50 Feet From Me: Penetrating the Customer's Trust Circle

Contributor:  Shari Swan
Posted:  07/27/2009  12:00:00 AM EDT
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We believe that personal plays a central role in the way that brands need to approach customers today. Not as a demographic, as a group or as a number, but as individuals with individual needs that demand to be met on an intimate and personal level. We take a “50 Feet From Me” concept in an effort to bring the focus back to the personal. Not just to create mass uptake for sustainability, but to create a customer-centric base built on trust by approaching them within their 50 feet (less than 15 meters).

The brands that survive–dare we say, thrive–through the economic turbulence will be the brands that enter this personal and intimate space. It is impossible to write an article about the customer these days without paying lip service to the recent financial meltdown (or near meltdown, depending on your mood). To be sure, we’re still in the early days (again, depending on your mood) and, while customers across the globe are certainly conscious of the ripple effects on their wallets, there is no doubt that it will profoundly affect the spending habits of the average customer. The crisis will only increase the necessity for brands to be even more personal in the way they approach and speak to customers today. We say increase because a more personal approach has been on the agenda for a while already, aided, partially or in full, by subtly intrusive digital technologies that allow for "mass personalization" (e.g. Amazon book recommendations).

Needless to say, as customers think twice about dipping into their pocketbooks, it will no longer suffice for brands to treat customers as a demographic or as a group or even as a member of a group, but as an individual customer with individual needs.

Trust, Proximity and Familiarity

Recently at Sweden’s Designboost conference, Streative unveiled an idea we’ve dubbed “50 Feet From Me.” While the concept was conceived in light of the conference’s sustainability theme, we feel it is malleable enough to apply to the brand stickiness as a whole. Because at the heart of “50 Feet From Me” are trust, proximity and familiarity. The gist of “50 Feet From Me” is as simple as it is human: Brands that survive through the economic turbulence will be the brands that enter the customer’s personal and intimate space.

At the heart of “50 Feet From Me” is the term "having the bubble," a phrase used by air traffic controllers to describe a state of complete and total awareness. When "having the bubble," controllers are able to construct and maintain a cognitive map of all the inputs and stimuli taking place around them at any given time and integrate this information into a coherent picture. They are in complete congruence, a seemingly effortless, balanced flow of information. It’s a beautiful and even serene idea, this bubble, something like a runner’s high, a state of mind where all the pieces fall seamlessly into place! All of which encouraged us to apply the idea to a social urban context. Because, when stripped of all its military and aviation connotations, the idea of “having the bubble” is actually an acute state of situational awareness, a physical and mental space that one (the customer, the typical pedestrian) is in complete control of, visually and audibly, at any given time of the day. And instead of happening in the control tower, we propose that it is happening in customers’ homes, in their neighborhoods and offices and their cars—trusted spaces that are familiar to them, where they interact and where their communities reside.

Customers State and Space of Awareness

For “50 Feet From Me” then, we translated "having the bubble" into streetmetrics—something Streative does as part of our looking sideways mantra.

During our research, we identified the space customers are capable of controlling completely, both physically and mentally, to 50 feet from their person. 50 feet, give or take, of acute sensory consciousness of one’s surroundings. Admittedly, 50 feet isn’t a lot of space. But if you think it feels small now, just wait until the ripple effects of the economic downturn reach shore in the form of sizeable swells. When this happens, brands are really going to experience just how small 50 feet is, and, we suspect, it’s going to be a pretty painful realization process for many brands to come to terms with, much less deal with.

With “50 Feet From Me” we want to point out that only those brands that penetrate, align and connect within this state of awareness, have a very good chance to grow, spread and flourish citywide, countrywide and globally. One human being to the next, like grains of sand on an anthill.

Flourishing through the hard times requires an approach to brand development that focuses on human needs to deliver products and services that are authentic—items customers really want. Brands will have to operate on a highly intimate level that is very close to the customer—literally. Entering their sphere of trust means understanding not only who the customer is, but who the human being behind the customer is.

Brands Integrate into Customer’s Lives

There are a couple of brands that are ahead of the game already. One of the reasons Whole Foods has become the de facto case study of strong brands is the fact it is addressing customer needs—namely, sustainable, healthy, organic, trustworthy food—in a way that is convenient to them and fits seamlessly into their lifestyles.

It isn’t just a quirky idea or a gimmick, but a valuable part of their lives. They trust Whole Foods because, quite simply, they have the feeling Whole Foods makes their lives better. Interestingly enough, our own research has shown that organic supermarkets rank higher on the customer trust index than do banks and insurers (and this before the economic crisis!).

Another brand that is intelligently tapping into individual customer needs is the South Korean telecom king LG Telecom. LG Telecom has completely shunned the mono-loyalty scheme approach by giving its customers a dynamic, multi-partner program that offers them discounts on a large number of tangible items they use in their everyday lives. Streative’s own research has shown that loyalty programs by and large remain a popular way to incentivise and influence purchasing behavior, but we also learned that the most successful programs, like LG’s, make efforts to integrate themselves into the customer’s daily routines and habits—so seamlessly in fact that the customer hardly even notices them. Certainly, the customer appreciates this, and it tends to pay back in influence and trust.

Trust and Customer Confidence

In a time when the customer’s every move is under the microscope, we believe the customer relationships built on trust that they develop during the worst of times will carry over to the best of times. So while the price tag might seem like the bottom line, the customer experience actually is.

Getting in the customer’s “50 Feet” is especially important now to create those ties that last well into the future. We’re hearing a lot of talk about "customer confidence," a term that Streative deems a bit amusing. What sounds like something intimate and personal—the confidence that people have in their economy, in their local stores and their favorite brands—is merely indicative of their spending habits. The fluctuation of "customer confidence" should be reason to pause and consider why their confidence is all over the charts. Apparently, brands are not doing a good job of penetrating the customer’s “50 Feet.” Those brands that can create products that stick, that can actually create a relationship built on trust, will enjoy more than just a handful of fair-weather friends.

First published in Customer Futures Series.

Shari Swan Contributor:   Shari Swan


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