We are excited to be back with a true scholar of innovation, Zoe Dowling, Ph.D. Zoe recently co-authored the research study, Have Your Story Straight? – Why Brand Dilution Hurts in the Experience Economy, with our President, Chris Wallace. The study asked marketing, product and customer experience executives if their customers were hearing the same brand story at every touch point. The results were eye opening! Zoe will share the findings as well as insights on what the impact means for companies.
Zoe is an eclectic blend of researcher, technologist, sociologist and marketer with a rich background across functions, industries and countries. Zoe has specialized in the online world since the late 1990s. She specializes in respondent engagement for web and mobile surveys, as well as qualitative approaches related to online communities and interview techniques. A scholar of innovation, she actively combines traditional and out-of-the-box research approaches to adapt effective methodologies to a changing world. Zoe recently authored the new MRII University of Georgia online course, Emerging Methods and the Future of Market Research, and serves on the MRII Board of Directors. She is a regular speaker at webinars and industry conferences including ESOMAR, IIeX, MRMW and Quirks on topics relating to consumer insights, new technologies, and storytelling.
Connect with Zoe on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/zoedowling/)
Jon Gaul: Welcome to the Brand InnerActions podcast. I’m Jon Gaul and I’m excited to be your guide as we go behind the scenes with some of the brands you know and love. This podcast will explore the moment of truth for these brands, the customer conversation. We journey inside the minds of the brand architects to learn how companies are rethinking human to human interactions and mobilizing their employees to be brand ambassadors. I’ve had my boots on the ground with frontline employees and have seen firsthand how company communication impacts the ability of teams to deliver a strong, consistent message to their customers. We are excited to be back with a true scholar of innovation, Zoe Dowling. An eclectic blend of researcher, technologist, sociologist and marketer with a rich background across functions, industries and countries. Zoe has specialized in the online world since the late 1990s. She specializes in respondent engagement for web and mobile surveys as well as qualitative approaches related to online communities and interview techniques. Zoe recently co-authored the research study, Have Your Story Straight? Why Brand Dilution Hurts in the Experience Economy with our President, Chris Wallace. The study asked marketing, product, and customer experience executives if their customers were hearing the same brand story at every touch point. The results were eye opening! Zoe will share the findings as well as insights on what the impact means for companies. Zoe, thanks so much for being our guest.
Zoe Dowling: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Jon Gaul: We are definitely excited to hear your insight. What is FocusVision’s area of expertise?
Zoe Dowling: Sure. Good question. FocusVision offers experience insights technology. We are a technology provider that if you want to understand your customer, get closer to them by surveys, focus groups, online interviewing as well as online qualitative research communities. That’s the solutions, the platforms that we offer and it really helps our customers get to know their customers better.
Jon Gaul: Thanks for the background information about what FocusVision does. How do you help your clients?
Zoe Dowling: Yeah, so I kind of alluded to it. We are in an experience economy and everything is about not just delivering products or services to your customers, but it’s the whole aspect of the interaction with the brand and really hopefully delivering products and services and interactions with your customers that delight them. And in order to do that, you really need to understand your customers. Get close to their lives; get as close as possible to understand what’s important to them; to understand what makes them tick; what’s not important to them; why they do the things to do; how they think and feel about everything. Particularly as it relates to your brand and your products or services. And so that’s what we enable our customers to do and speak to them in a variety of different ways. We hear a lot about the voice of the customer, which many people interpret to be a quick survey, post transaction, and it’s a lot more than that. It’s about speaking to them, yes by surveys and be it long or short, quick pulses and so on, but it’s also about literally having that conversation with them via an interview or even having extended interaction by an online community. So that’s how we help our customers, is get closer to their customers.
Jon Gaul: Zoe, you brought up the phrase experience economy. I had the opportunity to hear you speak last week and that was one of the things that resonated with me. What does the experience economy actually mean?
Zoe Dowling: Sure. The experience economy is not a new term. I believe it was coined in the 1990s, just as things were changing. I would even go back because I think it’s quite worth putting into perspective how marketing’s changed or how our interaction with brands has changed. If you think back to let’s say the 1950s and 60s, think the Mad Men era. Brands were having this one way communication with their customers and potential customers. There was talk that talks about here’s what we have to offer, here’s the benefits of it, this is why you need us. That one way push messaging. And what started to change as we were getting into the 90s and definitely I would attribute to the Internet and the change in mass media, the changing communication methods, that has been amplified as we’ve gone into the 2000s with the development and real take off of social networking sites. Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2007, and all the others that have followed. This has allowed and certainly led to the communication between brands and their customers not being that one way push messaging, but being a conversation. And therefore we have this experience economy. That’s one aspect of this experience economy where it’s a two way conversation between brands and customers. And then the other aspect of it is that there is a proliferation of choice. There’s choice everywhere. How does your brand stand out and what is it offering that makes it unique to the customers? And a large part of that is driven by experience. The other thing I’d say is there’s also a shift going on. The millennials, for example, just the shift in actual purchasing some things to this kind of shared economy and the experience economy and how important experiences are. So even if you’re buying a product or service, that whole experience surrounding it, and of course post purchase, is incredibly important. This is all the change that we’ve seen and we’re seeing the shift, not just in the B to C world but also in the B to B world. So it’s an important area.
