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Want to drive customer loyalty? Get better at herding elephants

If marketers want customer loyalty, create content that speaks to the heart, not the head.

What drives your buying decisions? Is it price, practicality, logic? Or is it something more? James Chalmers explores the psychology of value and why it is crucial for marketers, if they want to drive customer loyalty, to create content that speaks to the heart and not the head.

We all like to think we are rational creatures. Others may make decisions based on emotion but no, not us. If we’re involved in a purchase decision, you can be damn sure we are going to approach it logically – do our research, list pros and cons, weigh up advantages and disadvantages, judge possibilities – like some sort of tech-savvy Solomon.

But it’s not true. Never has been, never will be. Social psychologist (and sought-after TED speaker) Jonathan Haidt likes to compare the relationship between our emotions and our rational mind to an elephant, with a tiny rider perched atop, acting as the rational mind. The rider may appear to be calling the shots but is in reality many times smaller and weaker than the elephant. If the pair ever disagree about where to go, the rider will lose every time. As much as we like to think rationality should win out, it can be so easily overpowered by emotion.

Where this becomes important in marketing is when one starts thinking about brands. Companies miss an enormous opportunity to connect more deeply with customers if they focus purely on fulfilling those customers’ stated, practical needs. A marketing campaign that engages the elephant will always prevail over one aimed solely at the rider.

Engage the elephant, not the rider

Take this ad from Nike, long regarded as one of the great innovators in marketing. Yes, there are a handful of shots in which you can see a shoe bearing the trademark swoosh. But there are no product names. There is no extolling of the superiority of Nike’s craftmanship or design. There are no promises their product will make you better. There are no, heaven forbid, mentions of price.

Instead, the ad is a pure expression of brand. Nike knows that anyone spending three figures on running shoes is buying more than just shoes. There are countless manufacturers of running shoes, many offering products that are cheaper and, possibly in some cases, better-designed. But this is irrelevant, because Nike’s message is for the elephant, not the rider. With an ad like this, Nike is not selling shoes – Nike is selling customers a tool that will take them a step closer to their own end goal of being the best physical version of themselves.

So if you wish to control the elephant, you have to find out what it wants. In order to connect emotionally with your customers, your brand must help them with a larger goal. In a crowded marketplace where the barriers to entry have rarely been lower, it is simply not enough to offer the right product. If you treat what you sell as a simple commodity, customers will always choose the cheapest. But if your brand makes customers feel they are deriving some other benefit – be it professional, social or emotional – they will be more loyal, more engaged and more willing to pay a premium.

Personas: bringing big brands closer to their buyers

So how do you create this emotional link? One of the tried-and-true methods is by creating buyer personas. A buyer persona is simply a fictional character that embodies an archetypal customer. Depending on your business, you might have one or you might have several. The important thing is that they truly represent the living, breathing would-be customers you wish to deal with, and be just as real to you. A good buyer persona will allow you to step into their shoes and into their heads, giving you the best opportunity to understand the goals and emotions that drive purchasing decisions. This understanding means marketing messages can cut through and appeal to our inner elephants.

Unsurprisingly, buyer personas usually live in the shadows of marketing efforts, directing the messages but not appearing on stage. There are exceptions though.

The genius of Apple

Apple has always been near the top of the tree when it comes to connecting with users emotionally, and has been rewarded with fans who think nothing of lining up for days to be among the first to get their hands on new products. Or who will watch a video of someone unpacking a new product in the hundreds of thousands.

For the most part, this has been done without reference to technical specifications. In fact, one of Apple’s most famous ads – the George Orwell-inspired, Ridley Scott-directed 1984 ad that introduced the Macintosh – didn’t even feature an image of the product. Instead, it aimed squarely at the emotions.

More recently, the brand was literally personified in the hugely popular I’m a Mac series. This ad campaign explicitly illustrated the buyer persona for Mac computers as a young, hip urban type, and sets that archetype off against a fusty, gawky PC. The ads even show how buyer personas can be tweaked to pursue new opportunities – in this case, reflecting Apple’s burgeoning forays into professional environments.

It’s easy to think that customer loyalty is driven by superior products or service but people are not that simple. Addressing the rational part of your customers is essential but it’s not until you understand what they really want and tap into their emotional sides that will you get the die-hard, passionate and loyal fans every company yearns for.

How to develop buyer personas

Best practice for creating buyer personas often involves intensive interviews with existing and would-be customers but not every business has the budget for that sort of research.

The basics

Firstly, give your buyer persona a name, and not something like Buyer Persona One. It may seem cheesy, but if you’ve ever given your car a name, you know how much more powerfully a name can make you connect with something. The same goes for the basic demographic information. How old are they? Are they male or female? Kids or single? Where do they live? The persona should be as real a character played by Meryl Streep.

The background

What does this customer do for a living? Are they just starting their career or sitting at the top of the heap? How busy are they? Are they stressed? These are the questions to answer to help paint a fuller picture of your persona. You can flesh it out with their educational background, their hobbies, where they live etc.

A photo

Put a face to the name. It’s simple but will make them more real to you.

Goals, needs and wants

This is central to it all. What is the larger goal they are striving toward? It’s not just whatever problem your product might solve. Determine what the bigger achievement is, and then what the persona needs to get there. What are the questions they would ask? Exactly how does your product fit in? What sort of language would they use in their mind when thinking about this larger goal?

Them, in a nutshell

Now that the persona has been given flesh and form, jump into his or her head and take everything you know about them to come up with a sentence or two about that encapsulates what matters most.

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