June 30, 2010

In Others' Words

Have you noticed the chorus of testimonials appearing in advertisments over the past few months?

Whilst there's always been great power in a third-party endorsement, it seems that customer trust in what brands have to say for themselves has dropped to such a degree that many business-owners now see other's words as the only way to build any credibility in the marketplace.

Here in Ireland, many of our banks, radio stations and insurers are making their own customers the stars of their advertising efforts, and despite my own misgivings about some of these businesses, I find this approach more convincing than most. After all, if a customer is ready to vouch for the seller, then there has to be some merit in what's on offer.

Despite this being an approach that makes sense, it's extraordinary how few businesses use it in developing their brands. Instead, they waste their time and ours telling us how long they've been in business and boasting about how wonderful they are. Frankly, I'm not interested. As a potential customer, I want to know whether what's on offer matches what I need and whether I'm likely to get exactly what I want once I put my money down. Hearing it in a customer's own words reassures me on both counts.

Perhaps brand-owners are too shy to ask a favour of their customers? They shouldn't be. In my experience, a satisfied customer is only too happy to speak up on behalf of a favourite supplier. You only have to ask.

June 23, 2010

Way Past Bedtime

How far can you take brand loyalty?

Earlier this month, we went to see one of our favourite musicians, Natalie Merchant, at Dublin's Helix Theatre. We've been listening to the music of the one-time 10,000 Maniacs vocalist for some time now, since she went solo back in 1994 with Tigerlily; and as far as we were concerned, she's one of the world greats, a true original who can do no wrong.

The singer was in Dublin to promote her latest recording, Leave Your Sleep, a series of children's poems set to music, and given her gorgeous reworkings of traditional songs on The House Carpenter's Daughter, we thought we were in for a real treat.

Instead, we had to sit through a mini-lecture on the poets who wrote the original rhymes and on Merchant's songwriting process, complete with slideshow portraits, and interspersed with what felt like only snatches of song. Even the author didn't seem terribly interested in what she had to say or sing, delivering her seminar with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that suggested she herself found the format less than compelling.

What was remarkable about the evening was the good humoured indulgence of the audience, many of whom faced a long trip home before bedtime and sat half-dozing through the slideshow. It seems that the artist has built up such loyalty in her brand that we were prepared to allow her this sleepwalk through her latest project, like old friends sitting uncomplainingly through pictures of first day at school, scenes at the beach, and darlings in first holy communion splendour, stifling a yawn but too polite to make excuses and leave.

Only towards the end of the evening did we grow audibly restless, and the singer responded by finishing with five of her crowd-favourites, which brought the audience to its feet and sent us out into the night finally feeling we'd been at a concert. Or perhaps she'd always intended to reward us for our patience?

Speaking with friends afterwards, it seems that everyone there was similarly disappointed with most of the evening and I found myself wondering whether a brand can take uncomplaining loyalty too far.

Of course, Natalie Merchant is not the first artist to test her faithful's patience in this way. I remember hearing stories of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and other greats, wilfully refusing to indulge their audiences when they had a new project to promote. Something about the set of Merchant's jaw, even from the distance of the thirty feet or so that separated us, suggested that she too was not inclined to pick up on the restless cues of her audience.

Those of us who work hard to build a devoted following for our brand can count on a certain tolerance from our customers but when this spills over into self-indulgence even the greatest loyalists will have their doubts.

No more bedtime stories for me, thanks!