Brand, My Friend

This was a first. Recently I used social media to contact a company. The lunch I ordered was 45 minutes late, and I asked for a status update via the company’s chat. The chat employee (no bot yet!) explained that the whole city was ordering food due to rain. He told me that I should consider cancelling my order because he could not promise a quick delivery. I was positively surprised by the honest answer from someone I would expect to rank quick revenue over long-term customer satisfaction.

Social media interaction is casual and, as in my case, can boost the positive image of a brand if done well. However, social media is less controllable. Insider information on companies is now easier to access. Aspects you prefer to keep hidden may surface against your will. Blandishing tactics seem to be as ineffective as banning posts.

Nevertheless, it’s common sense nowadays that direct customer communication is a big opportunity for companies. Thus they explore new standards in customer relations. Many of the firms we work with aim to meet their customers as equals. This is quite challenging when there are thousands of employees, various markets, and a wide product range.

Today, the term love brands conquers the top echelons. But this status seems not very desirable. Love is unconditional and irrational. It’s hard to deal with customers who love you. So let’s think of it not a love but as a deep, evolved friendship in which we learn from the feedback we give each other.

Before joining MetaDesign I worked for a startup where customer service was called “user advocacy” and customers sent us tons of chocolate for Christmas. We were told that customers should feel like they’re part of the crew. Therefore, the startup spent quite a lot of money to make customers the brand’s friends. They took feedback seriously, and used it to improve products and services. Customers paid that back with loyalty. The Net Promoter Score of the company is now at 9.1 — an amazing reward for this careful, individual treatment and the big effort behind it.

But friendships are not always easy. Friends sometimes make mistakes. They’re human. And brands make mistakes, too, since there are humans behind them. (Fortunately!) A Bertelsmann Foundation study on responsible entrepreneurship in Germany found that people want brands with a customer-first mentality that communicate their activities transparently and truthfully. Customers prefer brands that do not strive for perfection but instead are accessible through honest transparency.

Building brand friendships obviously has the power to affect customer satisfaction. It can also make companies more profitable. A careful, empathic customer relationship is a priceless asset for a company. It’s an opportunity to gain intimate insights on a target group can help improve the business overall.

It goes without saying that this process of building brand friendships is iterative — long and exhausting but in the end rewarding. Just like the other long-time friendships in our lives.

_Nora Schäfer is a brand strategist at MetaDesign Düsseldorf.