In part 4 of our Masterclass Series on Building a Strategic Marketing Plan, host Eric Dickmann talks with Professor of Marketing and Author, Michael Solomon, about Building a Brand Story That Resonates with Your Ideal Customer.
Michael “wrote the book” on understanding consumers. Literally. Hundreds of thousands of business students have learned about Marketing from his books including "Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having and Being" -- the most widely used book on the subject in the world.
Michael’s mantra: We don’t buy products because of what they do. We buy them because of what they mean. He advises global clients on marketing strategies to make them more consumer-centric, and he is currently directing Nielsen’s revamp of its global Brand Health Model.
Michael is a Contributor at Forbes.com, where he writes about issues related to consumer behavior, marketing, and retailing. His articles have been cited over 30,000 times, and he is frequently quoted in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, USA Today, and Adweek. His newest book, The New Chameleons: Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization, will be published globally by Kogan Page in February 2021.
As a Professor of Marketing (in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia), a sought-after keynote speaker, and an industry consultant, Michael combines cutting-edge academic theory with actionable real-world strategies.
His latest book, "The New Chameleons - Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization" is available now on Amazon
Customers as the Co-Owners of Your Brand Story
According to Michael Solomon, oftentimes, customers can be your best resource in product development or market research. People buy things not only because of what they do; but because of what they mean. This why telling a compelling brand matters. Executive leaders may hate to hear it, but in reality, most customers look at brands as being mostly the same. Founders or CEOs may believe that their product or service is a cut above the rest, but the reality is that usually, their creations are just incremental changes or improvements to products already on the market.
One important aspect that often gets overlooked is that your product or service is not something you solely own; its actually created and co-owned by your customers. People can be very active in the way they interact with brands, and in some cases, they can even change its meaning. When this happens, changing how the brand story is told allows your business to potentially expand to other markets.
Michael shares the example of Timberland, which has traditionally been known as a great outdoor brand. As years went by, the shoes and clothing have been not only used for hiking or wilderness exploration but also as casual wear by the hip-hop subculture. This was not part of Timberland's brand story but cultural forces pushed the brand in a different direction and change the story on their own. Solomon points out that your brand story doesn't have to be focused solely in one areas; it can be adapted with multiple tones focused on different markets.
We don't buy things because of their functionality. We buy them because of what they do and what they mean- and that's where your brand story comes in."
Your customers are the ones living with your product and are putting their mark on your goods or services. There may be businesses that are open about pre-product releases, beta testing, and genuine customer interaction as ways to get customer involved early to get their input. Some, however, are secretive about opening up and letting the outsiders in on their product concepts before launching. Michael shares that it would be better if companies didn't keep the customers at bay and instead, acknowledge them as part of the development team and sales force. Having an outsiders provide input and criticism on your product can be a massive game-changer for your business because you limit your chances of failed product launches or ineffective services.
Customer want to be engaged with brands and are often eager to provide valuable input in feedback. Why do you think we are constantly bombarded by product surveys? It's because that customer feedback can be invaluable as you make product and marketing investments. We aren't suggesting you to listen to every suggestion, instead listen intently and put your efforts into researching and executing the best ideas. According to Scott Guold statistics, frequent interaction with customers builds loyalty and advocacy 87% daily, 64% weekly, and 33% at few times of the year.
The Importance of a Brand Story
One thing is certain, your brand needs a story. And it needs to be a compelling one. A story that clearly articulates what the brand stands for, who its products are for, and why you'd want to do business with the company. It should humanize the company a bit, make it less of an entity and more of a concept customer can wraps their heads around. And in creating and telling your brand story, the goal is to build a connection to your customer base. Column Five Media shares the five benefits of having a brand story:
- Brand storytelling makes you stand out
- It humanizes your brand
- It helps you attract the right people
- A brand story allows you to communicate your value
- It gives you more agency
The Horizontal and Vertical Trend
Michael shares that marketers sell vertically, but customers buy horizontally. No matter what business you are involved in, you are in the vertical position because customers are looking for how your products are going to fit into their existing circumstances or environments. Customers don't pay much attention to your competitors, market share, or other aspects of your business; instead, they buy horizontally. Just take this for an example, a lamp producer would benchmark against other lamp competitors, but as a consumer purchasing a lamp, he/she is looking for a lamp that would compliment his/her furniture at home. Horizontally buying can be simply put as assembling a constellation of products that complement each other.
