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04.20.20

Maintaining And Growing Brand Loyalty Amidst The Crisis

by Jay Suhr and James Lanyon

It’s playing out every day across the country. Customers carefully unpack groceries from delivery or curbside pick-up and find substituted brands in place of favorites—products they are thrilled to have in a time of shortage. A family creates a moment of normal with delivery or carryout from restaurants they haven’t tried before or visited in years. 

Grocery stores are seeing close to 30% increases in sales as people stay at home—attracting new customers often because of superior online ordering, curbside and delivery surges. QSR brands are seeing surges and hiring drivers, while local restaurants are pivoting to new business models to serve their loyal customers. Telemedicine is shifting from a feature hidden in your health insurance to a vital lifeline.

Some categories and brands are winning. Some companies in stalled industries like airlines and hospitality are still maintaining customer loyalty with timeliness, candor and program adjustments. Yet others are stalled, uncertain, or lagging in ways that may be irreparable. Amazon is seeing consumer spending increase 35% from 2019 as reported by Facteus, which may leave them in an even more dominant position. However, its labor practices and questions about worker safety have a negative impact on customer perception and loyalty.

Where does that leave your brand as the national conversation starts to shift to regional apexes, plateaus and “glimmers of light”? What can you do to get ahead of the curve with your customers knowing the effort will be rewarded when life begins to return to normal?

LEARNING FROM BRANDS THAT ARE GETTING IT RIGHT.

There is a clear set of common capabilities and characteristics in the companies that have proven to be essential during COVID-19, regardless of industry. If it’s easy to order and get things safely to my home or picked up from a store, your company has become invaluable and consumers are on the path to become loyal ongoing customers. But companies deemed “essential” are not alone in getting it right. 

There are common themes among the brands that are getting it right at this exceptional moment:

1. Push your tech, digital and social infrastructure. When everyone is staying home working from home, digital infrastructure is critical—and customer expectations for this level of digital experience will become permanent. This is as true for local businesses as it is for regional and national brands. 

  • Online ordering and contactless delivery and pickup service are the foundation for companies who are getting it right. The same is true with digital connection from telemedicine, to e-learning to Zoom.
  • CRM strategies, platforms and messaging have helped brands convey their response to the crisis and communicate available services. This is true for essential brands and for industries on pause. (Delta Airlines’ response has been timely, thorough and an exemplar for brands who value their loyal customers.)
  • Social has let brands add empathy to the immediacy of the situation—extending conversations using speed (Twitter), images and stories (Instagram), breadth (Facebook) and boredom-breaking whimsy (TikTok).

Action to take now: Accelerate your digital infrastructure plans now with an emphasis on fast, immediate steps. We have clients “doubling-down” on digital initiatives to both press an advantage or to catch-up to more digitally mature peers. Content creation for social media (organic and paid) is another immediate step brands can take now to engage their customers. It’s not enough to increase post frequency. Communications must have a clear intent whether that be relevant updates or even just positive engagement in a time of emotional stress.

2. Master the ability to pivot. And pivot again. Those companies (big and small) who have pivoted their operations and teams, often ahead of the verging crisis (like Texas grocery chain, H-E-B) have pulled ahead. They’ve also followed a playbook across their operations and communications that focused on employee and customer safety first, followed by available services, before then transitioning to more engaging content. Social listening was informing content, as well as ad shifting tactics to local market needs. (Insights from T3’s Restaurant Playbook have lessons for all industries.)

Messaging is particularly vital. There are important differences in anxiety and how people are reacting to the crisis based on their generation, gender, income security and other factors. This is one of many key findings from the first wave of COVID-19 Consumer Pulse reporting from our sister company, Kelton.

Action to take now: 

  • Expand how you are assessing the situation through social listening, direct customer outreach and market research. 
  • Monitor customer data.
  • Evaluate market by market.
  • If you have paused programs or gone silent, that may be completely right for your industry. Our belief is that society, people and companies will make incremental, phased attempts to return to a normal way of life. This may extend for months. The country won’t simply turn back on. (James Lanyon covered this in a recent Adweek webinar on withstanding disruption. The Q&A with brand leaders that came afterward gets at what’s on other marketers’ minds.)

3. Make new customer data immediately actionable. Multiple companies and many of our clients are seeing a surge in new customers, new digital connections and the invaluable data that comes with it. They are capturing and analyzing current and new customer data to optimize current programs and prioritize future initiatives.

The question all marketers have now relates to what will happen to customer loyalty. Will once-loyal customers come back or shift to new companies who have been there with them through the crisis? Will companies seeing a surge of new customers then lose them to old routines and favored brands?

New research from our sister company, Kelton, has identified which consumer behaviors will change permanently vs. which will change only temporarily and go back to pre-COVID-19 times through the Kelton Behavior Adaptation Index.

The index scores consumers on 20 common behaviors depending on their predictions as to how dramatically their behaviors will change because of COVID-19.

  • 35% are Maintainers who expect very little or only minor temporary changes
  • 45% are Adapters who expect some temporary change along with very few permanent changes
  • 20% are Disruptors who see a large number of radical disruptions on the horizon

Disruptors are 35-54; live in a large city/urban area; are Asian-American or Hispanic; married or live as married; have children under 18; and are on strict budgets. They try new brands and services, buy what’s on sale and use coupons. They are doing extreme social distancing. Moreover, they are “prepared for permanent change and they will expect the brands they choose to meet their new and evolving needs.” If your brand over-indexes in this group, plan to adapt to meet their needs. 

Understanding and acting on your incoming customer data is the foundation for both re-engaging with your customers or extending the value you have provided during this time. This demands an integrated effort so you understand the nuances of the data to refine your segmentation, set your strategy and get your messaging, timing and channels right as consumers, markets and customers make the gradual transition to the next phase of the pandemic. 

Action to take now: 

  • Expand your data capture and data science expertise. 
  • Make sure your CRM strategies, workflow and campaigns can be designed and deployed with the agility that the crisis and your customers demand.
  • Make sure new customer data is flowing into loyalty programs and get those loyalty programs ready for both new and returning customers. 
  • If you are blocked by a slow-moving tech stack, shift to microservices to add new features without having to rip and replace. 

T3’s agile approach to building Modern Loyalty experiences is ready-made for brands who need to take action now.

THE MAGNITUDE OF THE CHANGE?

Things will change. There will be degrees of change no one can predict or control right now. But as the crisis begins its slow transition, there are things that your valuable brand can do to wrap your arms around your new and loyal customers, to thank them, to welcome them back and to add new value to help shape the new normal, not simply react to it.

Your brand may be ahead—how can you add new value to extend the lead? Your brand may be behind—how do you use this pause to catch up? Your industry may be frozen—but what about your brand? There are things you can do now to meet your customers’ needs today and build a path to future loyalty.

For more T3 POVS and action plans on brand loyalty, contact James Lanyon or Jay Suhr.

Jay Suhr
James Lanyon

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