularity of the Hipster subculture (defined and sometimes mocked for love of artisanal olive oil, craft beer, locally woven hair shirts, and fixed-gear bikes handmade of iron from a local Brooklyn foundry) seems perhaps the most obvious example of this growing drive for authentic goods and services. As Andy Gibson told me:

“I think there’s been a huge mental shift, towards a more truth-seeking, discerning, authentic experience for consumers than there has been in many generations....Consumers are searching and if they scratch at the truth, and there’s no substance under it, they quickly walk away.”

Authenticity is inextricably linked to transparency, one of the other three elements of marketing as ART. Fundamental to an authentic brand and authentic communications is the ability for customers to “look behind the curtain” and understand how products are made, what ingredients are used, and exactly where that Brooklyn foundry owner sources his iron ore.

Authenticity is about scratching the surface of a bracelet and seeing that it’s gold the whole way through, not plated nickel. Transparency is both a driver and a result of this authenticity.

Dan Lewis, Chief Public Affairs Officer for beer company Molson Coors, is confident in the rising importance of authenticity to his customers:

  • “So critical now to the beer experience for any beer drinker is authenticity, a story behind the brand. There’s a lot more interest in what the ingredients are, where they come from. Beer has gone from being a pretty straightforward consumer purchase to a much deeper, richer, fuller engagement—not only with a liquid, but also with the story behind that liquid. In my own category, there has been a dramatic shift just in the last five years I would say.”

In a world where brands reach potential customers when they’re in bed, when they’re commuting, and when they’re at work, where brands reach customers on the same networks that those customers use to interact with their friends and family, it is perhaps unsurprising that there’s an increasing expectation for brands to behave as good friends would. Tell the truth. Don’t be fake.

The New Customer Contract: Relevance

Delivering relevance is increasingly becoming an essential part of doing business. Relevance, as we’ve seen, was facilitated by and expanded through a mass shift to digital interaction. “Digital native” companies, with customer data at the core of their operations, were able to provide exceptional, tailored customer experiences from their foundation.

And as customers grew to appreciate the level of service and experience that the Amazons and Ubers of this world could deliver, they began to expect the same level from legacy companies that existed well before the Internet did.

Exacerbating this need was the explosion of ways in which brands could communicate with those customers. Multiple screens means multiple advertising opportunities. The fragmentation of media consumption has led to many more places brands can show advertising—and customers are showing signs of being overwhelmed.

In terms of attracting and keeping customer attention, the bar has been raised. It is increasingly essential that marketers reach out to specific, targeted groups of people with messages that are informed by their previous relationships, their needs, and their interests. It’s equally important to reach out in the right place (the right network, channel, or platform) at the right time (waking up in the morning, watching sports on a Sunday, or commuting to work on Monday morning).

Fortunately, brands have opportunities to improve. The fragmentation of the media landscape not only gives companies the chance to identify niches and communicate with them, but also results in an explosion of customer data available to forward-looking brands. The picture of the customer has gotten considerably more defined and detailed.

The New Customer Contract: Transparency

  • “The expectation of transparency—the ability to get the information one needs to address one’s concerns—has skyrocketed just in my lifetime.”
  • —Dan Lewis, Chief Public Affairs Officer, Molson Coors

It’s easier now for your customers to find out about your products, operations, and brand story than at any point in history. What happened to give customers all this power? The biggest and most impactful answer is the transparency of information. Within a second, I can open my web browser and find pricing for products in any store. I can find reviews. I’m no longer at the mercy of what brands choose to tell me.

Customers no longer rely on packaging or advertising to define their view of a brand. Previously, any conversation about a brand or product was based largely on the brand’s own communications, traditional media reviews, or slow-moving word of mouth restricted by smaller social groupings before the advent of social media. Nowadays, however, customers can access a rich trove of feedback, discussion, and conversation around brands—and it’s all powered by customers themselves. Brands have significantly less control over this conversation than customers do.

Therefore, it’s increasingly hard for marketing to act as a shield—brands can’t use clever marketing to pull the wool over the eyes of the customer. Customers can ‘see through’ marketing now. As Cammie Dunaway, CMO at KidZania, points out:

  • “Even back in the 90s, or perhaps even the early 00s, you could take a suboptimal experience, a suboptimal product, and if you had really, really clever communications and enough money, you could still grow a brand. Today, it’s like brands are defrocked of all of that. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes might be a good metaphor. Consumers just aren’t going to be tricked.”

This has wide-ranging and fundamental effects on the role of the marketer within a business. For instance, if marketers cannot be successful when marketing a weak product, they have additional incentive (and need) to take a broader role in the production and design of that product—to make it stronger.

Transparency has also contributed significantly to the general increase in speed inherent in marketing. Previously, a global company’s audiences around the world were rarely in contact with each other. A problem in one market wouldn’t likely influence brand perception in others. That’s not the case now. As Dunkin Donuts found43, a controversial ad in Thailand is absolutely visible to, and influential on, the U.S. market. In a world where marketing departments are still primarily split over geographies, with different cultures and communities having different expectations, that causes significant challenges.

So transparency is not simply about communication externally. Brands also need to become transparent in their internal operations. It’s increasingly important for brands to speak with a consistent voice across multiple channels and platforms as well as across geographies. Finally, and as we’ll cover in some depth in later chapters, it’s vital that the walls on data silos internally become transparent so that marketing, customer service, and other customer facing departments can build a full and clear picture of customers that would be impossible otherwise.

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