The importance of personalization for brands trying to create brand affinity cannot be understated. Due to technological shifts, customers have come to expect that brands offer highly personalized offers and communications. For example, when a customer goes onto her favorite retail site to purchase a book, she expects that the site will offer her recommendations for other books she might like to read. This is an extremely simple example, and true personalization can be much more complicated than that. Nonetheless, customers have come to expect this type of customer service.
Recently, Loyalty360 spoke with Dan Sheehan, Senior Partner and Executive Creative Director at ICF Next, to discuss this very issue. ICF Next is more than a marketing agency. The recent launch of ICF Next is the culmination of years of integrating a set of best-in-class marketing and communications capabilities through different agencies and consultancies. The company is focused on insights, creativity, and technology that move people, from consumers to colleagues and citizens to communities, to bring organizations closer to the people they serve. ICF Next’s 1,700-plus deep bench of creatives, communicators, strategists, technologists, and data analysts is committed to helping organizations meet barriers head-on, find real value sooner, and create lasting change that leaves them better prepared for the future.
One of ICF Next’s core areas of expertise is loyalty and customer marketing. The company offers award-winning loyalty and CRM strategy; customer journey mapping and lifecycle management; personalized creative, analytics, reporting, and modeling; cross-channel marketing; and technology and program implementation and management.
If brands are able to personalize their creative communications with consumers, what is the effect on the customer experience? Is it truly worth the extra resources? 
Now, more than ever, consumers are aware of the relationships they have with the brands they choose to engage with. These brand relationships are becoming increasingly fragile and it is essential that we communicate with consumers in an appropriate manner, that we demonstrate empathy and understanding. Consumers have come to expect you to communicate relevant messages at appropriate times throughout the lifecycle, based on both their relationship with your brand and where they are in the customer journey. When marketers fail to do this, the relationship can erode. It’s more than worth the extra effort for a brand to be empathetic and authentic. It’s a fundamental investment in fulfilling the consumers’ expectations, expectations they may not even know they have. 
How can brands create personalized creative at scale, both for all customers and recurring over a relevant time period? 
First, personalized creative is more than knowing your name and email address. To truly personalize my message, I need to capture data that shows I know something about you, then use that knowledge to engage you and deepen our relationship—and deliver personalized content at just the right time, for just the right reason. For example, I know you live in Chicago and I know you have a family with children at home. I can send you an email on a cold winter day in Chicago and suggest it’s a good time to plan your family spring getaway while the Chicago weather has you wishing for sunshine. I’ll even offer relevant and fresh recommendations based on last years’ destinations and travel behavior. Building those moments over a customer journey creates true appreciation between the consumer and your brand, over and over again.
Why are creative communications such an important part of a brand’s loyalty experience? 
When we talk about creative communications, it’s not just visual design or clever copy that’s so important. Those are great to have, but the creative is developed from the strategy and idea behind the communication and adds value and meaning. Its objective is to make a personal connection, enabling the consumer to feel heard and your brand to be more relevant and timelier. Creating these experiences consistently over time turns customers into advocates and fosters loyalty. It puts your brand in the middle of the conversation and becomes additive to their experience versus simply transactional.
What can brands do to start down a path of personalized communication, assuming they currently don’t have such a program? 
Brands need to take a consumer-first approach to their communications planning and strategy. Understanding the consumer needs and pain points is a great place to start. Then, brands should look at what they know about their consumers and the data they can aggregate, the opportunities they can uncover from that customer data, and the actionable insights they can apply to overcoming challenges. Another thing to consider is collecting additional data from your customers in ways that add to the value exchange or enrich the experience they have with you. Reach out and connect with them in a way that encourages their inclination to deepen the relationship with your brand and give you more information, which can result in a stronger, long-term customer relationship.
Our discussion with Dan Sheehan of ICF Next can offer marketers a few key insights. First, because customers have come to expect personalized communications, brands have to offer it, regardless of difficulty. The good news is that brands that are able to offer truly personalized services, from communications and recommendations to offers, are going to create deep emotional engagement. This leads to brand affinity.
Second, when brands begin the process of offering personalized creative, they need to do so with a strong strategy in place. The whole point of personalization is to make customers feel emotionally connected to the brand with which they engage. Brands won’t be able to achieve this goal if they don’t carefully think about their personalization strategies. While this does present challenges, we believe that brands that personalize are going to achieve a great deal of success.

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