Required Reading: Building Authentic Customer Connections

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One of the hottest buzzwords flitting around marketing departments today is authenticity. But while many companies strive to make a connection with consumers, they often miss the mark. In their new book, Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results, Bob Garfield, cohost of the NPR show On the Media, and Doug Levy, founder of the marketing agency YOUplusMe, share lessons from successful campaigns and those that failed (sometimes comically). Levy gave Associate Editor Judith Aquino a glimpse into the dos and don'ts of building an authentic relationship with customers.

CRM: What mistakes do businesses often make in trying to develop authentic relationships with their customers?

Doug Levy: Many make the mistake of not appreciating just how different the mindset is. For example, marketers have learned to get to know the prospective buyers so they can reach them at the right time and at the right place with the right message to persuade them to buy. This may sound good in theory, but the marketer ends up saying what the customer wants to hear, regardless of its authenticity. Customers can feel the manipulation. By contrast, successful relationship era marketers don't start with customers, but rather by looking at themselves. They get clear on their beliefs and why they exist; they then open themselves up to the world and attract like-minded people.

CRM: What patterns did you find among the examples of successful businesses in your book?

Levy: The first is that they cared deeply about something in addition to making money. Whole Foods, for example, is dedicated to healthy eating and has had 9 percent comp store sales growth for 30 years. Patagonia, which is dedicated to the environment, asked people not to buy their products unless they really needed them, and they saw trust and sales climb.

The second is [that] these companies attract communities. They use social media to communicate with collaborators, rather than just push products. Panera Bread, for example, renamed its marketing department an amplification department, putting its focus on supporting its fans and spreading the word. This focus on trust and relationships led to great financial results. [Panera Bread] spends 1 percent of sales on advertising compared to the 5 percent of sales spent by others in their category. Its stock looks like Mt. Rainier, with its share price growing from $15 in 2000 to $169 today.

CRM: What surprised you as you conducted your research?

Levy: The conventional wisdom is that trust takes a long time to build, and while that may be the case, we were struck by how quickly companies could garner results after changing their approach. For example, Krispy Kreme's share price was languishing at $1.15 in 2009. [The company] clarified its purpose, which is touching and enhancing people's lives through the joy that is Krispy Kreme, and started using that as a basis for its business decisions. It talked to customers like friends; it sent employees out on missions called random acts of doughnuts to help people in need of joy, and its stock grew [by] nearly 10 times in just a few years.

CRM: How do companies clarify their purpose?

Levy: Unlike marketing strategy, which you can hire an agency to do for you, clarifying purpose is more like soul-searching, and you can't outsource that. The process involves not looking externally at what customers care about, but going back to why the company or brand was founded and what the people behind the brand are bringing to the world that's powerful.

What does the brand stand for? What are we here to do? It's more important that it's authentic than unique. Whereas typical brand strategy involves looking at what we are doing relative to our competition, when you go through a process of clarifying purpose, it's not about looking at the competition or trying to be unique, but rather working to distill why the brand exists. It's not a process of invention; it's a process of discovery because it's already there.

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