It may seem a random occurrence, but the truth is that our brains are wired psychologically and are searching for patterns and connections. When you look at a mannequin wearing a Prada shirt, Rolex watch, and a Gucci bag, these brands may not be from the same company, but they have the same synergy and consumers see how when put together, the create a desirable assemble.
Michael elaborates that it's a psychological connection that a person buying a Louis Vuitton shirt or bag would most likely want an accessory or similar apparel that is of the same quality as his/her purchase. What is interesting here is that you are not only aiming for success with the independent functionality of your product, but you are also looking for opportunities for your product to integrate with others. Going back to our lamp example, not only should you desire to create a durable lamp, but you also try to work with cost-efficient or environment-friendly light bulbs that can go with your product to enhance it's desirability and positive attributes in the consumer's mind.
Whenever you can, take the time to walk in your customer's shoes and try to understand your brand from their point of view. Businesses sometimes cater to what they think the customer wants instead of what the customer actually want or needs. By creating a good brand story that directly talks to the people you want to reach, you can address their aspirational wants and desires. It is not enough to have something useful to sell, but also have a product that can positively impact a person's life. Fit Small Business elaborates on some cross-merchandising strategies:
- Complementary Items- Complementary items are goods that are typically bought, used, and consumed together. If you are a milk business, you can cross-merchandise your milk products with eggs, cheese, or cereals. Secondary product placement is meant to increase the sales of the secondary item with it.
- Thematic Merchandising- This strategy highlights a particular theme and uses the occasion to boost your sales- examples are back-to-school items and Christmas holiday products. These items, which are located in the separate sections of stores, are where people go when they need things for a specific time or occasion.
- Contrasting Products- Some retailers use this strategy to help their products stand out even more. This technique is to draw the attention of shoppers to seasonal or limited-time items. Some businesses would display their products at random, but strategic spots in the shop remind the customers that a particular event is coming up.
- Substitute Products- Substitute product placement is a type of cross-merchandising strategy where retailers put more improved products next to more traditional and mainstream items. These items usually save the buyer more time and effort and sparks fresh ideas- for instance, a jar of sliced garlic next to cloves of garlic.
- Impulse Items- This is the most popular among the cross-merchandising strategies. Impulse items such as candies, razors, cigarettes, or hair ties, despite their cheapness, are the most likely to drive higher sales. Other retailers position these products near the cashier or store exits.
- Best-Selling Products- Similar to the contrasting products, businesses use this strategy to divert the buyer's attention to the newest and latest products that are released. A typical example of best-selling products are newly published books, the latest gadgets or appliances, and limited-edition albums.
Creating an Immersive Experience for Your Customers
The trend of immersing customers in your brand story has continuously changed through the years. The strategy from posting ads in newspapers, tabloids, or on radio to creating interactive and highly targeted content for social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Nowadays, companies in different industries are implementing campaigns to have a robust digital marketing presence. Solomon introduces us to the dramaturgical perspective on marketing. This concept puts your customers in the audience seat and your business as the main character in a theater play. Your goal in this marketing perspective is to entertain your audience using props and an immersive storyline. Your props would be your creative content and social media platforms, while your storyline is the brand story you want to share with your potential market. Like watching a movie or being in a theater, people want to see something new and exciting, something that has a good twist and worth looking forward to.
Your brand story has to be shown consistently. Failure to be consistent with your storyline can lead to the customer's confusion with your real message. No matter what your company is selling, there are many ways to create a story around your brand. The opportunity to build your brand story around the product is always there. Unfortunately, some businesses are very product-centric to the point that people don't have any idea what they stand for or how those products fit into their lifestyle, tastes, and preferences.
