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Brand authenticity was once a lofty goal of many companies who hoped transparency would endear their brand to consumers and differentiate them from the pack. But knowing customers on a deeper level, and engaging with them in an open, authentic way is becoming table stakes with today’s well-informed consumers.
Many feel it is simply a brand being honest in all they do, but it goes beyond that to really showing the consumer they are appreciated and valued in every interaction – digital or in-store, purchase or reward, offers and experiences – every single interaction.
Honesty is part of that equation. When you are open with your consumer about what you as a brand value, and when that comes through in your interactions, that can become the solid foundation for a deeper connection, which can translate into true customer loyalty.
Authentic brands display their vision and values in a way that they hope matches with the consumer they are trying to reach, and in the process weave authenticity into all they do. These brands often see more loyal customers, many who rise to the level of ambassadors for the brand as they feel that deeper connection, reciprocity, and trust.
Defining Authenticity In Consumer Engagement
Katie Berndt, Senior Director for Customer Strategy, Insights and Research at ICF Next, says when it comes to consumer engagement, she believes that to be truly authentic, brands must be willing to prioritize customer value and experience over perceived profits.
“This means the customer must be at the center of every decision that is made across the organization,” she says. “In doing so, brands must have a clear value proposition and be able to stand by it every day — through every customer interaction — to build trust that results in a long-lasting relationship. It requires continuous evolution and investment.
Like our personal relationships with loved ones, Berndt feels it is important to remember that being authentic does not mean you are perfect and never make mistakes.
“Customers appreciate transparency and brands who are quick to make it right when something goes wrong,” she says.
Tom Caporaso, CEO of Clarus Commerce, says it’s no secret that consumers today choose to support brands that are authentic.
“In terms of consumer engagement, authentic means that your actions as a company align with your mission and values,” he says. “In other words, what you say matches what you do.”
Two-thirds of customers say their loyalty is harder than ever to maintain, Caporaso says, so authenticity is more important than ever.
“Your customers can quickly tell when a brand isn’t being genuine,” he says.
Susan Frech, Founder, and CEO of Vesta, feels the authenticity of engagement is ultimately in the eye of the consumer, and she says consumers are incredibly savvy.
“They set the bar high in regards to the level of personalization, relevance, and meaningfulness they are looking for from brands,” Frech says. “They want to feel that you understand them and are speaking directly to them — generic won't get you far."
Most important of all is total transparency, Frech says, and advises brands that being honest and open about what their brand is, what they stand for, and what they offer their customers in every communication and touchpoint is critical.
“As the brands consumers use increasingly become a way they indicate who they are and what they stand for, they will look to find products and services that align with their values,” Frech says. “Clearly communicating what those values and that purpose are will help establish an authentic foundation for consumer engagement.”
David VanWiggeren, CEO of DropTank, says authentic consumer engagement starts with respect for the customer, and it leads to meaningful brand experiences that are true to the brand’s values.
“In our personal relationships, being real and authentic is table stakes,” he says. “Why would it be any different for brands looking to build relationships with consumers?”
Suggestion for Brands to Authentically Engage Customers
Frech points to the building blocks of engagement – data and insights. If brands don’t truly and deeply know their customer, they will be unable to connect with them in an authentic manner.
“Establishing an ongoing two-way dialogue with your customers is critical to gathering real-time, actionable consumer insights,” she says. “Online brand communities offer a welcoming destination that enables brands to not only seamlessly gather zero- and first-party data from their customers, but to utilize those insights to create highly personalized experiences that build authentic engagement and brand love.”
Although times change, VanWiggeren says basic human nature remains the same. He says the phrase “we appreciate your business” never goes out of style.
“Our No. 1 suggestion for brands regarding authentic consumer engagement is to find on-brand and meaningful ways to say ‘we appreciate your business,’” he says. “Personalized, honest, behavior-based messages and offers that are in-line with brand values let customers know they’re valued and respected.”
Berndt says the best advice that ICF Next gives to brands is to listen to their customers.
“Be data-informed and customer-led,” she says. “Don’t guess at the experiences that would make your customers actively participate in your loyalty program more often. Ask them but be ready to do something that improves their experience with the data they give you.”
Berndt says that brands that drive the most meaningful customer loyalty find ways to connect their products and services so that customers gain added value.
“In turn, they will be rewarded by customers who want to engage with brands they feel ‘know them’ and are listening,” she says.
Caporaso says brands should be real and be honest all the time. He says being authentic and telling your brand story — both the wins and the struggles — will build trusting relationships with your customers.
