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Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

Retail banking is built on trust; it is at the core of the ‘public license’ to manage the accounts of customers. Think of phrases such as “People trust the bank with their money” or “We entrust our income in the hands of a banker”. Consumers often have a lot at stake held in the bank: their livelihoods and their hopes to use the funds accumulated to improve their quality of life in the future. They expect to have access to money in their accounts readily, before seeking more money via credit and loans from the bank. Banks are additionally expected to offer account holders means to make financial profit on their money. Since the financial crisis of 2008, depletion of consumer trust in the banking system has been troubling many countries. A question still hangs, as it was valid five years ago: How should banks regain consumer trust and improve their relationships with customers?

Digital banking and financial services are proliferating, and not from yesteryear. For example, consumers can view account information and perform by ‘self-service’ a selection of banking operations in their accounts on the Internet; practise of these activities is gradually spreading from desktop and laptop computers to mobile devices. Yet, digital financial services or features are also provided by a variety of non-banking companies, non-profit organizations and institutions, most notably in the area of digital ‘remote’ payment, whether via a debit/credit card or a third-party utility (e.g., PayPal).  The features are becoming increasingly available through mobile apps. Undoubtedly, applying digital banking services remotely and independently can smooth and facilitate for consumers everyday account follow-up and operations, save them time and increase efficiency in managing their accounts. But digital banking may prove as the opposite course of action than needed to help banks regain and rebuild their customers’ trust in them — it risks instead to increase the distance between banks and customers. For instance, is reliance on digital banking appropriate in managing an investment portfolio?

  • Complicating matters, many of the digital service tools are developed by financial technology (fintech) companies for execution online or in mobile apps. They are leading the field in developing those tools, and said to be leaving most banks lagging behind. The fintech companies allow retailers to offer shoppers different options for digital payment, and even running some form of current or expense accounts with them; investment houses and financial consultants can employ advanced tools to better update and communicate with their customers; other fintech’s work includes applications for assisting consumers to manage their personal finances and portals for mediating peer-to-peer loans.

At a conference of the central Bank of Israel, titled “The Technology Changes the Face of Banking” (3/3/16, Hebrew), the Banking Supervisor, Dr. Hedva Ber, embraced the expansion of digital banking, in vision and in action. She encouraged increased communication between banks and customers by digital means, guided by rules of conduct set by her department. Consumers less accustomed to using digital services will have to be accommodated to help them adjust through the process (e.g., by operating limited or temporary ‘pop-up’ branches where ‘fixed’ branches are to close down). But eventually a broad transition will take place and the intention is to include all parts of the population in the transformation of retail banking. The key instrument to achieve that goal will be digital education of banking customers, joined by enforcing a principle of customers’ ownership of their personal information and creating a ‘credit profile’ for each customer. There is also a plan to advance the establishment of a fully digital ‘branchless’ bank. Dr. Ber further talked in favour of computer-automated (AI) reply to customers on the phone.

This transition is likely to result in a significant reduction in the number of employees (mainly engaged in back office processes). The Supervisor projected that the digital transformation of banking will lead to better control of the customer over his or her financial situation, greater transparency, expansion of banks’ baskets of products and services, and foremost will contribute to increased efficiency. Several references to ‘efficiency’ were actually noticed in the presentation, but none regarding ‘trust’.

An initial requisite for trust is competence: the fundamental ability of the organisation to perform the tasks it took upon itself. The building blocks of the expected competence are  knowledge, skills and resources. Chaudhuri and Holbrook (2001) used the definition: “The willingness of the average consumer to rely on the ability of the brand to perform its stated function” (p. 82). The researchers studied the effect of brand trust and affect on brand performance, mediated through loyalty. In their view, brand trust is an involving process, deliberate and well thought out whereas brand affect is developed more spontaneously, immediate and less carefully reasoned. They find that trust and affect each contribute to purchase (behavioural) and attitudinal brand loyalty, whereupon purchase loyalty is positively related to market share and attitudinal loyalty contributes to higher price premiums. In particular, brand trust and commitment are both important for developing  a valued customer relationship (1).

With respect to retail banking, the key competence asked of banks is to protect the money of their customers; it is about safekeeping, or the customer’s feeling that his or her money is ‘kept in good hands’. That kind of attitude may be hard to foster if all contacts the customer has with the bank are indirect through computers. Trust is built between people, therefore customers should be able to meet at the very least a few representatives of the bank that will instill in them the notion that someone cares about them and is taking good care of their money. Such a representative could be an adviser or ‘advocate’ for the customer in the bank.

  • Taking good care of the customer’s money includes warning him when taking excessive investment risks, as the bank should act responsibly in its own risk management.

Another vital requisite for trust maintains that the organisation (bank) should be acting in the interest of its customers and not just in its self-interest. For example, it means that the bank creates and offers saving programmes that are fair and beneficial to the customer, protecting her money with a plus of a reasonable interest rate (as opposed to reducing cost by paying too low rates). The risk for self-interest of the bank may be more pronounced in offering so-called ‘structured products’ of investment that oftentimes use complex rules, obscuring from the investor in whose interest the product will work best. Peppers and Rogers offer the concept of a ‘trusted agent’: in a relationship wherein the customer trusts the enterprise to act in his own interest, “the customer perceives the enterprise to be his trusted agent, making recommendations and giving advice that furthers the customer’s interest, even when it occasionally conflicts with the enterprise’s self-interest, at least in the short-term” (p. 78). Although relationships can exist without trust, it should be obvious that they can become stronger, and grow in value, only when built on trust — trust-based relationships evoke greater dedication (2).

  • We can see how the position of a ‘customer advocate’ relates to fulfilling this requisite, ensuring that the bank is acting in the customer’s interest.

Credibility and reliability are additional important antecedents to trust. Credibility would manifest in the bank’s practice to provide correct information about products and services it offers or delivers, that it is able to provide them, and stands behind them. Furthermore, in the current state of customer relationship management, offering a financial product would be more credible if selected to be more suitable for a specific customer, based for example on his current bank assets and risk attitude. That is, the offer would be more credible if based on knowledge of the customer to fit him better. Reliability concerns more specifically aspects of the accuracy of information and execution of instructions in time as intended (i.e., predictability). Objectives of credibility and reliability can be achieved in offerings made through platforms of online or mobile digital banking, but trust is reliant on more than these two criteria alone.

Charles Green (President of Trusted Advisors Associated, 2004) formulated that credibility, reliability and intimacy enhance customer trust whereas self-orientation diminishes trust in the company (a discount factor). Green describes intimacy as follows: “Intimacy has to do with perceived safety: ‘I can trust talking with him about…'”. He associates intimacy with security and integrity (3). The aspect of intimacy is noteworthy because in banking it corresponds most closely to the kind of delicate affairs that may arise in bank-customer relationships about one’s finances. It is about the level of confidence a customer can put in the bank, based on integrity and consideration he or she can find during any dealings with it and its employees. It is hard to talk about intimacy in human-computer interactions. Integrity also is reflected in conduct of human bank representatives, much less through digital interactions.

Intimacy should not be confused with personalisation that can be achieved with analytics-based digital tools (e.g., a ‘Digital First’ strategy that puts most weight on digital channels, as suggested by Accenture). It is wrong to equate computer-based personalisation with intimacy while talking with another person. Talking with an expert adviser on more complex financial services is especially not equivalent to automated customization, though analytic tools may help the adviser in making her recommendations. Demitry Estrin (Vision Critical) addresses the eroding banks’ relationships with customers who are blaming banks for treating people as numbers. He explains: “Nothing would address the problem better than face-to-face encounter, but these are increasingly rare. In fact, the problem is self-perpetuating: the less people interact with financial services professionals, the less they value them, and the companies they work for.”

Customers are looking to combine interactions in different modes (e.g., mobile, online, phone, face-to-face), but those human and digital interactions have to be streamlined and information exchanged in them should be coordinated within the bank. In a white paper of IBM on “Rebuilding Customer Trust in Retail Banking” (Sept. 2012), the technology and consulting company claims yet that banks managed to create more competition than co-ordination between channels with their working methods (e.g., rewards, targets, metrics). Banks have taken different measures that seem to make customers feel they are treated more conveniently and friendly, efficiently, even fairly, but not necessarily feeling that the bank thinks of each like a person. In that respect, consumers see banks as falling behind other companies they interact with in digital platforms.

