What's in it for Me?

Features and functionality are yesterday's news.

An innovation of the 1940s, the unique selling proposition focused on product features. But the USP is as outdated as the 45 rpm record. Today customers expect to know what specifically is in it for them when they're considering a purchase-how a product or service fills their need or solves their problem. We call this the customer benefit proposition. Customer-centric branding can help companies deliver it-and reap the benefits by building customer engagement.

"Customer-centric branding has probably become one of those buzzwords that it's in danger of being diluted from overuse," says John Owens, head of marketing at online banking institution ING Direct. "But any business, in order to be successful, must think of the customer first. Those who don't, and think about their own product firstwell, they probably aren't going to last."

Under customer-centric branding, a company orients itself to the needs and behaviors of its customers, rather than such internal drivers as quarterly earnings. Organizations can use customer-centric branding to communicate their customer benefit proposition a number of ways, including linking their brand with the customer experience, responding to customers' feedback, and updating the brand identity to better meet customer expectations.

Privately-held sporting and outdoor goods chain Bass Pro Shops is one company that does customer-centric branding right. The firm has built its brand through its distinctive reputation for expert service and in-store experience. The company's name and customer-centric image, which are underscored via the stores, catalogs (37 million distributed annually), three television programs, and an internationally syndicated radio show, are all devoted to its core message of "Your Adventure Starts Here."

The mega-stores-which average 140,000 square feet and go up to 300,000 square feet-combine retail with entertainment, conservation, and outdoor education. Each of its 44 lodge-like stores is unique, and includes an indoor pond stocked with different species of fish native to the area. Professional fishermen and hunters regularly hold demonstrations and discussions at the stores. "I describe each store as a museum, an aquarium, an art gallery, an antiques shop, and oh, by the way, a retail store," says Larry Whiteley, the company's manager of corporate public relations and outdoor education. "Basically, when you think outdoors, you think Bass Pro Shops."

Marketing efforts are designed around the idea that "Bass Pro means quality," whether it's in the durability and functionality of its outdoor apparel, cutting-edge hunting and fishing gear, or outdoor-related furnishings for homes and cabins. The result, Whiteley says, "is a very loyal customer base. People actually take vacations where they simply tour our different stores, and we've had weddings at some of our sites."

The uniqueness of the stores also plays up the "something special" factor for the Bass Pro brand, emphasizing the concept that a Bass Pro customer is a discerning one, Whiteley says. In fact, building that Bass Pro brand has also established the chain's logo (a wide-mouthed bass in mid-leap with the company name) as a must-have for outdoor enthusiasts. The company sells "tons" of branded caps and shirts, he says.

Bass Pro has an extensive marketing program that runs the gamut from educational literature and in-store demonstrations to custom catalogs aimed squarely at fishermen or hunters-always with an eye towards enhancing the customer's outdoor experience. But, Whiteley says, "word of mouth has always been our most valuable advertising."

The distinctiveness of the Bass Pro experience is underscored in no small part by the fact that it's one of the few shopping experiences that men will actually share with each other-a testament to the power of its customer-centric branding.

Tying Customers to the Brand

Jordan Brand, a division of Nike, also has tied its branding to the customer experience. "With us, it's all about the brand's viewpoint and mission statement," says Kofi Brown, Jordan Brand's digital marketing and content director. "There are all kinds of different brands in sports and fitness, but our point of view revolves around the message 'athletic luxury.'"

The challenge, Brown says, is to "make sure we hold up Michael Jordan's standard of excellence," both in terms of product and customer experience. "He's become the bar minimum that people expect from an industry."

"We needed to find ways to help [Jordan Brand] achieve that greatness," says Gurval Caer, CEO of strategic interactive agency Blast Radius, who works with Jordan Brand on its marketing. The result was the Breakfast Club, an ongoing program focused on sport-specific training-not just basketball, but also football and baseball, "as these are all popular sports among Jordan's target consumers," Caer says.

The Breakfast Club aims to inspire young athletes to reach for excellence. The program includes in-person visits to national basketball camps with professional athletes, aimed at helping youngsters improve or enhance their athletic skills. There's also an interactive Web site that allows users to print and download more than a hundred expert-designed exercises to create a customized routine.

This past summer Jordan Brand launched a six-week, 10-city tour to support the Breakfast Club program. Each stop included day-long camps with more than 5,000 children participating. "Each kid came away from these sessions with some clear areas that they could work on, and were directed to Jumpman23.com to set up and follow their own personalized training programs," Caer says.

The tour included online registration for the events, as well as interactive kiosk content at each stop featuring athlete tutorials, seasonal product videos, and previews of the content they would find online at the Jordan Breakfast Club."Several thousand consumers have set up, modified, and actively engaged with the online platform, with tens of thousands more being exposed to the philosophy and the content during the summer tour," Caer says. "It was all about engaging with people."

