Branding, marketing and advertising tactics have changed significantly in the last 50 years. But many of us are still spending eye-watering sums of money on out-dated techniques and activities that simply don’t deliver a respectable return on investment.

We’re not resonating with today’s consumers (whether they’re buying as businesses or in a personal capacity). 

So what's the answer?

In the 1960s and 70s, selling was all about having a product and selling it hard, often through very targeted and singular advertising, (think Madmen). It was an era when successful products were centre stage and hugely prominent in any advertising. They often came with cheesy jingles. And they stuck in our heads because there generally wasn’t a lot of competition on the TV, radio or supermarket shelf. Producers who could afford to pay, paid – a lot. As a result, those products became household names and habits, not necessarily because they were actually the best products. 

The 80s and 90s brought services in line with product strategy and suddenly even the professionals were marketing themselves.

I confess to being old enough to remember the ripple of distaste across London when lawyers and accountants first branched out from the golf course and dipped toes into advertising waters.

Those initial forays brought limited success for the majority who attempted them, despite being ‘first movers’. This was partly due to their lack of any recognisable brand identity or USP and also down to the way that we typically consumed services back then. It’s worth remembering that this period was long before today’s technological environment, where it’s now widely accepted that a service provider can be entirely remote and do a superb, personalised job.  

The noughties brought us a much tighter and more meaningful focus on customer rather than brand. Marketing and advertising messages went back to telling stories and making it more about customers and less about products, services and their creators.

And of course, social media, mobile technology and vastly improved delivery logistics (think Amazon’s ground-breaking warehousing strategy) started to influence who could afford to advertise and how far marketing messages and actual products and services could reach.

Today, the trick to persuading an ever more discerning and technologically empowered customer to choose you now seems to rest on how much of a relationship you’re able to develop with that target group.

Today, your messaging and what you offer needs to be enduring and felt’. Success for many businesses now means having a product or service offering that is capable of being experienced and repeated by your target customer on a sustained basis. 

Selling and marketing for many B2B and B2C businesses is no longer about one engineering single transactions every now and then. The shape of the traditional sales funnel is changing: from funnel to hourglass …

The relationship economy

Zuora calls this evolutionary development the ‘subscription economy’. Robbie Baxter (the founder of management consultancy, Peninsula Strategies LLC and author of the superb linked article below), calls it the ‘membership economy’.

In my own business, we call it the rise of ‘the relationship economy’.

Different labels perhaps, but they mean much the same thing: in return for true value, today’s customer is looking for an enduring relationship, one that offers trusted solutions, staggers the (ideally low) cost to make what’s offered ever more accessible, and that continues the ever-improving and empowering benefits.

As consumers, it seems we’re happier than ever to subscribe and become members of ‘favoured groups’ – even to know that our personal data is being (legitimately) collected and used, as our relationship with these preferred providers endures. It’s what great brands like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Ocado, Hive, Apple (for music) and others have achieved.

And their subscription-style relationship with us has made them habit-forming and intuitive. Which makes the best in class providers suddenly ‘stickier’ than ever, without ever needing to wield the penalty of what happens if you change your mind - remember how you feel whenever someone makes it financially and administratively burdensome to switch a provider?  

You lose trust, confidence and desire in and for that brand. 

Trust has always been important. How it’s created has changed significantly 

How we advertise and market is no longer enough for most brands to succeed into household name or habit status. This is especially the case when it comes to new brands and market disrupters.

Today, consumer trust and subsequent loyalty isn’t created by the product or service source.  In some ways, the power to create a really successful proposition is less in the hands of a brand owner than ever.

And this is one of the reasons why old-school marketing campaigns and spending lots of money on billboards or magazine advertising, for example, is no longer considered effective by many marketing experts.  

Community endorsement

Trust is increasingly created by our peers, as we share, rate, review, tweet and YouTube our experiences with and to each other on a pretty much real-time basis.

You only have to look at the rise of the ‘review brands’, such as TripAdvisor and Comparethemarket.com, or the actively used feedback and star-rating functionality incorporated into most strong product and service-selling web-sites, to see this in evidence.  

Through the right lens

Trust (as well as demand) is also created by credibility and presenting what’s offered in context: show me (as your target customer), a vision of my world with you in it. How much better and easier will my world be with you in it?

Too many times, I’ve heard people say that their product or service is ‘just too complicated or sophisticated’ to be communicated in this fashion? With respect, in 99% of cases, I believe that’s rubbish. Da Vinci said that ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’ and he’s right. 

Brands who have consistently done this to real success include Lloyds Bank (remember their animated ‘for the journey’ train that is always there, weaving in and out in supporting role to wherever life takes you?) and British Gas (in their animations, they drive to your planet, fix your needs or problems and then off they go again).

Intuit’s Quickbooks rapidly demonstrates what your world looks like when you’re using their accounting software. Intuit’s vision for the future development of this solution, which I recently saw presented at their inaugural UK conference in March, and which was presented entirely from the user's perspective, was seriously impressive. It’s a refreshing and far more compelling sales ‘pitch’ than traditional accountancy marketing and advertising.  

Banking? Energy? Accounting? Hardly simple or new businesses. But they've successfully made their messaging consumer-friendly, hugely relevant to our everyday lives and very straightforward.

Of course, we don’t all have marketing budgets of the size that they do. But, happily, there are plenty of other cost-effective options to show what you do, simply and engagingly, through the right lens. Social media, especially with its ever-improving video functionality, is a perfect medium for this and it's very affordable.

The forever transaction: branding the consumer as much as the proposition

Neither Lloyds, British Gas, nor Quickbooks lambast you with ‘pick me’ or direct product/service messaging. Their approaches are far more subtle, personable and memorable. The show us everyday life, being improved. And many of us form our purchasing decisions based on exactly these types of tactics. We often stay loyal.

Baxter calls this type of transactional relationship ‘the forever transaction’. Our relationship becomes more than just a series of repeated, independent transactions. 

Instead,  the customer feels as though they’ve ‘joined the brand’ rather than just bought it/from it.

Not just as a consumer, but as an employee, I've personally experienced this too. We used to have a running joke in our team that we had such a strong personal affinity to our particular business at that time that if you looked carefully, you'd see the permanent tattoos of our brand logo that we felt we all wore.  

It's how you want your customers to feel too, surely? Branded by you. Unquestionably convinced and committed to your business. 

Access not ownership

We don’t even need to feel any sense of ownership over what we’re paying for. Zipcar, Spotify, Netflix, are all great examples of how willing we are not to own, provided that we get access on our terms and that any other points of friction, such as ease of payment and delivery, are removed. 

Of course, to stay loyal and in a ‘forever transaction’ relationship with any brand, our customer experience has to stay strong and competitive. As Baxter points out, customers need to ‘feel known and recognised’, we ‘expect candor, integrity, and continuous evolution’ from that brand.

She recommends that the best way to achieve this is to ‘love your customers more than your products and services’.

It’s advice that I hear repeatedly echoed by the experts, successful business founders and influencers in my network. If you’re continuously hitting the right mark with your customers, you’ll succeed.

So focus on doing just that – on an enduring basis. Get your customers to ‘join’ your brand and buy into it, not simply from it.

Anything else that you invest in risks being vanity and unlikely to yield the same impact and levels of return on investment, if any.

The linked article by Baxter is an easy read and focuses on her recommended steps to create that ‘forever transaction’ for your brand(s). From focusing less on sales team rewards for customer acquisition and more on rewarding retention, to keeping your customers engaged and forming habits around your product/service, her advice is packed with good ideas and examples.

It struck a real chord with our team. I hope you enjoy and get as much from it as we did.