As we celebrate the long overdue departure of the Insurrectionist-in-Chief, we can also observe how quickly and comprehensively a brand (and a family) can be blown up and destroyed. You probably don't suffer from Trump's self-destructive narcissism, but it's still important for every serious business to take the time and the necessary steps to protect, care for, and bolster their brands and the delicate connection they have to their customers.
While absence and distance may theoretically make the heart grow fonder, in today's world, as we slowly start to emerge from the pandemic, there are simply no guarantees that things will ever return to "business as usual." Or, even more importantly that your customers will be there, ready, willing, and waiting for your return and reopening, unless you take action now to turn that fragile prospect into a solid promise. Wishful thinking isn't a great strategy and counting on old habits simply isn't smart. Old habits may die hard, but the web and the pandemic have opened up a whole new world of choices for even the most diehard fan.
The primary idea to keep in mind is that a lot of what we commonly view as customer loyalty may simply be customer inertia--the product of frequent use, convenience, ease of access, and the absence of a better alternative. Thinking that your former and current customers are going to be blinded by and locked into their habits is a bad bet that sells them short and takes them for granted in a dramatically altered marketplace. As customers emerge from a long dark year of denial with, of necessity, radically changed purchasing and consumption behaviors, they'll be better equipped and probably somewhat anxious and excited to seek out novel and different ways of doing things. That risk of migration is somewhat mitigated by the sheer volume of choices, which leads quickly to decision fatigue. Brands are a shortcut -- an easy way to avoid the hard work and the time it takes to evaluate and try something new.
In some cases, the emergence of new technologies and low-cost, readily available tools may simply provide customers, prospects, and consumers with better value and stronger built-in solutions. Take the American Automobile Association (AAA), for example. As winter persists, I often think of why I have religiously renewed my AAA auto club membership in a time where Google, Waze, and other on-board navigation systems have completely eliminated the need for Trip Tiks (remember those), where I can now buy cheap and easy car insurance online by the mile, and where manufacturer-provided, no cost, roadside assistance comes with virtually every decent vehicle. Direct startup competitors are also entering the market. Most AAA members don't even realize that the primary remaining use and value for that colorful little AAA card in your wallet is to surrender it to the nice policeman instead of your driver's license the next time you're stopped for speeding on the way to the airport so that you can still get through the TSA screening. I'm sure that AAA isn't exactly standing still, but it's clear that it's going to need to supercharge its offerings if it's planning to hang on to millions of customers who also, by the way, will be driving far less.
The bottom line is that your brand is an ongoing promise. Great brands are earned every day and become shorthand and shortcuts for your business's identity. If you are no longer delivering on the promises you've made or haven't kept your offerings at least comparable to those of the competition, your customers have no reason to hang around. And in tough times like these, "good enough" really isn't. Cookie cutters are for baking, not for branding.
I wrote recently that every brand needs to be bolstered post-pandemic with overt and over-the-top elements regarding safety, security, and reliability/redundancy. With the advent of aggressive social media conversations and evaluations, the "crowd" is sometimes more in control of your brand than you are. It takes only a few nasty notes about health or cleanliness concerns to create real problems for you. Listen carefully to your customers and work hard to anticipate their needs and expectations. You've got to up your game, differentiate your products and services, and give your customers compelling reasons to stay.
But please don't try to compete on price. Once you head down that slippery slope and diminish your brand equity, you can never come back. As we start to see faint glimpses of some serious retail resurgence by late in the summer or early fall, it's easy to convince yourself that heavy discounting and sales are the way to quickly build traffic and revenue, but it's a very bad bet.
Discounts train customers to buy on price, not brand or quality. This may drive one-time trials, but in the absence of real substance and value, you'll just churn through these folks as they return to their old buying habits. Buying volume (just like tricking traffic through click-baiting on the web) is a short-term fix that's not sustainable. If you want to hold new customers, you need to focus on delivering value and super service rather than simply the lowest price, which -- because of the persistent real-time competitive repricing on the web -- turns out to be impossible anyway.
One more thing: Be careful of the first "customers" back through the door. There's a decent chance that they're bottom feeders and bargain hunters and the very last people you want associated with your brand and your business. Not only are they unlikely to buy, and highly likely to return worn materials in short order, but they'll also scare off the real and serious buyers you built your business on from the beginning. Or they'll have loads of cash and no taste. These are other aspects of brand fragility as well that you need to carefully manage.
You don't want to become or be seen as a "Groucho" club. As the humorist and actor Groucho Marx famously said, "I don't want to belong to a club that will accept me as a member." Or be a place that's so overrun with lookie-loos that you have the Yogi Berra restaurant problem. As the great New York Yankees catcher and locker room philosopher once observed: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."