The paper of IBM optimistically argues: “Fortunately, trust and digital communication channels can be and are best built together.” It is true but just to a limited extent. It is possible to maintain a certain degree of trust to allow for digital communication to succeed, but trust can grow only so far. Digital banking can provide efficiency, convenience, reliability, even credibility, but that is not enough for building a high level of trust that breeds commitment and dedication. It is doubtful if digital banking can remedy the deeper problems of trust in banks. Perhaps the answer is better found in a combination of human and digital modes of delivering banking services for fostering trust.

  • Digital banking, particularly communication via Internet, raises additional issues of protecting data from cyber-attacks and securing customer data privacy. Acting on those matters to reduce threats is vital to building trust, yet it would not ease the original causes of declining trust that are not digital-related.

Even within a bank branch, the scene can change — a new model is emerging, presenting a novel form of combined digital self-service and human service. Most likely, future branches will no longer have human tellers; otherwise, however, digital and human services will be intertwined in new design concepts. In the upcoming future, a customer may find in a branch central arena with personal working posts equipped with self-service terminals where each can view account information and perform various operations; the customer will be able to proceed to talk with ‘advisers’ sitting in the periphery and settle more complex issues such as loans or investments (e.g., RBC-Royal Bank of Canada, HSBC-flagship branch in Singapore).  At RBC, customers may sit comfortably to read materials (print, online) or watch instructive videos on a large screen about financial products and related topics, thus he or she may prepare before talking with an adviser. BMO Harris Bank is experimenting with ‘video tellers’ for assisting customers; representatives in stand-by, holding tablets, are available to help with any difficulty. There is also a trend to change the visual design of branches to make them look and feel more like shops: less formal, more friendly and rejoicing in colour and form.

Customers are seeking a combination of user-friendly digital tools and human expert advisory on more complex issues. To that end, Mike Baxter and Darrell Rigby advocate a combined ‘digical’ approach: a mashup of digital technologies and physical facilities (“Rethinking the Bank Branch in a Digital World“, HBR, 15 Sept. ’14). The authors argue that combined technological and human services can be implemented on-site within a branch — as illustrated above. They note that financial products and services are often complicated, and security and trust are paramount. Baxter and Rigby conclude: “Physical banking is evolving rapidly, but not disappearing. Branches may be fewer in number, but they will be more useful and efficient, and banks without branches are likely to find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.”

Human banking and digital banking are like two arms of the retail bank. Banks have to provide digital ‘self-service’ tools to allow customers manage their accounts of different kinds more conveniently and efficiently, at an acceptable level of reliability; banks gain from this as well in efficiency and cost reduction. Digitization of banking services extends from the long-running ATMs to more advanced information ‘kiosk’ terminals and remote online and mobile banking utilities. However, digital banking is becoming a necessity, not a basis for competitive advantage for banks. If it were all about digital services, customers would find it even easier to look for more friendly and useful financial services from non-banking companies, and their commitment to retail banks could decline further.

Retail banks need the ‘human arm’ to differentiate themselves from external competition and to develop excellence in competition with other banks. It is also essential to regain and foster trust, tighten and strengthen banks’ relationships with their customers. In branches, it will be a question of creating a friendly atmosphere and balancing in a useful way between digital utilities and the assistance and expertise of human personnel.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

1. The Chain of Effects from Brand Trust and Brand Affect to Brand Performance: The Role of Brand Loyalty; Arjun Chaudhuri and Morris B. Holbrook, 2001; Journal of Marketing, 65 (2), pp. 81-93.

2. Customer Relationships: Basic Building Blocks of IDIC and Trust (Ch. 3), Managing Customer Relationships: A Strategic Framework; Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, 2004; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

3. The Trust Equation: Generating Customer Trust; Charles H. Green; in (2), pp. 72-77.

 

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The concept of brand attachment has become a frequent, almost integral component of attitudinal models of brand equity in commercial studies since the late 1990s. It has been introduced to represent an emotional bond that is expected to build between a brand and consumers to allow for their sustainable loyalty to the brand. Perceived quality and other assessments of a rational nature about branded products and services are generally not regarded as sufficient to connect a consumer with a brand. In addition, brand attachment is meant to represent a disposition towards a brand that is more solid and enduring regarding consumer-brand relations than brand attitude. However, what signifies and distinguishes that construct has not been properly and agreeably defined.  In a recent seminal article (2010), Park and MacInnis of the University of Southern California and their colleagues (*) offer an approach to fill this caveat coherently. The researchers define the construct of brand attachment, test and demonstrate how it differs from brand attitude strength.

We may find a spectrum of relationships between consumers and brands at different levels of depth and strength. What creates, for example, the deep attraction, to an extent of passion, of consumers to brands like Nike or Apple? On the contrary, the brand Nokia of mobile phones has for the past few years lost its favour with consumers. Last month it was revealed that Microsoft, which had acquired the mobile division from the Finnish mother company, intends to abolish the Nokia brand name but retain the “Lumia” name for new models of smart-mobile devices (e.g., phones, tablets, and whatever comes next); if indeed brand attachment by consumers to Nokia has diminished, no one would shed a tear. Coca Cola almost ruined its brand equity in 1985 due to its New Coke ordeal — apparently consumers were insistent on their attachment to the brand and what it represented to them to force the company to step back and save the brand. Brand attachment captures the affective linkage that is created between a brand and its customers.

A brand equity model may start from awareness of and basic familiarity with the brand of interest at its ground. On top of which should come associations of product attributes and functional benefits (tangible product assets) next to “softer” associations of feelings or personality traits assigned to the brand (intangible assets). After accounting for these building blocs, a bridge of attachment can be erected between the consumers and the brand, leading to commitment (a manifest of attitudinal loyalty). Several facets can be proposed based on pervious academic and applied research in the field to represent brand attachment: (a) respect for the brand and its leadership; (b) personal identification with the brand; (c) favourability of brand legacy and values; and possibly also (d) appreciation of how the brand treats its customers.

Park and MacInnis et al. develop a scale of brand attachment that formally specifies aspects of brand-self connection — it emphasises identification of the consumer with the brand; yet to this factor they add a second factor of brand prominence in memory. Thus, they suggest a scale constructed from two factors; they show that treating the scale as a composition of the two components has better validity than a single-unified scale. Furthermore, the authors demonstrate the effect of brand attachment on behavioural intentions as well as actual behaviour (self-reported and as registered in customer database records).  They cover a range of activities or actions that differ in their level of difficulty.  It is shown that brand attachment is able to predict the intention to perform the more difficult types of behaviour that brand attitude strength cannot.

Brand attitude strength is measured by the valence of an attitude (positive-negative) weighted by the confidence with which the consumer holds that attitude. However, research repeatedly has shown that attitudes get to impact behaviour when the valence is more extreme in either direction and confidence is strong. Attitudes do have an affective basis but it is generally sublime and concerned primarily with valence. That is, brand attitude alone does not contain a scope of emotions people may exhibit; it is very limited in its emotional capacity. Brand attachment, on the other hand, is more emotionally charged and can tell a better story about the relation of the consumer to the brand. Park and MacInnis et al. conceptually define brand attachment as “the strength of the bond connecting the brand with the self” (p. 2). This bond materializes when it is supported by a rich and accessible network of positive thoughts and feelings about the brand in the consumer’s memory.  A brand-self connection ascribes to the extent to which a consumer identifies with a brand as if they could merge together. In other words, the self (concept) of the consumer is extended so as to absorb the brand and make it part of his or her own self (image or goals). While the representation is cognitive, the researchers note, the brand-self linkage is inherently emotional. Brand prominence indicates in addition the ease and frequency with which  thoughts and feelings (underlying the connection) are brought to the consumer’s mind. The brand-self connection can “come to life” more readily when brand prominence is greater, hence the consumer experiences a stronger brand attachment.