“It’s important to not only consider what your business values but also to talk to your customers and understand what matters to them, especially by talking to members of your loyalty program,” Caporaso says. “When you are aligned here, loyalty is built naturally.”
Best Practices in Authentic Engagement
Caporaso says that one brand that has success at authentic engagement with their members is Lululemon, especially through their premium loyalty program. The program offers great transactional benefits like free merchandise and free shipping, he says, but the program really stands out because of the experiential benefits that speak directly to the brand’s core mission and values.
“Members receive access to yoga and fitness classes, which really speak to what Lululemon, and their customers, are all about: an active, healthy lifestyle,” Caporaso says.
REI is another company he feels stays true to its passion for the outdoors. From reducing its carbon footprint to introducing responsible COVID-19 recreation guidelines to product impact standards around reducing climate change, Caporaso says these initiatives align with REI and its customer's values.
“They do a great job being transparent about all of it, and their customers are fiercely loyal,” he says.
VanWiggeren says a best practice that DropTank likes to emphasize for their clients is to clearly define the “core function” of the consumer engagement solution.
“What is the primary action, reward, or experience that’s not only on-brand but the tipping point that moves a customer into next-level loyalty to the brand?” he says. “Focusing on this core function leads to improvements in acquisition and retention, and if done right, it reinforces brand authenticity.”
One of the most successful brands having success at authentic engagement that Berndt says comes to mind for her is Patagonia. With its persistent stance on condemning Big Oil, defending the wilderness, and encouraging people to vote with the planet in mind, she says Patagonia wears its environmental values on its sleeve, and, in turn, its loyal customers do, too.
“Since the 1980s, Patagonia has given 1% of its sales revenue to environmental causes and encouraged other business owners to consider becoming a member of ‘1% for the Planet,’ a socially and environmentally progressive group,” Berndt says. “Patagonia does not have a traditional points-based loyalty ‘program,’ but its commitment to authentic activism has proven that Loyalty is an outcome when a brand has super strong shared values with its customers.”
Frech says there are several key things they see in their clients who are most successfully engaging their members in meaningful and authentic ways. The first is that they establish and commit to an active two-way dialogue, using it not just as a channel to gain insights but as an opportunity to share as well, offering exclusive news and previews as well as behind-the-scenes information.
“Another important best practice is hyper-personalization,” Frech says. “Few things feel more inauthentic — and potentially even creepy — than a poorly executed attempt to personalize communication or interaction.”
She says the third key is creativity and fun. Community and program members are a brand’s most passionate fans, and they have actively chosen to connect with your brand and are eager to be recognized and engaged.
“Look for new and unexpected ways to transform that relationship,” Frech says. “Tap into current digital trends or seasonal themes. Take the digital offline and in-person safely. Bring your brand’s vision and values to life in unexpected ways, and you will find your engagement soar.”
Authenticity Drives Loyalty, Increased Customer Lifetime Value
Consumers expect more now than ever before, Berndt says, and they want to interact with and invest in brands that fit their lifestyle and beliefs and expect the relationship to be reciprocal. She says progressive brands like Delta Air Lines, Starbucks, REI, Apple, and Amazon are building their loyalty proposition around the needs and behaviors of their customers, not limited to the products or services they market.
“This broader offering earns brands a greater opportunity to be top-of-mind with their valued customers, intelligently using permissible data to serve up content, offers, partners, extended services and recognition that is relevant to their customers’ everyday lives,” Berndt says.
VanWiggeren says we all know people who are fun to hang out with but aren’t necessarily “real.” These relationships tend to be more transactional.
“But, if you want healthy, long-lasting relationships, a healthy dose of humility and honesty is required,” he says. “The same is true for brands. Moving from a transactional relationship with customers to a more trusted, long-term relationship drives customer lifetime value through the roof.”
Frech says we all know that transactional loyalty is fleeting; it is emotional loyalty that has the staying power. And as with all emotional relationships, honesty and transparency are critical.
“Authenticity helps foster the kind of deep and lasting emotional connection that transforms your consumers into brand evangelists and devoted lifetime customers,” she says.
Caporaso says that being authentic allows brands to connect with their customers on a deeper, emotional level.
“It’s a level that goes beyond transactional,” he says. “Your customers love getting discounts and free shipping, but it’s what your brand stands for that drive those emotional connections.”
For most brands, Caporaso says that means not trying to be everything to everyone. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, especially when it comes to loyalty. He says every customer is unique.
“Instead, listen to your customers,” Caporaso advises brands. “Figure out their pain points and figure out how to add value to their lives. People want to do business with brands they know and trust, so authenticity is key. That’s what builds loyalty and keeps them coming back and engaging more over time.”
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