To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple

By: Spenner P. – May 2012

Marketers see today’s consumers as web-savvy, mobile-enabled data sifters who pounce on whichever brand or store offers the best deal. Brand loyalty, the thinking goes, is vanishing. In response, companies have ramped up their messaging, expecting that the more interaction and information they provide, the better the chances of holding on to these increasingly distracted and disloyal customers. But for many consumers, the rising volume of marketing messages isn’t empowering—it’s overwhelming. Rather than pulling customers into the fold, marketers are pushing them away with relentless and ill-conceived efforts to engage.

That’s a key finding of Corporate Executive Board’s multiple surveys of more than 7,000 consumers and interviews with hundreds of marketing executives and other experts around the world (for more detail, see the sidebar “About the Research”). Our study bored in on what makes consumers “sticky”—that is, likely to follow through on an intended purchase, buy the product repeatedly, and recommend it to others. We looked at the impact on stickiness of more than 40 variables, including price, customers’ perceptions of a brand, and how often consumers interacted with the brand. The single biggest driver of stickiness, by far, was “decision simplicity”—the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information about a product and confidently and efficiently weigh their purchase options. What consumers want from marketers is, simply, simplicity.

Consider the marketing activities of two digital camera brands. Brand A’s search engine strategy is to pick up any consumers who are searching common digital camera terms and direct them to the company website. There they find extensive technical and feature information and 360-degree rotatable product photos, all organized and sortable by model. In stores, shelf labels list key technical attributes, such as megapixel rating and memory, and provide a QR code that takes consumers to a mobile version of the brand’s website, where they can dig more deeply into product specifications.

Brand B’s search engine strategy is to first understand the consumer’s intent and where in the search process she is likely to be. Why does she want a camera? Is she just starting to look, or is she ready to buy? The company guides those in the early stages of investigation to third-party review sites (where its cameras get good marks) and directs consumers who are actively shopping to its own website. User reviews and ratings are front and center there, and a navigation tool lets consumers quickly find reviews that are relevant to their intended use of the camera (family and vacation photography, nature photography, sports photography, and so on). In stores, Brand B frames technical features in nontechnical terms. Instead of emphasizing megapixels and memory, for example, it says how many high-resolution photos fit on its memory card. The QR code on shelf displays leads to a simple app that simulates one of the camera’s key differentiators, a photo-editing feature.

The highly detailed information Brand A provides at every step on the purchase path may instruct the consumer about a given camera’s capabilities, but it does little to facilitate an easy decision. Brand B simplifies decision making by offering trustworthy information tailored to the consumer’s individual needs, thus helping her traverse the purchase path quickly and confidently. Our research shows that customers considering both brands are likely to be dramatically more “sticky” toward Brand B.

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