  • The researchers first constructed a scale with five items for each of the two components. However, they sought to make the scale more parsimonious and practical to implement, and proposed a reduced scale of two items for brand-self connection and two items for brand prominence. Looking at the factor loadings suggests that it would be justified to keep four items for the first component and three items for the second. But in the researchers’  judgement parsimony should win over. For example, the item “feel emotionally bonded” could be discarded in favour of “feel personally connected”.

In their analyses, Park and MacInnis and their colleagues confirm that brand attachment and brand attitude strength are related yet empirically distinct constructs — while correlation between them is moderate-high they cannot be confounded. This supports the convergent and discriminant validity of brand attachment. The authors provide further support for the validity of attachment by showing an interesting relation to separation distress, a negative emotional state that may occur when losing a relationship with an entity people felt close to (e.g., feelings of depression, anxiety and loss of self). Brand-self connection and prominence each independently “contribute to the prediction of separation distress as indicators of brand attachment” (p. 8). The research additionally substantiates that brand attachment is distinct from attitude strength, the former being more strongly associated with separation distress.

Eventually, marketers would want to know how brand attachment is linked to behaviour. Three categories of difficulty are distinguished: (1) Among the most difficult forms of behaviour are buying always the new model of brand X, waiting to buy brand X versus an alternative brand, and spending money, time and energy to promote brand X (e.g., in pages and forums of social media and in blogs). (2) Moderately difficult forms of behaviour include paying a price premium for brand X and defending it when others speak bad of it. (3) The least difficult modes of behaviour include, for example, recommending brand X to others and buying the brand for others. Notably, recommending a brand to relatives or friends involves a certain personal risk for the endorser because one puts his or her own reputation or credibility on-line by suggesting to others to buy and use the particular brand. Yet, this alone is not considered hereby as a major cause of difficulty vis-á-vis the investment of time, money or energy to promote the brand (e.g., tell a story in a blog post, add photos).

With respect to intention to behave in ways that favour a brand (reflecting brand commitment) it is found that brand attachment predicts the intention to engage in behaviours regarded as the most difficult remarkably better than brand attitude strength. Brand attachment also better predicts intention to behave in moderately difficult ways but the difference from attitude strength, although also statistically significant, is rather small. There is no significant difference between attachment and attitude strength in predicting intention of performing the least difficult behaviours — they do equally well.  These findings bolster the importance of addressing brand attachment as a driver of brand commitment, particularly via more demanding modes of behaviour.

  • An additional test suggests that brand prominence is less essential than the brand-self connection component in predicting intentions. (Intentions were tested with respect to Nike.)
  • In a different set of analyses of actual behaviour (banking-investments), the researchers found furthermore that brand attachment is a better predictor of past purchases than brand attitude strength. In this case, however, brand attachment represented by both brand-self connection and brand prominence is predicting behaviour better than the former alone. That is, with regard to actual behaviour, brand prominence is an essential component.

Many brand owners would find utility in applying this scale of brand attachment (in a full or reduced form): from food (e.g., Nestlé) or toys (e.g., Lego) to banking (e.g., Royal Bank of Scotland) or carmakers (e.g., Peugeot). Take for instance Microsoft that now holds four brand names they may apply for marketing mobile devices: their own corporate name, Surface, Nokia or Lumia. Microsoft could use the aid of such a scale to decide which brand proves as better ground to build upon and which name is better eliminated. It may be a major factor in the contest of brand equity for mobile-smart devices of Microsoft versus Apple, Samsung Electronics, and Lenovo (Motorola).

Although the brand strength construct may capture a brand’s mind share of a consumer, attachment is uniquely positioned to capture both heart and mind share (p. 14).

The scale of brand attachment constructed by Park and MacInnis and their colleagues emphasises consumer identification with a brand, representing an emotional connection, and actualised through its prominence in memory. It does not cover other possible sources of attachment, but the approach taken is focused, concrete and well-substantiated. The researchers provide a valid scale for practitioners in brand management and research for measuring brand attachment, stand-alone or as part of a brand equity model.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

(*) Brand Attachment and Brand Attitude Strength: Conceptual and Empirical Differentiation of Two Critical Brand Equity Drivers; C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, Joseph Priester, Andreas B. Eisingerich, & Dawn Iacobucci, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (November), pp. 1-17.

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Mapping the customer journey is often suggested as a vital step for better understanding customer experiences, before appropriate measures can be planned for improving on them. At the core of a “customer journey” is the purchase decision process, yet the evolved concept of “journey” encompasses broader aspects of customer behaviour and experience. Particularly with respect to consumers, the term “process” may have seemed to many (e.g., practitioners, managers) as too technical and logical while a “journey” is perceived as more imaginative and more likely to be imbued with emotion. There is still a significant parallel between the two concepts, yet the concept of journey has been extended in some important ways and emphasises the following aspects:

  • More frequently, the relation of a consumer with a company or a brand does not end with the act of purchase (transaction) of its product, good or service — following the purchase decision process there are likely to be additional immediate activities like further enquiries about product usage, feedback to the company or exchange of impressions with friends and family; in many cases, especially for on-going services and durables, there are continued interactions of customer service and technical support.
  • In any task concerned with purchase or usage customers more often engage multiple channels and touchpoints to complete their tasks and accomplish their goals (e.g., visiting a company’s Web site, a product & price comparison online portal, and a brick-and-mortar store before buying, interacting with a company by Facebook and e-mail to receive technical assistance).
  • Processes entailed in a “customer journey” tend to be cyclic rather than uni-directional processes with clear start and end points — there is continuity or flow from one purchase episode to the next such that if a subsequent purchase of a similar or related product is made from the same company customer loyalty can develop, but there are also possible cycles and repetition of activities performed by a consumer during a single purchase decision process.

Therefore, the customer journey may be not only longer than what a purchase decision process implies but also more multi-faceted and complex. To be honest, some of the extending aspects have been already suggested within the framework of the purchase decision process. For instance, post-purchase stages such as feedback and product divestment have been suggested in decision models in the 1990s (e.g., Engel, Blackwell and Miniard). Reliance on multiple information sources (marketer- and non-marketer controlled) has also been long considered  in the course of a purchase decision process. And if we concentrate on the path of a single decision process, decision models described and depicted by prominent scholar Jim Bettman in the late 1970s are all but simple, uni-directional and straightforward. Consumers frequently move back-and-forth, collect and use different pieces of information according to various decision rules, evaluate their options, and if necessary return to revise their consideration set, collect more information or re-examine their prior analysis. Those concepts and models have been tested and developed by Bettman together with his colleagues John Payne and Eric Johnson under the theoretical framework of adaptive decision-making (1993). Hence, the customer journey clearly builds on the foundations of earlier theories and models of consumer decision-making.

However, the concept of customer journey contributes several new perspectives. First, journey models give more weight to post-purchase activities compared with purchase decision models that traditionally address these activities only briefly, leaving them to be treated in other model types. Sharing opinion in social media networks, crowd sourcing for assistance, or asking for customer support from a company-provider, all these are important for business practice; accounting for these activities recognises that positive experiences in these activities build the link from one purchase to the next with the same company  (i.e., replacement, cross-sell, and up-sell). Journey maps vary nonetheless in their scope: taking a broad-view of a relationship journey with a company or focus on specific tasks and activities (e.g., enquiry about billing); considering all aspects of a purchase decision process, including any engagement with offers by competitors, or concentrating on interactions between the company concerned and its customers, as “customer journey” literally suggests.

Second, journey models appear to give more room to expression of emotions and affective reactions by customers, for example, in giving feedback or during service-related interactions with the company. Mapping studies that rely on interviews with customers even encourage such expressions. However, it should be noted that literature on decision-making, particularly in the past 10-15 years, already recognises the incorporation of both cognitive and affective components as co-influencers of decision processes.

Third, making probably the most important contribution, customer journey models address the employment of multiple channels by customers through various associated touchpoints with companies to perform purchase, usage or service tasks. This aspect appears to be driven primarily by business enterprises in response to the contemporary reality of their relations with customers. These channels furthermore are expected to be co-ordinated. In some cases, however, ambiguity arises whether each touchpoint defines an independent channel or multiple touchpoints are nested within a single channel:

  • In a brick-and-mortar store, shoppers may encounter touchpoints with the retailer in front of a shelf display (this is also a potential touchpoint with a manufacturer’s brand) and at the cashier;
  • On the internet, a customer may experience a touchpoint with a company on its main commercial website when learning about its products, but she may also transfer to the company’s blog linked to the website or launch a chat conversation from the website to ask for assistance from a service representative.
  • “Mobile” is commonly considered a channel by itself but nested within are a variety of resources and tools that can be used on the mobile devices, some of them have parallels in other modes of communication (websites, e-mail, social media), some are specially designed for mobile (e.g., apps).