Establishing an Emotional Connection With Your Customers
Sometimes an exercise with your team can help bring these ideas to life. Michael encourages teams to do a quick exercise- sit down with three or four of your top customers and give each of them a simple assignment. Make them imagine that your brand comes to life and allow them to describe the physical characteristics that they want to see in it (gender, age, clothing. interests). Once they have listed everything that they have in mind, take a look at everyone's personal descriptions and check out if their listed characteristics align with each other.
Hopefully, most of your customers will have similar representations of how they see your brand, but there may also be people whose illustrations are very different from the others or from your own. If that happens, it's a red flag that the message you think you are communicating is not the one actually being heard. Regardless of the finding's outcomes, this small experiment can be a real eye-opener for businesses to enhance their marketing strategy by personalizing their tone or improving their brand storytelling techniques. Solomon tells managers and business executives that if they can't relate to this simple exercise, their business might have a serious problem because it means their brand has no identity or story to tell. Don't expect customers to relate and participate with your business if you have no brand story to share.
The Power of Emotions in a Brand Story
If you want to make people feel good about your brand, you need to arouse the proper emotions. An emotional connection is the primary motivator to get them to feel good and happy about your goods or services. Customers want to purchase your products not only because of its authentic features, but also because they feel a positive connection to it. Customers may not admit it themselves, but their purchasing behavior is an emotional reaction and it's this emotional reaction that gets them to buy.
For instance, realtors have commented that a smart way to sell a house is to have the doors have huge door knobs or handles. This is because home buyers are reminded of when they were children, having small hands to open doors. It may sound irrational but these little things, even if the customers don't recognize them, are significant influences on their purchasing decision. How many times have you gone through an open house with the smell of freshly baked cookies in the air? That wasn't because the realtor was just a nice person, it was all designed to make you feel at home and trigger that emotional connection.
Focusing on your product's functionality is important but appealing to your customer's emotions is really the driver of sales. Competitors may design and engineer their products similarly, but it's the emotional connection that makes the market prefer Product A over Product B, despite Product A being a little more expensive. Just by looking at online advertisements and television commercials, you can see that companies only highlight one or two aspects of their product, then focus on building an emotional connection with the viewers. Having a brand story is one of the most effective ways to establish a dynamic relationship with the audience, stand out in the industry, and generate a larger profit. RetailNext lists the eight ways to make your business have an emotional connection with the audience:
- Speak to your audience directly
- Connect with your audience on a more personal level
- Create unique insights
- Stand for something and believe in it
- Share your brand story to inspire people
- Speak emotionally
- Don't complicate things and try to keep things simple
- Be consistent
Michael Solomon's "The New Chameleons"
Michael Solomon's New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization discusses how businesses can connect to customers who defy categorization.
Solomon compares customers to chameleons because, like the chameleon's changing colors, customers tend to change their identity quickly as well. According to him, businesses should customize and personalize their offerings to cater to a specific group of people. Despite the challenges that companies face in appealing to their target market, customer differentiation gives them the chance to innovate and conceptualize new strategies to attract demand and promote brand loyalty. In this book, Solomon exposes how people relate with members of multiple cultures and age groups, how consumer-generated content becomes the norm, and what strategies can make your business more popular and engaging to the vast market. New Chameleons shows us many examples of companies that have created new markets and fresher opportunities for themselves by actually letting chameleons out of their cages because they're all escaping anyway.
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Michael Solomon is a consumer behavior psychologist, marketing professor, book author, and international speaker. He is currently a professor of marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Some of Michael's academic interests include consumer behavior, branding strategies, marketing development, and online research methodologies. He has delivered his lectures on these subjects in various regions around the world- UK, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. Aside from his passion for instructing the youth on business, Solomon is an international speaker who has been the adviser for multiple brands such as Intel, BMW, eBay, McKinsey & Company, Ford, and Levis. Besides that, he is a renowned book author who regularly contributes to the Forbes column about retailing, consumer behavior, and branding. Michael has also spoken to Fortune 500 companies, top advertising agencies and marketing associations, and government organizations worldwide.