Jon Gaul: Thanks for the context around the experience economy. I’ve heard you bring up the phrase customer truth. How is the customer truth and part of the experience economy?
Zoe Dowling: I think this goes back to just really understanding your customers. For us, that’s understanding them holistically, understanding how and why they think, feel and act and understanding their lives and their truths. I mean research is done in many organizations. My question would be, is it done enough and is it leveraged enough to understand that voice of the customer. To understand their truth so that you will then layer it back and be able to use it to leverage it in ways that are going to help inform what you’re delivering to your customers. And again, coming back to the experience economy and ultimately delighting in every touch point that you’ve got with them. So, it’s really getting down to understanding your customers, understanding their truths, their lives, why they think and feel the way that they do, in order to provide better products and services for them and experiences.
Jon Gaul: Think, feel and act gets to the root of truly understanding your customer base and that knowledge will help in creating a stronger connection to the brand. We named this podcast Brand InnerActions because we feel there’s an opportunity for brands to look internally in regard to how their story is being received. How have you seen your clients focus on the internal reception of the brand story?
Zoe Dowling: In short, not a lot. I mean I will say that’s not historically been my area of focus and I’ve dealt much more with and researched myself and not just our customers, but as a researcher myself, sort of understanding more of their lives as a way to use it to inform messaging or to show the messaging that’s been put out is actually resonating the way that it’s intended. So the external interactions has been my focus and experience. Yet, in working with yourselves at InnerView and thinking about this podcast and thinking about the study that we’ve done. I know we’re going to talk about. It’s been eye opening, actually. I think this comes back to the experience economy as well. It’s not just about your customers, it’s also about your employees as well and how incredibly important the experience that they have because they are the brand. An organization and the brand doesn’t live on its own. It comes to life with all the people within it that make up the brand. And so the experience that they have and their understanding of what the brand stands for is incredibly important. So this has all been kind of a new area for me to think about and mull over and it seems to me as incredibly important. It feels like this could be a bit of a missing piece.
Jon Gaul: Let’s dive deeper into the study that FocusVision and InnerView partnered on. Before we get into what you found, what were you hoping to find?
Zoe Dowling: I will be very honest and say I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought it was very intriguing to look at this as an area to explore. That’s the great thing for me about research, is well, here’s some questions. Is their story being told consistently across an organization? That was the first research question going in and I know yourself at InnerView would have gone in with the hypothesis, probably not, that it’s not being consistently told across an organization. Secondly, another piece that we added in was what are brands doing in terms of understanding the customer truth and understanding their customers holistically, how they think, feel and act. So that research piece of it and also what are they doing in terms of disseminating that brand message. I think for me it was more of an exploratory, you know, this is a really interesting idea. Maybe let’s go in and ask the questions and see what we find. I didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas. I thought it was a very interesting take. And of course I think the results more than live up to wow, this is giving us some answers and saying, huh, this is a really interesting area to focus on.
Jon Gaul: For our listeners that haven’t had a chance to read the study. Can you provide a quick overview?
Zoe Dowling: Sure. We went in with these questions around, is a brand story told consistently across an organization? If it is, what is the impact? If it’s not, what is the impact? And I think that’s the kind of high level questions that we went in with. We spoke to 250 senior level marketing, customer experience, product people within US businesses. 250 of them and they all had an annual revenue of 250 million or more. And what we found was that more than 59% of them felt that their story is not being told consistently across the organization. So there’s a big gap there between, marketing is putting a lot of effort and time into crafting these stories that talk about the essence of the brand, the promise that it’s going to be delivering to their customers, and yet, when it comes to the frontline employees, the people that are talking consistently on a daily basis to customers and prospective customers, that story isn’t being told in the same way. So you have a disconnect and that does have an impact. So we asked and it’s a difficult question to ask, actually. Do you think there is a cost associated with this in terms of lost revenue? 28% said more than $10 million annually, which was the cost associated with this brand story dilution. And then a third at 24% said more than $6 million. So you had over half of those people saying this is costing us some serious money. On the flip side for those that were confident, 34% percent were highly confident that their story is told consistently across the organization. And the opportunity, what do you think this is doing in terms of your revenue, in terms of dollar amounts. And 62% said $10 million or more in revenue a year. And the thing is we kept it at $10 million cause I guess we didn’t think that it would be perceived to be such a large problem or opportunity. It depends on how you want to look at it. You could say, well is that number 15 million, 20 million, 25 million, more. So in terms of the brand dilution there’s a cost, potentially a reduction in revenue, also an impact on the customers and their perceptions of the brand leads to confusion. It leads to them considering competitors because they’re not getting the same message from across the organization and they’re not getting the same experience. Whereas on the flip side for those that are having a consistent story, they’re saying it’s leading to increased