Constructing a mapping diagram of customer journeys is a specialisation with its own techniques; it falls in the domain of information visualisation or graphic design and is beyond the scope of this post-article. Such maps can quickly become complicated, rich in detail, because there are many pathways that customers may follow in their journey. A common way to deal with the complexity, and in order to make journeys more accessible and vivid to managers is to identify “typical” customers with characteristic personal attributes and pathways they go through, and build accordingly exemplary profiles, also known as ‘personas’ (e.g., common in the area of user experience [UX]).

But it could matter on what type of input the profiles of these personas are based. Are methods of quantitative research for collecting relevant data from customers sufficient? Bruce Temkin, expert on customer experience and head of the consulting group by his name, recommends in his blog, Customer Experience Matters, that companies combine between input from discussions (‘think tank’) of their managers responsible for customer relationships, and data from customer research (e.g., in-depth interviews, ethnographic techniques). These steps would preferably be conducted in this order. It should be helpful, however, to use quantitative data to construct plausible journeys and identify most relevant and interesting customer personas. Surveys may not be economic and efficient as a method to collect detailed-enough data. Yet, surveys can be useful for at least characterising main stages in a journey as well as the channels and touchpoints engaged, that could still enable better generalisation or validity of the information. Even quantification of input collected during in-depth interviews can help to pinpoint more frequent activities or stages, and paths or links between them so as (1) to depict significant or salient journey scenarios; (2) to identify key segments; and (3) to construct more meaningful and realistic personas that managers can effectively rely upon in their planning. Relevant approaches and techniques may be learned from the areas of means-end chain models and path analysis, for instance of shoppers’ journeys in physical stores (i.e., a true physical journey that is nonetheless relevant in this context).

Better established maps of customer journey layout a chain of main stages as the foundation or “spine” of the journey, and then add more detail on specific activities, customer impressions and reactions, costs and benefits, etc. A map would be devised for each key segment or prototypical persona. Maps can get more complex as one tries to account for cycles in the flow of events and activities during the journey (e.g., initial exploration on a website, visit to a store, return to the website for more information, and so on). A model proposed by Forrester Research, for example, defines four primary stages in a customer journey: discovery, explore, buy, and engage. The general model distinguishes between reach channels used for discovery, depth channels appropriate for exploration, and relationship channels through which customers engage with the respective company over time (i.e., strengthening relationships). McKinsey & Co. define more explicitly their orientation: they offer a model named the “consumer decision journey”. It is a cyclic journey model which includes four main phases: (a) initial consideration set for research and learning; (b) active evaluation of alternatives; (c) the moment of purchase; and (d) post-purchase experience, which can cycle back through a “loop” of loyalty to purchase. Noteworthy about this model, it recognizes that consumers may check again new alternatives and update their consideration set during active evaluation.

The Big Data sphere is also recruited to the mission of mapping customer journeys. However, the approach taken in such applications tends to be more strictly focused on performance of particular tasks by customers with the client company (e.g., product enquiry and service). Furthermore, th0se maps seem to over-emphasise the role of touchpoints as used by customers, particularly digital ones, as the nature of data sources used dictates. Temkin (see above) criticises the interpretation of a customer journey map as a touchpoint map, as typically adopted in systems based on big data. He argues that concentrating on individual interactions is prone to lose sight of the “broader context of how that touchpoint fits within the overall goal and objectives of the customer.” Systems in the field do show links or transitions between touchpoints, but the maps provide a rather narrow viewpoint of the journey and its context.

A map may zoom for instance on a particular touchpoint such as a call centre (by phone) and show how many customers visited previously a webpage of the company and how many ended the journey at the call centre or proceeded to another touchpoint for completing their task. Conspicuous figures or pathways may start a discussion of what that means and what should be done to improve the experience. However, such applications “see” only computer-based channels or touchpoints associated with the company, that is, mapping strictly customer journeys of technological interactions with the company. What if the customer consulted a friend on the phone, responded to a TV ad, or visited a store? The effectivity of the maps relies also on strong connectivity between the different channels of communication and interaction operated by the company (e.g., PC website, mobile, phone call centre). Silos in the organisation can hamper the construction of journey maps. Finally, it is important to study not only what customers do but also how they perceive their own actions and their attitude towards them. It would help companies to tap into subjective sensitivities of customers about their behaviour and avoid infringing into areas of customer desired privacy.

Mapping the customer journey can be used to improve many aspects of decision processes and post-purchase experiences (e.g., foster linkage between physical stores and information through mobile devices). Focusing on the journey of customers for narrowly defined tasks that involve interaction with a company can help indeed in resolving concrete problems or issues in customer experience. Nevertheless, companies should also take a broader perspective to map the journeys of more elaborate processes and experiences that extend in time through a relationship with the company. Models should also avoid being too restricted to customer interactions with the company and explore interactions with other potential influencers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The past thirty years in Great Britain have been marked by some major economic and social changes, most notably de-industrilisation, decline in job security, a transition to service economy, and the rise to dominance of the financial sector. These developments have occurred to differing degrees in other Western countries as well but perhaps not in as a dramatic way as in the UK. Only in the past month we have witnessed the awakening of a heated public debate on these socio-economic developments in reaction to the death of late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK between 1979 and 1990, due to her reforms in the 1980s. Most people would describe themselves nowadays as “middle class” and yet people are at difficulty to define and agree on what that status means. The gross division of the British society into upper class, middle class and working class does not seem to hold any longer.

The BBC’s research branch Lab UK launched in 2011 a major research project, the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), in co-operation with an academic team led by Professors of Sociology Mike Savage of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and  Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester. They embarked on developing a new model of social class whilst taking, however, a different approach to defining the determinants of social status that is not based solely on occupation and other economic variables.  At the core of the project the BBC underlines the large Web survey it has carried out, in which 161,400 respondents in Great Britain participated; this survey was accompanied nevertheless by another national survey in a representative sample of about 1,000 respondents interviewed face-to-face (the use of two data sources is discussed later in the post-article).

The model developed by the research team working with the BBC includes seven classes. The model still identifies layers of social class but their organisation is different from previous models that relied primarily on indicators of education, occupation and economic wealth; the model thus reveals new types of class segments. Most remarkably, the “middle class” is more diffused, splintering horizontally across more unique and distinct class segments, also replacing the reduced traditional working class.

The unusual structure of this social class model can be attributed primarily to the acknowledgement by the researchers that the social standing of people depends not only on the stature of their occupation and their economic wealth but also on additional personal resources that people develop over time. They rely on a schema developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that recognizes in culture a crucial pillar contributing to a person’s competences and stature. Bourdieu identified three forms of capital: economic capital (wealth and income), cultural capital (based upon educational upbringing, it defines a person’s tastes and ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods such as arts and food), and social capital (the breadth and nature of contacts and connections in a person’s social networks that can benefit him or her). The expansion of the concept of “social class” hereby suggested by the researchers deviates from the concept’s “classical” economic foundations but it nonetheless enriches the model by bringing it closer to the concept of “lifestyle” — a connection that should be well appreciated in a marketing context. It allows one, for instance, to account for whether a person has more fine tastes or a stronger tendency to open-mindedness that may enhance his or her standing in society. Savage and Devine and their colleagues argue in favour of their approach that:

“This recognition that social class is a multi-dimensional construct indicates that classes are not merely economic phenomena but also are profoundly concerned with forms of social reproduction and cultural distinction” (2, p. 5).

