eCommerce & Merchandising

Brand Relationship: When Is It Most Vulnerable?

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Every retailer works to create and maintain a strong brand relationship with its customers. [In this case I’m talking about the retailer’s brand, not a product brand.] They want that brand to represent something that ties a consumer to them in a way that supersedes price, proximity, marketing hype, etc. as the primary selection criteria. But, for all the effort that’s invested in strengthening the brand relationship, are there areas — that matter to consumers — where retailers may be unwittingly hurting their brand? A recent study of 1,500 US consumers (ages 13-60+) reveals areas of consumer sensitivity that some retailers may be overlooking.

What’s in a brand relationship?

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Let’s start with the concept of a “brand relationship.” In an ideal world, the brand relationship would be an illogical one… one where the consumer would be willing to pay more (i.e., in dollars and/or in time/effort) to buy from one retailer over another. My wife has just such a relationship with a certain big box home improvement retailer. Even though two of their competitors are equidistant from our home, she always chooses to shop at this particular retailer.

Some might argue that it’s because their store format is more female friendly. But, actually, one of their competitors has a much more female-friendly layout. Besides, why — if she’s shopping on line — does she choose to shop her favorite retailer long before she’ll ever consider the other two? Their websites are not dramatically different from one another. They all carry very similar assortments. And, the other two retailers are almost always at par, pricewise, if not lower. So, what inclines her to consistently select the one retailer over the alternatives?

Why brand relationships are strong

In a US Consumer Expectations Study conducted last year by IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV), we asked about cases where a consumer had a strong relationship with a retailer. It turns out that of the 1,500 consumers studied, 206% more said that in those cases where they had such a “strong relationship,” trust came before loyalty in that relationship. [Curiously, 14% said that they had no retailers with which they had a strong relationship. And, that opinion was more prevalent among women than men, with 57% more women saying that they had no strong relationships with any retailer.]

Now that we have a sense of what strengthens the brand relationship, you’re probably wondering what can damage it? We probed several areas with consumers, but one came back with a particularly emphatic response. Specifically, when we asked, “How important is it for a retailer to demonstrate consistency in their performance in order for you to trust them?”, 96% of respondents indicated that this was important to very important.

Post-purchase phase is most critical

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We probed further to see if there was one area where performance consistency is more important than others? We described a “brand experience” as having three phases:

  • The Pre-purchase phase (during which you’re deciding whether to buy, what to buy, when to buy, and from whom to buy… a.k.a. shopping)
  • The Purchase phase (where you’re paying for what you want to buy… i.e., checkout)
  • And, the Post-purchase phase (which includes all interactions with the retailer relative to your purchase but not including your use of — or satisfaction with — the item(s) you purchased)

The study revealed that the brand relationship is most vulnerable during the Post-purchase phase. Eighty-six percent more consumers say that a poor Post-purchase experience with the retailer will damage the brand relationship compared to a poor Pre-purchase experience.

Three out of five (61%) consumers say that after experiencing a poor Pre-purchase experience, a positive Post-purchase experience is likely to be able to make up for the earlier difficulties. It’s not too surprising, then, to hear that 67% more consumers say that — between the Pre- and Post-purchase phases of the brand experience — the Post-purchase experience has the greatest impact on consumers’ lasting impression of a retailer.

Breaking down the Post-purchase phase further

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But, let’s pause for a moment and consider what this means today compared to the consumer’s brand experience in the pre-internet world. When Retail was almost entirely brick and mortar, the Post-purchase brand experience amounted to walking out of the store to your car. Sure, if you had to return the product, there was the in-store returns experience, but that was about it.

Fast forward to today’s world with multiple channels and multiple potential interactions that can occur after the purchase is consummated and you can begin to appreciate the expanded potential that retailers have for delivering a poor Post-purchase brand experience. In fact, in a 2011 Consumer Expectations Study, consumers’ emphasis on the importance of the Post-purchase phase was so significant that we’ve been tracking consumers’ expectations in this area ever since. What we’ve seen is a steady increase in how important certain Post-purchase interactions are for consumers. The following is a sample list of Post-purchase interactions and how important consumers consider each to be. In many cases, we have data from the 2011 study, so we can see trends. Note that in nearly every case, the percentage of consumers that consider the capability “important” to “very important” has remained high or increased.

Fragile brand rel 4

Clearly, there are several Post-purchase interactions that a significant majority of consumers consider important. And, since the Post-purchase phase has the greatest potential to strengthen or damage the brand relationship, there are numerous ways that a retailer has the potential to delight or disappoint customers. What’s in question, here, is the degree to which you can live up to these expectations and the extent to which you are able to monitor your ability to do so consistently. And, therein lies the rub for many retailers.

Because eCommerce grew up as a separate business unit in many retailers, the online and the brick-and-mortar businesses have not necessarily operated in sync. And, in the pre-omni-channel world (i.e., where you bought online and received your purchase via the mail), that didn’t matter too much.

Fragile brand rel 5

The difficulties began to arise when consumers could buy something via the eCommerce channel and pick it up or return it in the store. Suddenly, the Post-purchase phase of the online brand experience was no longer in the hands of the online channel and the postal service. Almost overnight, the most important and influential phase of the brand experience — that began on line — was now largely in the hands of the store…and, more specifically, the store associate. But, for many retailers, the online channel has no visibility into the quality and consistency of the brand experience being delivered by their brick-and-mortar channel to their online customers. And, that’s a problem.

For many retailers, their stores first saw — and, in some cases, still see — omni-channel as an imposition. After all, the online channel is selling down store inventory while also imposing additional work on already-thinly stretched limited store personnel. And, with each new omni-channel initiative (e.g., buy on line, pick up in store; return to store; ship from store; etc.), comes more new processes, increased workload, and greater pressure on store inventory. [Sure, many omni-channel initiatives drive increased foot traffic and sales for stores. But, for many, their first reaction to the added workload that omni-channel imposes is one of resistance.] So, for some retailers, their stores fail to recognize the in-store omni-channel processes as the important extension to the online brand experience that they are.

Online and brick-and-mortar must sync!

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What’s needed is close collaboration between the online and brick-and-mortar channels to view the entire brand experience that’s being delivered and agree on (1) how that experience can be optimized and delivered consistently, (2) how the channels can best synchronize for the benefit of all concerned, (3) how store personnel can execute the omni-channel processes efficiently and effectively, and (4) how all parties can monitor the brand experience they’re delivering and recognize when improvements are necessary.

Knowing how important the Post-purchase phase is for the brand relationship, knowing how many Post-purchase interactions there are in an omni-channel world, and knowing how impactful stores are in the Post-purchase phase, it’s more important than ever to view the consumer’s brand experience holistically across all three phases and channels and not just look at their online/mobile experience. Of course it’s important to secure the customer and get her to convert. But, overwhelming evidence indicates that failure to deliver a positive Post-purchase experience — particularly in the store — will forfeit the opportunity to sell to her in the future.

Find out more – read Consumer Expectations Soar: What does it mean for retailers?

Read my other blogs in this series:

Senior Omni-channel Strategist, IBM

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