Brand advocates are the most important salesmen a product has.

Brand advocates are the most important salesmen a product has.

Graphic courtesy of The Times & Bain

Personal recommendations ensure brand preference, even in the toughest of times.

A survey of 6000 shoppers by Bain reveals that consumers are more likely to “treat themselves” by spending more on premium and luxury brands during these tough economic times. Bain note that consumers recognise the there is an emotional pull by these brands, who are deriving reassurance of quality in their purchases.

In tough circumstances, consumers are cutting back on big ticket purchases (think Best Buy & Comet issues), are holidaying at home (BA reports another drop in passenger numbers) and in terms of homes, they are either holding on and not moving (stagnant housing market) or can’t get mortgages to get on the housing ladder and will continue (or even restart) to rent (today’s Grainger report indicates up to 50% of Brits will soon be renting).

While these are understandable indicators of such hard economic times, many consumers want to afford themselves to the occasional “treat”. When they do, in a surprisingly wide range of categories – including fragrances, restaurants and personal technology – they look to brand-influenced decisions. What is interesting in the Bain study, is the confirmation that

  • advertising continues to  diminish as an influence on 2st Century brand choice
  •  personal recommendations are the most important influence
  • online activity is important but not as important as the massive shifts in marketing expenditure to internet expenditure suggests.

As Bain says ‘Companies overestimate the importance of online and are underestimating the importance of advocacy.  A lot of companies have spent a lot of money on the internet but they should be spending more on getting people to be influenced by their friends and family”.

Brands can succeed next year despite the gloom and doom, by creating advocates, by listening to and creating dialogue with these consumers and by recognising that by doing so, consumers imbue these brands with quality associations, beyond the basic product attributes. Brands that do this understand the new customer journey has many touchpoints that require new thinking and smaller, consistent actions that reinforce the expectations of the brand promise.

Virgin flies to serve whereas BA fly.

Virgin flies to serve whereas BA fly

Brand experience trumps the advertised brand promise, especially for a service brand. However, the promise must address that experience.

Summer is over and the big carrier’s are back chasing the declining business traveller. Virgin and BA taking a glossy 90 second route tugging our emotional coat. Glorious production values, wonderful evocative music, yum!

Same target and same objective. One works for me, one doesn’t – and I’m their target.

Both airlines have been losing their most profitable business customers to CFO mandated lower travel budgets & free Skype video conferencing as well as family holidays going nationally or on budget airlines.

Both focus on their key brand ambassadors…their frontline people. Quite right.

BA has been hurt not only by the downturn, but also by the strikes by cabin staff. This meant quite a few of their Gold Card holders used other airlines on BA routes – and found that the experience was really rather different – especially the important core part of the customer journey – airport to lounge to cabin to airport.

The key difference in the brand experience is when you step off the walkway and into the plane. It doesn’t matter if you turn left or right or go upstairs or not. The experience delivered by the cabin crew. Interestingly, Virgin and BA get this. Kind of.

I’ve flown many times on BA simply to keep my gold card, gold. In 30+ flights in 5 years, I’ve had only one great experience on board (and it was when I was bumped up on a longhaul flight), but many average ones and some soured. The BA people are usually fine, if a little aloof and occasionally officious. I sometimes get a whiff of jobsworth-ness and they can moan within earshot. Hard then to have sympathy over their strikes over loss of perks to younger, lower paid but happier cabin crew.

The Virgin crew I’ve observed are fuelled by a lighter spirit and it shows. There is a whiff of fun in the service that doesn’t feel false.

On any flight, there will be some small incident and how it is handled shapes the overall experience more than anything else. I’ve flown Virgin only occasionally and when my TV screen didn’t work I was moved to another seat instantly (BA didn’t move me on any of the three times it has happened) and when my drink was accidently spilled, I was invited from the back of the plane to the bar upstairs to “dry off”. When it happened upstairs on a BA flight, the crew member dropped a damp cloth in my lap and smiled.

So do their glossy films focus on that key, experience-led, brand promise?

BA focus on their pilots and their heritage. Good men those pilots, always have been. But I don’t interact with BA pilots.  I hear what they say on the tannoy, but it washes over the much travelled me.  They’re not Biggles.  But I haven’t got a problem with BA in terms of their pilots, their heritage or their planes. So the motto is only half relevant to me. To fly.

On the other hand, my experience as delivered by the Virgin cabin crew is reinforced by their new campaign. It’s younger, more fun, more relaxing, great service and even the odd bit of banter.

In truth, the BA tagline fits the Virgin ad better…To fly. To serve.

Great experiences create great advocates and importantly new customers whereas bad experiences can create brand terrorists and then you lose not only those customers but many for whom their recommendations are valued.

As Virgin say, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Well BA, they’ve now got me. I’m letting my BA Gold Card become silver.