A quick review of the new seven class segments (1):

  • Elite — The most privileged group with highest levels on all types of capital, but particularly distinguished by the greatest economic capital.  The largest (over-) representation of CEOs and other senior managers is found in this class.
  • Established Middle Class — Not as wealthy as the elite but still very high on all three capitals. The most gregarious group that also scores the second highest on cultural capital.
  • Technical Middle Class — A small but distinctive new class that is prosperous but more secluded, concentrating on its links to other profession experts. They are distinguished by their social isolation and cultural apathy.
  • New Affluent Workers — A rising group of young people who are successful in their jobs, with middling levels of economic capital though without acquiring higher education; yet, they are socially and culturally active that appears to give them a leverage.
  •  Traditional Working Class — Relatively older people, they constitute the remaining working class of the past (their offsprings are believed to belong in the new segments of New Affluent Workers and the Emergent Service Workers.) They are low on all forms of capital though not completely deprived, reliant especially on current high values of their houses.
  • Emergent Service Workers — They are young and urban though less well-off economically than the new affluents, positioned in relatively basic and low paying jobs in services (e.g., at call-centers, bars and restaurants); they are also characterised as highly active socially and culturally.
  • Precariat — The most poor and deprived group of precarious proletariat with low scores also on social and cultural capital.

The young segments that represent the newer generation of the “working class” seem to be a more savvy generation, less indifferent to or accepting of their social status, better connected, and working to improve their well-being, not only at their jobs. Are they types of “middle class” or “working class”? This is unclear — those familiar classes seem more confounded. The place of the lowest social class is taken now by the Precariats. Division in the British class system may have changed in form and structure but it remains powerful: Savage argues that the society is increasingly polarised between the elite at the top and the ‘precariat’ class at the bottom and with divisions growing deeper (3).

Hereafter a question is raised: What does this model imply for consumer behaviour?  The model provides a new foundation upon which marketing researchers and managers may develop better understanding of consumers’ motives and drivers, and the background to their behaviour. It can help answer not just what consumers can afford but what they may aspire for. It may further reveal how consumers aim to achieve their goals or implement their interests, suggesting specifically what kinds of products and services are utilised in the course of doing so. But the social class model is not sufficient to that end — it has to be joined by another model that elaborates on consumer lifestyles. The new opportunity for improvement that unveils with the new model is in creating a more meaningful and congruent bridge between a social class model and a lifestyle model. This bridge would be primarily cultural but there may also exist a social common denominator.

  • Economic capital is measured by household income, household savings and house value (the latter two are joined in a ‘wealth’ index).
  • Cultural capital takes in consideration leisure interests, taste in food, taste in music, use of media, and travel destinations for holiday. The researchers have borrowed the conceptual distinction of Bourdieu between elevated “highbrow” genres of culture and “popular” culture, but they apply it in a more flexible manner. First, following recent research, the model assumes that respondents from any class may simultaneously practice genres of both “highbrow” and “popular” culture (i.e., each type receives a separate score). Second, they furthermore refrain from making judgement about forms of culture that may appear degrading and use the term “emerging” instead of “popular” for describing culture forms like sports, playing video games, browsing the internet and participating in social media networks. Forms of “highbrow” culture include among others engaging with classical music or jazz, visiting museums, art galleries, theatres, and French restaurants. On these facets “social class” and “lifestyle” meet.
  • Social capital is evaluated through two metrics: the number of occupation groups (out of 34 possible groups) of the people with whom a respondent has social connections and a mean status score of those occupations. Models of lifestyle should now also relate to socialising activities and the kinds of information consumers share, given the significant place in time and content that social media networks fill in their lives. A lifestyle model may contribute some additional information on connections in the “real world” and/or in the “virtual world” that the social class model does not seem to distinguish (though it accounts for use of social media under “cultural capital”.)

It is not proposed to build a single integrative model that stands the risk of diluting either construct of “social class” or “lifestyle”. Rather, the new social class model and a lifestyle segmentation model should be married by crossing one with the other, the former focusing on the resources consumers hold and the latter elaborating on how those resources are expressed and employed in reference to consumer behaviour.

We would want to know more about the psychographics of members of the new social classes to understand how they can be expected to behave as consumers. Here are two issues to consider for probing:

What kind of shoppers the New Affluent and Emergent Service workers are likely to be? — more critical, cautious and price-conscious or more easy-spending on any products and services and their brands? They may choose products and brands they believe can improve their well-being or their image in the eyes of others. How do these two segments differ? (hint: the emergent service workers are said to be more eager to “live the day”, more seeking experiences rather than products (1)).

Consumers in the Established and the Technical middle class segments both have plenty of economic resources but the former has a much more varied range of social connections and is more culturally active, mixing highbrow and emerging forms of culture — how does that distinguish them as consumers with respect to time and money they spend with family and friends at home or outdoors, on their personal interests and hobbies, on the Internet, etc.?

It should be noted that this model outcome could not be obtained if based only on the web survey of the BBC’s GBCS. The researchers found a strong selection bias in the large web sample, lifting it socially upwards, that is, the web sample exhibited over-representation of Britons from well-educated social groups. It means that this sample could not be adequate for modelling social classes of the whole British society. The GBCS received high publicity in media channels of the BBC which may have served well for recruiting a sample of its audience but not beyond that. However, the bias may also be due to low rates of Internet literacy and usage in older and less privileged social groups.

Compared with the second national sample in a parallel survey conducted by GfK, it clearly shows how the web survey is biased upwards with respect to occupations, household income and ‘wealth’. The model was built by a method of latent class analysis on an integrated sample dataset where respondents in the national sample received their original weights to reflect the correct composition of the population, while respondents in the web sample were “fragmented” by giving each a weight of 1/161,400. All cases are classified simultaneously, yet the class system structure is based more heavily on the national sample and the GBCS sample serves primarily to provide greater detail on the profiles of those classes.

  • The differences between the two samples remain clear: the Established Middle Class is the largest segment, 25% of GfK national sample but it “grows” to 43% of GBCS web sample; the Elite is just 6% of GfK sample but 22% of GBCS sample; conversely, the New Affluent Worker is 15% of GfK sample but just 6% in the GBCS sample; and the Precariat segment that takes 15% of the GfK sample is almost non-existent in the GBCS sample. (2)

The new British social class model recently published reveals additional important facets to social standing, based not just on economic resources but influenced also by social relationships and cultural capital. The enriched model also offers a bridge to associate with a lifestyle model that would shed more light on implications of the classes for consumer behaviour and marketing. It may also give encouragement to consumers that they can invest in their social and cultural capital to improve their well-being and social standing before they are able to increase their economic capital.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Sources:

1. The Great British Class Survey (GBCS) Special Section on BBC News Online:

(a) “Huge Survey Reveals Seven Social Classes in UK”, BBC News: UK, 3 April 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22007058

(b) “Class Calculator: Can I have No Job or Money and Still Be Middle Class?”, BBC News Magazine, 4 April 2013    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21953364

2. “A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment”, Mike Savage, Fiona Devine et al., Sociology (Online), April 2013 (link is available on BBC website, 1b)

3.  “The British Class System is becoming more polarised between a prosperous elite and a poor ‘precariat'”, Prof. Mike Savage discusses the results of the research, London School of Economics: British Politics and Policy at LSE (Blog), 4 April 2013,   http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/32264

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Not too often one gets to see a marketing action that is handsomely nit to produce a coherent multi-facet brand statement. Samsung appears entitled to claim that kind of achievement as part of its marketing effort for the Galaxy Note II digital device launched last October. The initiative that involves co-operation of the South Korean technology company with a rising fashion designer Alexander Wang presents a meaningful “brand story” that smoothly connects the product’s competencies with supporting themes — fashion design, social interactions and relationships, and charity (social responsibility). Samsung already started a relationship of Galaxy Note with the fashion world last year at the New-York Fashion Week fair but in this year’s event (in February) it accomplished a true branding event to be celebrated.

The Galaxy Note, now in its second upgraded version, can be described as a hybrid between smartphone and tablet: it has the communication utilities of a smartphone device on one hand and approaches the visual display capabilities of a tablet device on the other hand. The Galaxy Note II comes with an exceptionally enlarged screen for a smartphone — 5.5 inches; this allows users to perform multitasking in a split-screen mode more conveniently on the device as well as to operate various programmes or apps that entail more visual detail. Most relevant to the context of fashion design, nevertheless, are the enhanced graphic capabilities of the device. Taking advantage of these graphic features is facilitated by the use of a stylus pen that is making a comeback (named by Samsung “S Pen”). The stylus pen may enjoy better prospects this time around thanks to far improved graphic applications that benefit from using the pen compared with the outdated PDAs of a decade ago.

