Consumers are using social media, review sites and expert opinions to look beyond brand loyalty and make informed purchasing choices. Have the shares, likes, reviews and opinions usurped brand heritage, becoming businesses most important assets?
Imagine you are buying a laptop in 1995. Price - anything expensive equated to quality. Manufacturing origin - anything from Japan equated to quality. And finally brand - consumers were more likely to equate quality with brand. And they rewarded those brands with their loyalty. Author Emanuel Rosen who co-wrote with Stanford University Professor Itamar Simonson, Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information, calls using price, place and brand to assist the laptop purchase "relative evaluations" or "proxies for quality".
"These proxies for quality, these relative evaluations are not that great," says Rosen, "now you can read reviews, ask your friends on social media, hear from experts much more easily and get to the absolute value of a product or service." The difference between absolute value and relative evaluations is knowing that brave consumers have tested the waters of a product or service before you. It’s the ability to gather non-biased information before making a significant purchase and knowing what to expect without too many surprises. Suffice to say, loyalties that once lay with a trusted brand are quickly forgotten.
The marketers misfortune
If this makes the marketers lightheaded, it’s understandable. "If a consumer has two sources of information, one is perceived as objective and one is perceived as biased, obviously they will go with the source of information that is more reliable," says Rosen, who believes a return to the era before consumers used social media and review sites to rate products and services as "unlikely". Consumers might change experts or review sites, but rarely will they switch back to the marketer for information about quality.
However marketing has not become a useless exercise, just ripe for reinvention. Concentrating on information-rich advertising - rather than "top of mind" awareness - and consistently getting product into the hands of experts and consumers (who will write reviews and post on social media) is the direction Rosen sees the industry already taking. But it’s important to remember the reviews must be current and rolling for review-based marketing to be effective. "If you see that the most recent review of a particular product was written in 2012, you are much less likely to buy it if there aren’t constant reviews."
The open marriage
It’s understandable marketer’s professional feelings might be hurting after the consumer has dumped them; after all marketers work hard, provide good service and a great product, so their customer should be loyal, right? But Rosen considers the relationship consumers have built with brands over years, perhaps decades, now as an "open marriage". And consumers are seeing other brands. A number of other brands.
Marketers need to be listening to what is being said about their product or service and adapt quickly if they are to salvage this relationship. Innovation is key in the modern marketing landscape. "Understand what they want, innovate, experiment, adjust and then experiment again to constantly provide the product and service people really want."
Where marketers relied heavily on brand loyalty, their strategy had become complacent. For the brands unwilling to adapt to a new generation of consumer who expect them to be nimble and respond quickly to a competitor’s bar-raising new product the market is unmerciful. "You cannot rest on your laurels, ever. Just think of Nokia and Blackberry and many other products that were considered so strong and consumers found something better and they left."
The saving grace for brands is consumer willingness to forgive and forget. If the problems with the previous product or service are solved in the next iteration, the social media pages, review sites and expert opinions that once were the bane of the brand’s existence will now become its salvation, returning once loyal customers back to their rightful place. But be careful, negative connotations have a tendency to follow a brand around forever.
Of course, this whole process would be expedited if you just have a great product.