Today, brands are largely product-centric -they are statements about the vendor or the products offered by the vendor. Brands say: Buy this product because the vendor has a reputation for high-quality products or excellent service or because the product itself is a reliable or low-cost product. In an environment where return on attention becomes the key measure of performance, a new kind of brand will emerge-true brands and customer-centric brands. Check out also this interesting Wharton School video:
Customer-centric brands have two components-they assure the customer that the vendor knows and understands that individual customer better than anyone else does, and they promise the customer that the vendor can tailor products and services to meet that individual customer’s needs better than anyone else can. These brands thereby assure customers that they will receive a very high return on any attention they focus on the owner of the brand. They also offer the promise of increasing returns-the more attention the customer gives to a brand, the more the brand owner will learn about the customer, and the stronger the value of the brand becomes to the customer.
Some brands today have moved partway in this direction. These brands speak to customers as members of a specific market segment. They urge customers to buy their products or services by claiming that the vendor understands the needs of that segment better than anyone else does. For example, Disney has been successful in the past by developing a brand addressing the concerns of parents with small children. Nike did the same for urban youths. But none of these brands says anything about knowing the customer as an individual with unique needs and preferences. This is the challenge and opportunity for customer-centric brands. It’s all about promoting in the right way.
Who will deliver on the promises implicit in a customer-centric brand? Certainly, infomediaries will have a natural claim to knowing the customer better than anyone else and could tailor bundles of products and services to meet the needs of the individual customer. For this reason, infomediaries will develop very strong customer-centric brands and if you consider getting involved in this line of work, be sure to get some proper education and a lot of training.
Specialized intermediaries might also build strong customer-centric brands by developing expertise working with customer profiles to configure tailored bundles of products or services to meet the needs of the customer. These “personal shopper” intermediaries might become junior partners of the broader-based infomediary to offer customers expertise in specific product categories. For example, specialized “clothing consultants” might take on the role of a personal shopper in online environments, building unique skills to match the individual fashion preferences of a customer with a deep understanding of evolving fashion trends and to suggest wardrobes tailored for the customer. Online education can also learn a lot from these tactics and approach.
Clients who want help deciding which products are right for them might seek out these specialized intermediaries. If, as in the case of today’s personal shopper or personal banker, these intermediaries demonstrate their commitment to and skill in tailoring offers to an individual customer’s needs, they, too, might develop customer-centric brands. Unlike personal shoppers or personal bankers today, these “personal shopper” intermediaries wouldn’t be pushing the products of their employer. Instead, they would operate as consultants, collecting fees from the client and perhaps a surcharge on products purchased as a result of their recommendations (much as interior decorators do today).
Certain vendors who invest deeply in the skills necessary to convert customer information into deliverable value to the customer would also build strong customer-centric brands. In general, vendors who offer information-intensive products like newsletters or knowledge-intensive services like medical care will have the greatest success in building customer-centric products by tailoring these products or services to the needs of individual customers.
A customer-centric brand can’t be built without information from customers about their needs and preferences – information they often provide reluctantly. In the end, customer-centric brands require an intensely personal relationship between the business and the customer. We may not think of them as owners of customer-centric brands, but the traditional family doctor or the local financial adviser exemplifies the kind of relationship required. These relationships begin with a limited request for information from the customer; in exchange, the doctor or adviser quickly turns that information into helpful advice. Ideally, a series of value exchanges creates deep bonds of trust that deliver on the customer-centric brand promise: I know more about you than anyone else and can be trusted to use this information and insight in your interest.
Customer-centric brands aren’t restricted to individuals in professional and personal service occupations. Rich information capture and analysis capabilities and the ability to tailor offerings cost-effectively for individual customers make it possible for large institutions to develop customer-centric brands. Although still at a very early stage of development, Amazon.com is building a customer-centric brand based on its ability to track book purchases by individual customers and to use this information to offer tailored suggestions of other books that customers might enjoy. Now a global company can play the role the local neighborhood bookseller plays – building a powerful customer-centric brand in the process – by using the Internet and related information capture and analysis technologies.