Finger tips can still be used for many operations on the device but with the S Pen one can scribble hand notes and especially sketch or draw. For instance, a user may add handwritten comments on a calendar board, compose “idea-map” models on a notepad combining text and icons, and create original drawings to one’s liking and interest. Hence a customer who has artistic talent, healthy imagination and a good hand can make, for example, sketches of buildings, furnitures, and of course fashion clothing or accessory items. Frankly, the creative user can draw many more types of objects and figures with the device but Samsung identified fashion as a field with greater attractiveness. As head of Horn digital communication agency commented to the New-York Times/IHT: “Fashion can be a good way to humanize technology” (1). Prominently, one can put down his or her ideas into writing or drawing as these come to mind wherever one happens to be — on the train to work, waiting for service, or pausing in a coffee shop. These product capabilities and the advantages they offer are the basis of the recent fashion initiative.

  • Look for further illustration and demonstration of the product’s functionality in the Benefits page on the website of Samsung: Galaxy Note II or watch their video.

Let us review the three main aspects of Samsung’s fashion campaign in co-operation with Wang:

Fashion design with Galaxy Note II —  Wang announced in February together with Samsung that he would design a bag for a limited collection, but added that the print image on the bag would be designed by one of his relatives or professional associates. He invited people close to him, including family relatives, friends and top peer designers, to propose their print samples by using the Galaxy Note II device to sketch or draw their image creation, incorporating photographs as well if so desired. When ready they should send the image to Wang via the smartphone. A linkage is hereby established between the product and fashion by (a) application of the special graphic features of the Galaxy Note II, including the use of the S Pen, for drawing the print image, and then (b) utilisation of the device as a smartphone to deliver it to Wang. This activity plan is constructed to promote selected features of the product Samsung wants to highlight, further enhanced by the endorsement of a celebrity in fashion design (Flavia Barbat, Branding Magazine; see the embedded promotional video featuring Wang).

According to Christine Cho, director of global marketing for Samsung Electronics, the key message of this campaign is that “technology empowers creativity”. She said that they chose Wang to help in delivering it “because of his passion for experimentation and his on-the-go lifestyle”. Marketing professor Hal E. Hershfield of Stern School of Business at NYU helps further to explain this, emphasising that it is all about association: “If Samsung wants to be perceived as hip, cool and cutting edge, it has to have a partner with the same qualities” (2). Wang acts as a desirable mediator and endorser: in virtue of his personal traits he can enforce the linkage between Galaxy Note and fashion design, and furthermore project those characteristics on the brand’s image.

Social interactions and relationships — Wang is not doing all the design work by himself; he invites people he is associated with to share their creative ideas with him that will contribute to the quality of design (appearance) of the bag. It is not a typical collaboration programme of Samsung with its customers because he is not inviting regular customers to contribute but people in his own inner-circle of socialization; it also does not directly concern a Samsung’s product but the design of a fashion product, yet it makes use of Samsung’s Galaxy Note II for the collaboration with Wang. Nevertheless, in this activity Wang performs crowdsourcing in which he consults with other people similar or close to him, though in this case it is done at a limited scale and in an exclusive manner. This way, however, Wang offers an example to other users how they can perform their own crowdsourcing with their associates, with the help of course of the Galaxy Note device.

Supporting charity (social responsibility) — Wang committed (probably in agreement with Samsung) to donate the proceeds from the sales of the limited collection of the bag to a New-York City art charity for children. The charity, a non-profit enterprise called Art Start, aims to give an opportunity to children and young adults at risk (aged 5-21) by participating in art workshops it provides for them. Thus the whole initiative is also channelled to a good cause, representing an act of social responsibility on the part of Mr. Wang and Samsung.

The marketing initiative with Wang shows a way of expanding the meanings of the Galaxy brand for smartphones and tablets. It seems to tap on a model advanced by branding scholar and expert Kevin L. Keller for broadening the brand knowledge of consumers by linking the brand with external entities: people, places, things (e.g., events, causes), and other brands. Co-operating or associating with entities (e.g., a celebrity endorser, country-of-origin, a brand of a complementary product or in a related field) that are not owned by the company/brand can yet contribute new meanings and values to the target brand. Linkages with external entities allow to leverage the brand and enrich its identity by associating it with types of information that are not normally or originally inherent in the brand due to its products (3). In this case, we find linkages with a person (celebrity endorser), and two things, an event (New York Fashion Week) and a cause (aiding a charity project). It may be argued, however, that the association here is not with the event alone but with a whole domain of fashion or a concept of fashion design. These are also abstract things that although are not specifically mentioned in Keller’s model should easily fit in (note: it belongs in “things” because it does not involve an alliance with another particular brand).

Clearly, such linkages with chosen entities should be supported continuously and consistently in different activities lest they may not sustain as new properties of the knowledge of consumers about the brand. This is where a marketing promotional campaign can be said to differ from a marketing strategy of the brand. Keller referred to the transfer of meanings of an external entity to the brand through various dimensions of brand knowledge (e.g., product attributes, thoughts and feelings, images, attitudes). A single action or campaign is not likely to accomplish this objective of expanding the scope of brand knowledge.

Samsung is giving Apple some good reasons to worry. It seems to be taking appropriate and constructive  actions in developing its Galaxy brand to rival the superiority of Apple (iPhone, iPad etc.), but in order to succeed in this mission Samsung should follow its logic of co-operation and association with the same entities or with similar characteristics in more marketing activities in the future.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Samsung Joins Forces with Fashion Designer, Elizabeth Olson, International Herald Tribune (European edition of New-York Times), 9-10 February 2013.

(2) Ibid. 1.

(3) Brand Synthesis: The Multidimensionality of Brand Knowledge, Kevin L. Keller, 2003, Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (March), pp. 595-600

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It is increasingly evident that consumers no longer care to wait for companies to have their say on new products. Consumers want to be heard earlier in the process of developing products and exert more influence on the products they are going to use. The Internet, particularly Web 2.0 and its interactive methods and tools, is clearly playing a key role in facilitating and enhancing this mode of consumer behaviour.

The engagement of consumers in the process of new product development (NPD) can be viewed as a facet in the broader phenomenon where consumers are mixing production and consumption activities, known as ‘prosumption’. Tapscott and Williams contend in their book on “Wikinomics” (1) that many consumers seek to turn from passive product users into active users who also participate in the creation of the products they use and influence their design and function. But the type of involvement hereby referred to goes beyond the personal design of selected features of product items by consumers for their own use, as applied in mass customization; the contribution made by consumers (‘prosumers’) collaborating with companies in NPD is meant to positively affect many consumers other than themselves.  Tapscott and Williams suggest that companies should encourage their customers to contribute in more profound and significant ways to the design of products that may thereafter be marketed to many more users.

Agreeably, consumers differ in the extent and quality of contribution they are capable to make as function of their knowledge and skills in the domain of every product, and therefore consumers should be invited to collaborate in forums and with methods more appropriate for them. The forms of collaboration may vary from consumer participation in NPD research to generating ideas in social media forums and up to more extensive proposals of technical designs of product prototypes. As collaboration gets more advanced and significant it can greatly help — in addition to co-creating improved products — also to produce closer and more valuable relationships between a company and its consumers or customers. More advanced collaboration has the power to elevate relationships to a form of “partnership” and to increase the level of their strength and intimacy between a company and its more loyal customers.