Keeping It Simple

Maintaining a brand message that is easy to understand, and making it pervasive throughout the company's structure, is imperative to maintaining its effectiveness. Executives at ING Direct know this firsthand.

The branchless direct bank, which offers services via the Internet, by phone, or by mail, has made its reputation through its high-interest savings accounts and no service charges or minimum account balance requirements. "It's all about addressing what the customer really wants," Owens says. "They know that we offer great value in rates, but that's only half the battle. We don't have the best rates across the board, but we are competitive. We keep things simple as part of our whole value proposition."

Simplicity has its share of benefits, Owens says. "First it helps customers feel smarter about themselves, and second, in the banking industry traditionally, customers have become conditioned to look for the catch or the asterisk. We try to take the asterisk out of our vocabulary and even out of our keyboards."

Part of how ING Direct communicates that simplicity to customers is the orange ball that appears in nearly all of its signage. "Most other banks employ some combination of blue, white, green, and red in their signage, soft colors designed to make you feel good and comfortable," Owens says. "We went with orange because it's vibrant and bright, and the ball as a symbol of simplicity-no sharp edges. It both helps us stand out in the marketplace and represents who we are and what we're doing."

The orange remains consistent even behind the scenes. The employee training program is called "The Orange Journey" and staffers are indoctrinated in "The Orange Code," which Owens describes as "a manifesto of who we are and what we do," with such tenets as "We will be for everyone" and "Everyone deserves a chance at independence."
That customer-centric message is "culture-wide, from the CEO on down to the salesperson who's on the front line with the customer. The whole organization must believe in it," Owens says. "We make clear to [employees] our principles of focusing on the customer and making sure he's treated well."

Listening In

Delivering a customer-centric brand message means, of course, first understanding what customers want. "It's not about pushing your promise onto people, but rallying them around an ideal, a shared cause," Blast Radius' Caer says.

Vice President of Marketing Brian Mitchinson recalls a project that Blast Radius worked on for DirecTV, in the wake of a growing number of customer complaints about the DirecTV Web site, which was complicated to use and navigate. The goal was to deliver a new site that would better meet customers' needs.

"The site includes a simplified buying process and improved personalization and self-service," Mitchinson says. "Further, [it] includes a revamped program guide featuring value-added editorial and syndicated content, such as improved show details and expanded show information, as well as personalized guides for each family member." As a result, DirecTV bolstered its customer benefit proposition by reacting to what customers expected from the brand.

Switching Messages Midstream

Once a company puts its customer-centric brand messaging in place, it's important to maintain it. Consistency is a key to building customers' trust. "Your brand promise had better be a product truth," says Jim Schroer, president and CEO, Carlson Marketing.

But if the message simply isn't connecting, there are ways of tweaking it. Schroer points out that Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines, routinely voted number one in the luxury segment by Cond?ast Traveler magazine, was originally known as the Radisson Seven Seas Cruise Line, "but charging $1,500 a night for a luxury experience didn't equate with the Radisson name."

The Regent rebranding-centered on a service philosophy called the Tao of Regent-took place through every customer touchpoint, from relauching the company's Web site to redesigning the ships' interiors to renaming the ships. Customer service has also been ramped up under the Tao of Regent, Schroer says.

"Regent could claim to be the only line where all the rooms are suites, but anyone else could do that as well," Schroer says. "It's the emotional side, the fact that nobody can feel as much of a luxury experience anywhere else, that makes the Regent brand go."

The result? "We've been able to raise prices a little and make more money," Schroer says. "But it's not just about selling a cruise; it's about focusing on how to delight the customer. The way to do that is to treat them all like the Queen of England."

Still, switching messages can be a daunting task. Rick Fernandes, CEO of Webloyalty, an online marketing services company that provides customized programs to e-commerce, travel, and other fee-based businesses, says one need look no further than Coca-Cola for an example.

"Switching from Coke to New Coke was a famous disaster, because one day everyone woke up and found that what they were expecting was not what they got," he says. "Coke had done a tremendous amount of research that found people preferred the new flavor, but that still didn't account for what customers were expecting their experience to be when they opened a can of Coke."

If you're known as the "low-cost" or "high-quality" provider within your industry, Fernandes adds, changing the message midstream can be almost hopeless. "You can see it at Wal-Mart, which tried to change its position to be more of a fashion center," he says. "They've had a real hard time of it, because they've been known forever as the place to save money."

Establishing a customer benefit proposition-and communicating it to the consumer-can demonstrate to customers that a company is truly interested in delivering what they value most. And that will ultimately come back around and boost a firm's bottom line.

"Everyone knows the cost of a can of Coke, but what is the cost of a 'refreshing beverage'?" asks Jon Whitcomb, vice president of sales for consulting firm Digineer. "If customers perceive value, they will pay more for it."