The chameleon is Mother Nature's fickle trickster. Color is just one of the chameleon's changeable characteristics. Calm and content one minute, the chameleon can change to hissing aggressor the next.
For many companies, consumers have become the fickle tricksters. Wanting to be more than passive purchasers, consumers are more knowledgeable and demanding. They defy segmentation, are less brand-loyal, particularly in mature markets, and rely more on the opinions of friends, family, and communities than on what they are told by the company through traditional media channels. Today's consumers want products and services to be designed, sold, delivered, serviced, and purchased in a way that suits them. If they're satisfied with the brand experience, they can be calm and content, sharing their positive feelings with others. If they become dissatisfied, these hissing aggressors can send a scathing review viral, damaging a company's reputation in a matter of hours.
Social and mobile technology are at the heart of this shift. In an Ernst & Young survey, 62 percent of consumers said they prefer to go online for at least part of their shopping experience. The survey also suggests that online media edges out print and electronic channels as consumers' top information source.
So how do companies navigate this new landscape? And how do they capitalize on these consumer trends?
Solid principles of effective marketing, modifying business models, and harnessing the potential of technology are good places to start. Here are five other ways companies can win in a consumer-driven, technology-enabled environment:
1. Get to know the consumer. This requires new approaches to listening and talking with, as opposed to talking at, the consumer, through neutral forums. Companies must learn what consumers want to buy, how they want to communicate, research, and interact, and, most importantly, what they expect from their relationship with a brand. Leading companies continuously evolve their understanding by keeping the channels of communication with consumers open—and perpetually reshaping their business models to meet customers' changing needs. They see social media and Web communities as sources of potential advocates for their brand as opposed to something to be feared.
2. Provide a personal experience. Make it intimate and fun. Companies might think about using technology to create a village shop experience, where the shop owner knows the consumer's name, her preferences, how she likes to pay, who her friends are, and what they might like too. Personalizing the experience is more than a solitary experience. Many consumers like shopping to be social, even when it's done online. Inventive, amusing, even startling apps, Web sites, and viral marketing can make shopping both social and immensely enjoyable.
3. Create a flawless brand experience. Marketers promise great things for their brands. Delivering on these promises is only the beginning. To create loyalty, each aspect of the customer journey must fulfill the brand promise. Companies also need to keep the brand fresh with new features, flavors, or formats. Those who create a consistently good consumer experience build loyalty. Those who do it flawlessly tend to generate an entire community or lifestyle around their products.
4. Deliver consistent, multichannel service. A company missing a Web site or mobile access is like a shop missing a front door. In addition to fostering virtual relationships with their customers, companies also need to cultivate the face-to-face consumer experience. A consumer's interaction with the company must be consistent and seamless across all channels.
5. Make consumers business partners. The digital world has made consumers more informed, connected, and empowered. And they will hold on tight to this newfound power. How can businesses leverage it? By developing collaborative relationships with consumers, companies can generate new ideas and build brand loyalty, creating a win-win experience.
The rapid rise of digital interactions has fundamentally transformed how consumers interact with the products and services they seek to buy. To survive and thrive in this new environment, companies need to undergo a metamorphosis of their own. Effective marketing is one piece of the puzzle. To truly capture a consumer's attention—and keep it—every link in the organization's value chain must align to delivering on the company's brand promise, flawlessly, each and every time.
Woody Driggs serves as the global advisory customer leader for Ernst & Young. He is a principal in the firm's Advisory Services Performance Improvement practice and is based in Washington, D.C.