In an instructive and interesting paper on Internet-based collaborative innovation, Sawhney, Verona, and Prandelli present methods which they classify by the nature of collaboration (breadth and richness) and the stage of NPD in which the given level of consumer involvement is applicable (e.g., front-end idea generation and concept development, back-end product design and testing)(2):

  • Deep-rich information at the Front-End stages: Discussions in virtual communities of social media that encourage exchange of ideas allow companies to capitalise on social or shared knowledge of consumers. Another method that relies on consumer-to-consumer communication is Information Pump, a type of “game” through which a company can reveal and better understand the vocabulary of consumers in describing product concepts vis-à-vis expressions of needs;
  • Reach a broad audience at the Front-End stages: Web-based conjoint analysis and choice techniques can be applied among consumer samples to gather and analyse relatively less rich but well-structured information about consumer preferences;
  • Deep-rich information at the Back-End stages: Web-based toolkits for exercising users’ innovation let the more expert consumers configure or design original product models of their own creation, working in a specially built environment and with computer-aided design tools — this approach relies on knowledge of individuals;
  • Reach a broad audience at the Back-End stages: Particularly applicable to digital products (e.g., software, web-based or mobile applications, video games) where prototype or experimental beta versions can be tested online; however, visual-simulated depictions of alternative virtual configurations of advanced prototypes can be applied to test and evaluate the acceptance of a wider range of tangible products.

In the virtual world of the Internet, unlike the physical world, there is a less rigid trade-off between breadth of access to consumers and richness of information (e.g., small focus groups versus surveys of large samples); this advantage is stated by Sawhney et al. “…Internet-based virtual environments allow the firm to engage a much larger number of customers without significant compromises on the richness of the interaction. ” This advantage is particularly demonstrated in social media forums.

It should be emphasised, nevertheless, that new methods of collaboration should not come in replacement of  NPD research methods; research-based methods and non-research methods of consumer-company interaction can wonderfully complement each other and should continue to be applied in parallel to answer different requirements of the NPD process for consumer informational input and aid. In a leading paper for the new age of NPD research, “The Virtual Customer” (3), Dahan and Hauser describe state-of-the-art research methods and techniques for different stages of the NPD process. They distinguish, for example, between (a) conjoint types of measurement techniques and models that are most suitable for guiding product design at an early stage (feature-based), and (b) a method applicable for testing the appeal and purchase potential of candidate prototypes (integrated concepts) at a more advanced stage of product development. The latter method in particular takes the advantage of displaying images of virtual prototypes (e.g., SUV car models) to consumers , supplemented by additional product and price information, in an online survey for testing  reaction (choice) before going to production. They also explain in great detail unorthodox methods such as the Information Pump and Securities Trading of Concepts.

  • It is noteworthy that most research methods concentrate on learning from consumers about their preferences without engaging them in proposing product designs; the User Design method, however, already gives more leeway to consumers-respondents to construct their desired products using a self-design tool similar to mass customisation.

Forums or personal pages in public social media networks are widely accepted these days as an excellent arena for companies to receive ideas from consumers for new products and gather information about their product preferences and expectations. However, it is likely to turn out as a formidable task to comb and pick-up ideas of real value and practical potential for implementation from these sources as well as user-generated-content in blogs. Some good ideas may also get lost in the river of postings or comments customers upload in a company’s page on service issues, billing etc.. Dedicating a special separate page for interaction with consumers on new products, goods or services, can help to raise the level of ideas formulated and to allow peer discussions on those ideas that can lead to their further progression. But even then, the ideas proposed in such a venue may be mostly initial concepts, vague or unfocused. Such a venue is a good place to start, allowing any customer interested to contribute. Thereafter, owners of more mature or promising ideas may be referred to a company-owned virtual forum on its own website where a more advanced collaboration with the consumers-contributors may be developed.

Managing collaborative activities for NPD in a company-owned website division can offer some valuable possibilities. First, it provides better control and capabilities for moderating discussions among users or interacting directly one-to-one with the originators of product-concept proposals; it would be an environment dedicated by the company and designed by it specially for interacting with users and among themselves. Second, performing collaborative activities in this environment is likely to attract users with higher level of knowledge, competence and interest in domains of the company’s products; greater proficiency of users demonstrated in their discussions frequently leads to natural screening-out of novice and less serious users.

Third comes the sensitive issue of security and protecting intellectual property. Companies do not tend to guarantee any protection for initial ideas brought up by consumers, not even in their own websites. Particularly in forums that are founded on sharing knowledge and discussion of ideas between users, information has to remain transparent and accessible to participants and to the company. Tapscott and Williams noted that consumers get excited by the creation of their own products and enjoy it even better when they can do it together (4).  However, companies can offer some better measures to secure information such as limiting access to discussions and materials (e.g., by password permission) and preventing unauthorised extraction of content. Where proposed designs of product models are meant to be shared, originators should get the option to credit their models with their IDs. Confidentiality and rights are offered for the most progressed technical designs that are planned to be adopted by a company for manufacturing and marketing.

Fourth, a company can provide an interactive toolkit for innovation on its website for consumers-collaborators who wish to take their ideas and concepts one step or more further. With the toolkit users can apply relevant design tools to sketch plans and construct virtual 3D product models. Depending on type of collaboration program and context, users can allow their proposals to be available to other users or to the company alone. Thomke and von Hippel proposed a complete process for customer innovation that includes several iterations of developing a design with a ‘toolkit for innovation’, building a prototype, receiving feedback from the company (‘test’), and return for revisions (5). Through early iterations the prototypes built by the system would be virtual, until the design is satisfactorily advanced to manufacture a physical prototype of the product. The authors suggest that the customer-led process is likely to require fewer iterations than in a ‘standard’ NPD process, save time and money, and free the company to invest more effort in improving manufacturing capabilities.

Different schemes have been devised for collaboration programs with customers:

  • The Open Innovation Collaborative Programme of Unilever, for example, is designated for highly skilled contributors with extensive knowledge in the domains of products for which they invite proposals (list of Wants, e.g., solutions for detergents). Collaborators are referred to a special portal for submission (in co-operation with a consulting firm yet2.com that manages the review process).
  • Other programmes are more popular in nature and appear suitable to a wider audience of consumers with varied levels of expertise. Take for instance the Create & Share collaborative suite by Lego on its website. More than a decade ago Lego cleverly realised with appreciation the creativity of its leading hobbyists and enthusiasts (adults included!) who invented original models based on existing parts and suggested new forms of Lego blocks; Lego started to accept such designs and offer new models’ sets and less conventional building parts. The online suite includes today a gallery of models built by fans, message boards, and especially the Lego Digital Designer toolkit application for constructing virtual plans of fans’ own models (unfortunately Lego has terminated last year its ByME customization program that allowed users to order their own physical models).

Consumers who collaborate with companies should be rewarded for their more significant contributions of ideas and products designs. On the one hand, the reward does not have to be monetary, cash-in-hand (some may not even want to be perceived as paid contributors/employees). On the other hand, companies should not get satisfied by relying on enjoyment of contributors and their feelings of self-fulfillment and accomplishment. Furthermore, a company should not appear to be relinquishing its duties in generating genuine ideas and developing new products to its customers. First, many customers will be happy to receive credit by name in recognition of their contribution in the company’s publications and websites. Second, contributors can be rewarded with special gifts or privileges in obtaining and using their own-designed products and other products of the company. Monetary prizes will probably continue to be distributed to winners in competitions.

Collaboration for innovation changes the relations between a company and its consumers or customers because it gets them to work together, co-creating new products that thereof better fit consumer needs and wants. Particularly activities that engage consumers in developing concepts and designing products have the better potential of narrowing gaps between companies and customers.  Research, collaboration in other ways, and internal development by professional teams within the company should be used together in integration in NPD activities.Collaboration shifts the balance of control more towards the consumers, but companies who learn how to share knowledge and competencies with the latter can gain in improving innovation practices, increasing value, and not least, enjoying stronger customer relationships.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything“, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, 2006, Portfolio.

(2) “Collaborating to Create: The Internet as a Platform for Customer Engagement in Product Innovation”, Mohanbir Sawhney,  Gianmario Verona, & Emannuela Prandelli, 2005, Journal of Interactive Marketing, 19 (4), pp. 1-14 (DOI: 10.1002/dir 20046).

(3) “The Virtual Customer”, Ely Dahan and John R. Hauser, 2002, The Journal of Product Innovation Management, 19, pp. 332-353.

(4) Ibid. 1.

(5) “Customers as Innovators: A New Way to Create Value”, Stefan Thomke and Eric von Hippel, 2002, Harvard Business Review, 80 (April), pp. 74-82.

