Target Does the Right Thing -- And Its Customers Do the Marketing

Contributor:  Brian Cantor
Posted:  01/04/2012  12:00:00 AM EST
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While the glass half-empty types fear digital media’s ability to take customer complaints viral, the optimists value the tremendous opportunity for customer advocacy.  Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, gone are the days of hoping a satisfied customer will tell two friends, who then each tell two friends, and so on.  In an instant, a loyal customer can share his glowing experience with millions.

Opportunities like that need seizing.  As a result, many major corporations invest countless hours into “inducing” such customer advocacy.  They crunch mountains of data to locate the most vocal of their target audience.  They treat bloggers and top “influencers” to fancy meals and product samples in the hope that a good review will follow.  They surprise social commentators with Porterhouse steaks at airports.  They offer incentives to customers who share their positive thoughts on review sites like Yelp.

Such strategies have proven immensely successful at generating goodwill—and subsequent advocacy—from customers.  They have, in many ways, changed the marketing game, providing marketers with simple, inexpensive, yet effective means of building loyalty in a way never thought possible.

But in addition to potentially warping businesses’ understanding of customer-centricity (getting one loudmouth to make a favorable YouTube video is not really indicative of an improved customer experience), they also underestimate the power of social media.  Brands almost never need to “incentivize” disgruntled customers to go viral with complaints, so why do they need to go out of their way to encourage support?  If a vehemently angry customer excitably shares his negative sentiment with social followers, should not at least some passionately-loyal customers want to share their positive ones?

Retail giant Target just proved that the answer is a resounding “yes.”  While the supportive message has not quite infected the web like “United Breaks Guitars,” it has reached many thousands with no marketing push from Target itself.  It proves that when a brand makes customers smile, those customers are happy to do the marketing.

Noah’s Dad, a blog run by parents of a young child affected by Down Syndrome, this week praised Target for seamlessly including a child model with the condition in its circular.  Unlike so many other brands, it did not draw any attention to its diversity—it did not include any blatant copy about “inclusion,” it did not use the child to promote a “special-needs” product and it did not surround him with others with Down.  It simply, cavalierly included the young boy with four other children on a page promoting infant & toddler clothing.

By drawing no special attention to the child (many, in fact, would not have even noticed his “difference” had the blog post not emerged), Target passed on claiming any direct marketing or public relations “reward” from the circular.  It thus took away any overt commercial incentive for being deliberately diverse and reduced its “strategy” to one motivation: doing the right thing.

While many, to this day, develop marketing campaigns to attract specific ethnic groups, we have also reached a point at which promotional “diversity” is not a big deal and does not warrant special attention.  Department stores will regularly feature models of various races without any special, PR-friendly reason for doing so—they’re just capturing the very real diversity of the market.  It would similarly not be “groundbreaking” to include a female model in promotional material for sporting goods or hunting equipment; it is an assumed reality.

That “assumed reality” has, in most cases, not materialized for those with conditions like Down Syndrome, who are all too often portrayed as “different” and “special” when used in branding.  There is not necessarily anything wrong with that just yet—since such groups are so marginalized, calling special attention to their existence and needs can be quite valuable.  But if equality is the end goal, then Target’s approach is far more progressive, because it quite publicly presumes that children with Down Syndrome “belong” in the mainstream just as much as those who do not have it.  Target is not simply trying to garner acceptance for special-needs children; it has already accepted them.

By adhering to a “do the right thing” mantra, Target’s marketing “strategy” came with absolutely no risks.  If no one noticed the child, the circular would have been no more or less successful than any other circular, but Target would get to claim an internal, moral victory for successfully promoting the honest inclusiveness of special needs children.  And if someone did notice, as Noah’s Dad did, the worst case scenario would have been internal praise from that individual.  The best case scenario:  that customer goes viral with his support for Target’s initiative, as Noah’s Dad did.

Since posting the blog, various media outlets have picked up the story, and thousands of Tweets, Facebook Likes and comments have been posted.  The word is out—and it’s positive.

For customer management professionals, the Target case study represents an encouraging sign that true morality and customer-centricity can still pay off.  Sure, giving away free grocery vouchers or engaging a famous sports or television personality in a YouTube campaign might help drive viral momentum, but customers are not oblivious to those who care about the things for which their business stands when the media isn’t looking.

In a world increasingly occupied with shallow, short-sighted “stunts” and public manipulation, it is the stories of true customer centricity that stand out.  True, even the most famously customer-friendly brands employ publicity stunts and “moment marketing” to boost their reputations.  But what truly separates them from the pack and what truly gains customer trust is a 24/7 commitment to the customer and the things such customers value.

Coincidentally, the Target story emerged the same week that Call Center IQ’s “Lessons from Peter Drucker” columnist William Cohen posted about the value of “doing the right thing.”  Check that out, with some famous case studies, right here.

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Brian Cantor Contributor:   Brian Cantor


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