How Do You Turn Your Customers Into Brand Evangelists?

Achieving the buzz that product designers, brand managers, and business strategists so relentlessly chase isn’t easy. The key is in getting consumers to adopt and advocate a brand. But how do companies convince customers not only to use their products but to adopt their brands? What makes consumers advocate for a product and willingly accept and “own” it as part of their individual identities? How do you get people so revved up that they’re willing to slap a sticker on their car out of allegiance to the company, or tattoo their bodies with your brand, as Harley owners frequently do?
Expectations are tricky. You need to understand the aspirations of the target audience.

Adoption

Adoption goes well beyond trial and use, the objective of many product managers and marketers. If a consumer is going to become loyal to a brand, she has to be truly satisfied and impressed. To reach the adoption and advocacy threshold, a product or experience must surpass expectations, which happen to be growing more sophisticated and demanding over time — on a monthly basis in some industries. Expectations are a tricky thing and can only be truly understood after first identifying the needs and aspirations of the target audience. Needs can be relatively easy to address by developing user benefits and ensuring that a product is useful. However, determining aspirations and fulfilling them is best accomplished by inquiry, observation, and translation. A good shorthand rule I’ve learned is that only products that have true meaningful value for consumers hold the potential for rapid adoption. Meaningful value is a subjective thing, varying among individuals and groups, but it is generally based on having one’s needs or aspirations met, factoring in the value offered by alternative products and customers’ expectations about the future. This is not to say that people can always articulate their needs and aspirations, especially in areas of new technology, but an assessment of consumers’ ability and willingness to adopt must be gauged alongside their motivations for doing so and their expectations of how the market will look in the future. Because if "armchair expectations" are that 3-D TV prices will halve in 18 months, many will hold off on buying one, despite their desire to have one. It is also important to remember the following about adoption: • Both internal motivations (needs, aspirations, and idealized self-image) and external ones (concern over others’ perceptions and the universal need for social acceptance) are factors in whether a consumer falls in love with a product. • Adoption is like high school: What really matters is what the cool kids think. Even in adulthood, popular and trusted tastemakers (e.g., celebrities) influence adoption and advocacy. The good news is that a bull's-eye hit with key influencers will reverberate through the widening circles, so long as the product maintains its credibility. • When a product or experience enriches the intended user at every stage of interaction, emotional bonds are built, which lead to loyalty and brand relationships.

Advocacy

For a very long time, I’ve championed the belief that ultimately it’s not how you feel about a design or experience but how the design makes you feel about yourself, in large part because influencing how one feels after adopting a product is an essential component of the advocacy process. Adoption certainly precedes advocacy, but often the latter never materializes. Many who find a solution ideal for their lives fail to spread the news. Why?
It doesn't matter how you feel about a design, but how it makes you feel about yourself.
Advocacy from a modern product or experience standpoint is like attaching one’s own brand to the discovery, which generally happens when a meaningful improvement or benefit is realized and the advocate wants to help others achieve the same discovery. Conversely, if a customer extremely disappointed, you’ll also get advocacy, in this case against the brand. Again, it is a function of expectations — both disappointment and joy — and, therefore, understanding and managing them is the underlying objective. To drive people to action and advocacy, expectation must often be shattered, not merely surpassed. Needs and aspirations again inform those expectations and should be the root of study. If you still have doubts, ask yourself why Southwest regularly tops airline satisfaction surveys over competitors who offer more dynamic levels of service. It has managed expectations and aligned them with service aspects that its customer base finds most valuable, which translates to satisfaction — and often to advocacy. The reality is that on shorter routes, people are willing to forgo personalized service for a lower-priced ticket. Southwest Airlines, Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson, and Best Western have all achieved impressive levels of consumer adoption and advocacy by creating brands that are reliable and valued, and that convey a sense of community. These aspects provide the basis for leveraging advocacy, which each organization then encourages and supports through various programs and tools. Best Western, the world’s largest hotel chain, with more than 4,000 independent operators in 90 countries, is a leader in guest satisfaction for midscale hotels. Why? The success is due in large part to the time and energy spent discovering insights into what guests most desire, then training staff to exceed guests’ expectations in both service and room product. The hotel chain’s "I Care 2" guest-service program continues to increase customer satisfaction across North America. And when people feel understood, appreciated, and rewarded, advocacy is born. Another reason why advocacy often fails to materialize is that adopters are insufficiently motivated to share. The most powerful motivations to do so derive from self-interest, mutual benefit, and altruism, and there are great examples of each driving advocacy. In my experience, personal benefits are the most motivating, and they don’t necessarily have to take tangible forms: By sharing, people may feel tremendously appreciated, especially knowledgeable, well-connected, or even heroic. Insights derived from people’s underlying motivations help to deliver advocacy. Finally, for adopters to be truly willing to recommend a brand or experience, typically to people they care about, two things are required. First, there must be a strong level of emotional engagement, and second, they must feel their identification strongly represented or actualized (Does it complete me, or the "me" I wish I were?). Delivering these two aspects — emotional engagement and identification — can be the most reliable and straightforward way to compel advocacy. [Top image: Noah Cursing the Canaan by Gustave Dore]

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