customer satisfaction. It’s leading to increased purchase and loyalty and these of course, all the actions that we, business outcomes, that we want to happen. I think the study overall really shows that there’s a lot to be gained by having that consistent brand story and there’s losses potentially if you don’t. That was kind of the high level takeaway. The other thing I’ll just jump into was, with some of the interesting things and again, my researcher hat going on here, there was one thing that stood out for those companies that say we’re successful in disseminating our brand story across the organization. There was a couple of things going on. One, was on a tactical side. They use more experiential tactics in terms of communicating the message and so on. But what I find interesting before all of that, before you disseminate it out, those companies that were successful, or are successful I should say, in having a consistent message across the organization, they use a lot more research. And I thought that was fascinating. 95% of our survey participants said that, yes, there’s some sort of customer research programs in their organization. But what we found was that those ones with high confidence that their messages is being aligned across the organization, those ones were more likely to use a variety of approaches. So not just surveys and focus groups, but also online interviewing, online communities, online qualitative research communities and just as importantly, or maybe it comes from that, is that over 70% of those said that they leverage their research to regularly inform brand and product messaging. So they’re actually using that research and going back to that whole idea you’d asked me about, we talk about customer truth at FocusVision and really getting as close as you can, close enough to your customers to really understand how they think, feel and act. That, I think for those companies that are successful, there is some sort of tie in there about how much you can learn and benefit from leveraging those understandings about your customer. So, high level sort of overview of what we found. I think there’s a lot of really interesting nuggets within the study and the report that we’ve put out, the white paper.
Jon Gaul: There were a few things that stood out to me both in the study and in your synopsis. The first is the fiscal impact that message dilution has on an organization. That to me is absolutely staggering. The second thing is the importance of using multiple options to communicate with customers as opposed to just using one survey. I feel that sometimes companies lean on using one survey to solve all their problems, which isn’t as effective as the company’s hoped it could be.
Zoe Dowling: Yeah. No, I agree fully. The one thing I would say about leveraging research and leveraging lots of different ways to talk to your customers, to understand them, is that this is not necessarily saying you need to go out and do massive studies that are incredibly time consuming, resource intensive and financially intensive. It can be about having quick conversations. There’s a lot you can learn from a 20 minute conversation, online interview. From doing a quick pulse survey, say you do that conversation, you’ve spoken to 10 customers, and your like, hmm, I’m seeing a theme come through here. You know what, I’m going to blast out a quick three to five minute survey just to see that pulse, to do a sense check on it. And this can be done and if you’re really building upon your knowledge and just continually sort of tapping into your customers and understand their lives because things move very quickly today. I think that’s where those companies that do that sort of as a regular program are very agile. I know it’s a very popular term at the moment, but in a very sort of agile, responsive and iterate. You’re continually iterating on the knowledge that you have about your customers, building new knowledge, but also sense checking and confirming that existing knowledge still stands. I think that’s a strong differentiator for how companies can be successful today.
Jon Gaul: Your point about agility fits in well with what you said about how marketing has changed recently. How are you going to leverage the information from this study in your research or while working with your clients moving forward?
Zoe Dowling: I think you’ve got to understand your customers holistically, you’ve got to understand their life. I think it’s like, well understand what you’re trying to do and understand your brand holistically and really think about your brand story, not just from a marketing and customer experience perspective in that regard, but thinking about it from the employee experience as well. It’s all got to be aligned. So I think for me it’s been an interesting spotlight on an area I hadn’t thought about before and I will certainly be encouraging our customers to think about it in that way as well. To think about, particularly if you’re just going out with new positioning, new brand stories and messaging and so on: How well is this tying in? How well is this information being delivered and received by employees? So that’s something I’ll be taking forward.
Jon Gaul: Thanks so much for sharing insight around your research and the study. We really appreciate your time and partnership.
Zoe Dowling: My pleasure, thank you very much for having me.
Jon Gaul: I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Zoe. As you heard from our discussion, brand dilution is a real problem and an expensive one at that. 62% of the respondents said that the inconsistency between their company’s marketing messaging and it’s frontline employee delivery cost the company more than $10 million. The study also confirmed that regular customer research is a discriminating factor between the companies reporting brand consistency and those that do not. Brands are evolving quickly and so is their messaging. It’s essential that all groups across an organization can represent the brand and its story in the same manner to ensure that all customer touch points live up to the overall brand promise. To download a copy of the research study, go to innerviewgroup.com/branddilution. You can connect with Zoe on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/zoedowling/. To learn more about FocusVision, visit www.focusvision.com. The Brand InnerActions podcast is brought to you by InnerView Group and hosted by myself, Jon Gaul. To learn more about InnerView or to obtain a transcript, please go to innerviewgroup.com. Make sure you subscribe to get the latest episodes.