How Brands Blossom in an Increasingly Complex World of Choice
Consumer Brand Relationships are Eroding
The days are long gone when a marketer could predictably project their brand’s loyalty based on ad dollars spent or promotional activities launched. Traditional avenues for creating and building brand loyalty are rapidly dissolving, replaced by a myriad of complex, interrelated new mediums, networks and devices. As technology pervades and redesigns daily life, consumers are learning to demand more from brands than ever before. They expect higher levels of customization, greater degrees of personal attention and increasingly, more personally meaningful experiences. Brands that can’t or won’t meet these new expectations are quickly replaced by those who will.
To meet new expectations, a brand needs to understand what those expectations are and how to best satisfy them in a meaningful way. This is difficult to do under normal circumstances, but it’s become exponentially harder in the past decade as technology has transformed the consumer landscape and become a formidable force in shaping consumers’ relationship to brands. For example, technology is prompting products, services and brands to evolve more quickly than they ever have before. As a result, the length of consumers’ expected experience with a product, service or brand has been shortened in anticipation of what’s next:
- Cell phone makers are aggressively upgrading their product lines monthly. In the United States, the expected life cycle of a cell phone today is less than 18 months 1) and over 125 million phones are expected to be discarded this year.2)
- Open source collaborations, like that used to update Wikipedia or Firefox, make product improvement constant and ongoing rather than cyclical. Consumers are learning to expect that “fixes” be made immediately, rather than waiting for the next upgrade.
- The proliferation of affordable tools and peer-to-peer distribution networks give everyone the means to make and market movies, songs, books, clothing, food, artwork, personal services and a host of other offerings, increasing the level and extent of competitive pressure to innovate.
Similarly, technology is changing the way consumers see the world. It is altering the way we build relationships with people, companies, products and brands. It is creating more unique brand touch points and experiences, and in some cases, is changing communication patterns and creating new rules, habits and etiquette:
- Thanks to the internet, consumers are exposed to far more product and service variety than ever before, with fewer geographic constraints. The world is no longer defined by physical boundaries, and connections of all types can flow almost as easily between London and New York as if they both sat on the Hudson River.
- Proliferating communication devices make everyone a broadcaster. A “word of mouth” campaign that instantly changes consumer perceptions can traverse the globe in a day, traveling from person to person via IM, email, photo cams, text messaging and blog postings.
- “Smart” devices like PDA phones and personal video recorders (PVRs) or filtering software can be easily programmed to exclude experiences consumers don’t want and to actively search for ones they do like. Using TiVo or a similar PVR, a consumer can skip all commercials and create dozens of personally customized channels.
The changes technology is exerting in brand perception, relationships and expectations are making previous models of brand development obsolete. The tools, networks and devices that increasingly populate people’s everyday lives give consumers greater power to define and create exactly the lifestyle they want – choosing those brand experiences that are most relevant and meaningful to them.
Of course, technology is not the only influence shaping brand perceptions and loyalty. There are many other forces worthy of discussion, including the attitudes and behaviors of the Millennial Generation or the economic and industrial changes of the past decade. But technology is unique in that while it is helping shape consumers’ relationships with brands, it is simultaneously creating new means of gaining insights and understanding into those relationships.
Digital Ethnography Finds New Connecting Points Over the last several decades ethnography has proven to be a highly successful approach for understanding people’s relationships with brands and the meaningful connections they inspire. It’s fulfilled our collective need – as researchers, brand strategists and product developers – to get into the hearts and minds of our customers in more relevant, context-specific ways.
In a DMI Journal article in the spring of 2003, Cheskin coined the term digital ethnography and proposed that traditional ethnographers need to investigate “using the digital and wireless communication revolutions as platforms for rethinking ethnographic principles, methodologies, and analysis.”
That world is now aggressively upon us, and the importance of innovating with digital ethnography is even more apparent.
Digital ethnography leverages technology to uncover meanings that are at the heart of customer loyalty – meanings that may not be evident through traditional inquiry. Digital ethnography equips researchers with a new set of tools for capturing and analyzing people’s behaviors and perceptions and for illuminating what they find in a way that transcends barriers of time, place or language. Used effectively, digital ethnography paints a much richer picture of consumers’ lives and makes it easier to more deeply understand their loves, longings and limitations.
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