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Social media networks are flourishing in activity. Most attention is given to Facebook that reached one billion members in the summer of this year. The lively arena of Facebook, humming with human interaction, and its potential to provide easy access to millions of consumers, has soon attracted the interest of marketers. A particular area of interest is the opportunity to study consumer perceptions, attitudes, preferences and behaviour through research activity in online social media networks, primarily in Facebook.

We may distinguish two tracks of research:

  • One track entails the collation and analysis of personal content created by network members with minimal or no intervention of companies. This track falls mainly within the domain of Big Data analytics that evolved dramatically in the past few years and keeps growing. Analytic processes may include text mining in search of keywords and key phrases in discussions, frequencies of “like”s, and movement between pages.
  • The other track, that is the focus of this post-article,  includes interaction between a company and consumers, usually within a community or forum set-up by the company in its corporate name or in the name of one of its brands (e.g., its “page” on Facebook). This activity may take the form of regular discussions initiated by the company (e.g., introducing an idea or a question on topic of enquiry to which members are invited to comment) but also invitations to participate in surveys and moderated focus-group discussions online.

Online marketing research is prevalent for at least ten years now and the methods associated with this field, including surveys, experiments and focus-group discussions, continue to improve. However, the belief taking hold among marketers that they can reliably and transparently shift their research studies to the environment of social media is illusive and misleading (see articles in The New-York Times, TheMarker [Israel]).

Advantages in speed and cost may be tempting marketers to replace established methods with new techniques accustomed to social media or attempt at launching the former from within social media networks. But social media has distinctive features, particularly in structure of information and the coverage of its audiences, that do not allow an easy and simple transition into the new environment, at least not so much as turning traditional marketing research methods redundant.

The problem starts with the “rules of game” typical in a social media network. The codes or norms of discourse between members in the network do not generally fit well with the requirements of rigorous tools of research for data collection. Questions in surveys usually have specially designed structures and format and are specific in defining what the respondent is asked about. They are formulated to achieve satisfactory levels of validity and reliability. The social network on the other hand gives utmost freedom of expression in writing entries or comments. It tries to avoid constraining members into particular modes of reply. Questions prompted to members are usually written in everyday friendly language, the less formal as possible. One may normally post one to three questions at most in such mode of discussion. It lacks any discipline that robust research usually demands. The mode of questioning normally feasible within the pages of the social media website may be acceptable for some forms of qualitative research but, reasonably, it takes more than a few questions to properly investigate any topic.

A marketer may get some idea of direction where consumers or customers are driving at in their thoughts and feelings by scrutinizing their answers subjectively and individually. But it would be presumptuous to derive quantitative estimates at any reasonable level of accuracy (e.g., purchase intentions and willingness-to-pay).

  • Critics of surveys argue that the reliability of responses is often compromised when respondents attempt to second-guess what the client of the survey wants to hear or they are subject to “social desirability”, that is, they are trying to give the answer believed to be approved by others. However, this problem is not any less susceptible to surface in comments in the setting of social media. When writing in their own words in the less formal setting of a social media community, members may feel more free to express their opinions, preferences, thoughts and feelings; yet they are still expressing what they are ready to share. Furthermore, the social media is a great venue for people to promote the way they wish to be perceived by others, that is, their “other-image”, so we should not assume that they are not “fixing” or “improving” on some of their answers about their preferences, attitudes, the brands they use, etc.

One may use a web application to upload a short survey questionnaire embedded in his or her own page or as a pop-up window. The functionality of such surveys is rather limited, with only a few questions, and is usually more of a gadget than a research tool. The appropriate alternative for launching a more substantive study is to invite and refer participants to a different specialised website where an online survey is conducted with a self-administered questionnaire or a remote focus-group session can be carried out. Here we should become concerned: Who answers the survey questions or takes part in a study? Who do the participants represent?

This concern is a more critical issue in the case of surveys for quantitative research than in forms of qualitative research. Firms are normally allowed and able to address members of their own pages or communities who are “brand advocates” or “brand supporters”. The members-followers are most likely to be customers, but in addition to buying customers they may also include consumers who are just favourable towards the brand (e.g., for luxury brands). If the target population of the research that the marketer wishes to study matches this audience then it is acceptable to use the social media network as a source, and at least for a qualitative study it can be sufficient and satisfactory. However, for a quantitative study it is vital to meet additional requirements upon the process of selection or sampling of participants in order to allow valid inferences. Unfortunately, the match is in many cases inadequate or very poor (e.g., the pool of accessible members covers only a faction of the customer-base with particular demographic and lifestyle characteristics). For quantitative research the problem is likely to be more severe because the ability to draw probabilistic samples is limited or non-existent, and recruitment relies mostly on self-selection by the volunteering members.

The field of online research is still in development where issues of sampling from panels for example are still debatable. There are also misconceptions about the speed of online surveys because in practice one may need to wait even for a week for late respondents in order to obtain a better representative sample. Yet advocates of marketing  research through social media networks like Facebook try, quite immaturely, to pave the way into this special territory facing even more difficult methodological challenges.

There are certainly advantages to focusing research initiatives on the company’s customers, particularly in matters of new product development. Customers, and possibly even more broadly “brand supporters”, are likely to be more ready and motivated to help their favourite company, contributing their opinions and sharing information about their preferences. They are also likely to have closer familiarity with the company or brand and obtain better knowledge of its products and services than consumers in general. Hearing first what its own customers think of an early idea or a product concept in development makes much sense to help putting the company on the right track. However, as the configuration of a product concept becomes more advanced and specific, more specialised research techniques are required to adequately measure preferences or purchase intentions. Wider consumer segments also need to be studied. Even at an early stage of an idea there is a risk of missing on real opportunities (or vice versa) if an inappropriate audience is consulted or insufficient and superficial measurement techniques are used. Using the responses from “brand supporters” in a social media network can be productive for an exploratory examination to “test the water” before plunging in with greater financial investment. But such evidence should be evaluated with care; relying on the evidence from social media for making final decisions can be reckless and damaging.

Nevertheless, marketers should distinguish between interactions and collaboration between a company and its customers and research activity. Not every input should be quickly regarded as data for research and analysis. First of all, the mutual communication between customers or advocates and a company/brand is essential to maintaining and enhancing the relationship between them, and the company therefore should encourage customers to interact and furthermore contribute to its function and performance. Hence, when product users offer their own genuine ideas for new products or product improvements (e.g., hobbyists and enthusiasts who develop and build new Lego models) their contributions are welcome, and the better ones are implemented. And when a company (Strauss food company, Israel) gives feedback on ideas by its followers on its Facebook page as to which ideas are inapplicable, to be applied “maybe another time”, as well as in initial review, this activity is commended. But these interactions belong in the domain of collaboration, not research. Survey-like initiatives in Facebook may aid in enforcing a feeling of partnership between a company and its customers (commented to TheMarker by Osem food company).  A debate extended on this issue of “partnership” questions whether the reward to originators of successful ideas is only a sense of achievement and contribution or should they receive also material rewards from the benefiting companies.

Social media networks seem foremost appropriate as a source for qualitative research. If those who advocate performing marketing research in Facebook refer primarily to qualitative types of research, then it seems reasonable and more often may be admissible. It is also generally appropriate for exploratory and preliminary examinations of marketing initiatives but when done with caution in view of the limitations of the social media forums. It is much less appropriate as a venue and source for quantitative studies.

While interesting and valid studies can be conducted on how consumers behave in social media websites (e.g., on what subjects they talk, with whom, and the narrative of discourse they use), using a social media network as a source of research on other topics is a different matter. When done for marketing purposes, there are ethical issues regarding analytics of personal content in social media that could not be discussed in the current post. Primarily at stake is the concern whether companies are entitled to analysing content of conversations between consumers-members, suggesting that they are spying on and eavesdropping to network members. Even in discussions on the company’s page the utilization of analytic techniques may not be appropriate or effective. Access to background information on members who activate web apps on the company’s page (with their permission) is another contentious issue. For most users, this is the kind of privacy they have to give up for participating in a network free of charge, but to what extent will consumers agree to go on like this?

The use of social media networks for marketing research, as well as analytics, is therefore more complex and less straightforward than many marketers appear to perceive those activities. Foremost, explorations in social media should not be viewed head-on as a substitute for the more traditional methods of marketing research.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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