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Customer First— Brand Second

At the core of every business model should be the customer, and the opportunity to win them over at every brand touch point. From their first experience online or in store, to ordering and unpacking the product, and the follow up customer service, all of these experiences should be modeled around the potential to delight the customer. The best brands deliver a cohesive and authentic experience that makes the customer the focal point of every part of the business. But before you begin your inward evaluation to innovate your business model and brand strategy, let’s take a look at companies who missed opportunities, and who is doing it right:

Missed the Boat

RIM had an idea 10 years ago that would make email accessible by mobile phone, but now a decade later they keep coming to market with the same technology and hard-key interface, lacking true innovation and simply following what other industry leaders have already done. RIM hasn’t offered customers the experience they want, or that they can’t get anywhere else. Just this week the company’s new CEO, Thorsten Heins, was interviewed by CNBC this week, he said that one of his priority tasks was to hire a world-class CMO and that they needed to better communicate their marketing message to the public. In deference to Mr. Heins, what RIM needs more than a new CMO is a fresh line of products that leapfrog over the competition rather than simply trying to imitate them.

Getting it Right

Interbrand released the Top 100 Brands of 2011, which include consumer favorites such as Apple, Google, and Disney. Why do these brands consistently make “best of” lists (besides the fact they all make a lot of money)? Because they all put the customer first. Their brand is not about the company, but about the people who ‘consume’ it. Disney is a no brainer on this list- they are the true masters of customer experience. However, you don’t need to include theme parks, characters, books, and movies into your brand strategy to create a positive customer experience. You just need to “get connected” with customers to understand their needs.

A great example of delivering on customer needs is the new PGA Tour Superstore in my hometown of Delray Beach, Florida. Thanks to Home Depot founder Arthur Blank, the city has a new Superstore consisting of 55,000 square feet of pure golf and tennis heaven. But what do The Home Depot and a PGA Tour Superstore have in common besides Arthur Blank? A lot. Both stores have accomplished something truly special: an experience that cannot be replicated online. When you enter into the PGA Superstore you are greeted not by a customer service representative or store associate, but a true knowledgeable golfing professional. A professional that not only understands and plays the sport, but one that can change your grips or measure you for a new set of clubs, give you a lesson or straighten your putting stroke. Not to mention they are also equipped with simulators and courts to test out the gear. The Home Depot’s model is similar, they have stores equipped with professionals that not only tell you about the tools, but show you how to use them with the resources they have in the store. A trip to these stores is more than a shopping trip; it is a voyage of discovery and learning that keeps customers coming back.

Opportunity Knocks

I believe there is one sector that is sitting on the biggest opportunity of all is the office supplies super-stores, the Office Depot’s, Staples, and Office Max’s of the world. What can the office supplies sector do to improve their business model and provide a better customer experience? First, it begins with finding alternative uses of the brick and mortar space. Given the horrible economy and massive amounts of layoffs, many people have found themselves in small businesses or entrepreneurial situations rather than in corporate America. There’s a major opportunity for office supply stores to serve the “small office, home office” demographic, such as setting up meeting rooms inside the store. These rooms could be used by those who work from home so they can host a meeting outside of their home while having a place to access the technology and support that an office conference room would have. Additionally, they could offer essential services inside the store for small business tax planning, or work-stations with internet capabilities and a service to help write business plans. And don’t forget a Starbucks counter to fuel the workforce. Finally, the SOHO (small office, home office) demographic is a price conscious group for sure, but they want products that are more stylish, more innovative and reflective of their company’s personality, so office supply stores should stock exactly these types of offerings in their stores. Starting a small business is among the biggest decisions a person will make in their lifetime, and as such, they will want the want the best products for their business, not just the least expensive ones.

The office supplies sector is sitting on a gigantic opportunity to move to a more customer centric business model and put their arms around a very savvy demographic of small business professionals. If this demographic is supported properly, they will likely be loyal customers for life.

What You Can Do

Becoming a more customer centric brand is a huge task, but it is best started with a brand strategy developed around the type of experience the brand wants to deliver to customers. This strategy must look beyond what the company sells and determine all the places where there is a potential for customer interaction and how they can be improved upon. It is also important to note that the marketing department should not be the only one tasked with driving brand strategy; the responsibility should be shared by everyone starting with the CEO and throughout the rest of the company. Reinventing your business model will be a challenge, but a challenge that is best addressed when there are advocates for change in the company who will not only help support it, but help drive the implementation of it.

For example, here at KSC Kreate, we noticed that our customer experience could be improved by integrating a Total Image Management Experience (TIME) that will help our clients track the creative process and the resulting digital assets with us. This includes elements of account and content management systems that streamline the content creation, management, and deployment process for our customers. This required input from our marketing department to develop the strategy, our chief technology officer to create the technology, and support from the CEO to drive implementation. It wasn’t a quick process, but the end result is a product that helped make our client’s lives easier (and more organized). Happy clients make for happy companies.

In conclusion, I think Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon put it best, “Your brand is formed primarily not by what your company says about itself, but by what the company does.” If you commit to putting customers first in your brand strategy I promise, they will commit to spending their precious dollars with you.

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