It’s too facile to say that COVID-19 changed everything when it comes to brands and customers. Everything was changing already. What COVID-19 did change was time, which by definition is a function of distance and speed. Both aspects not only changed, but they also changed rapidly.
Time is More Than Speed
Math and science aside, relationships between brands and customers were reflecting fundamental shifts that were already well underway pre-COVID-19. But the magnitude of the change, in terms of both distance and speed, accelerated. Even as the world emerges with vaccines and immunity, things are not going to reverse, nor will they slow down.
Time was already a new loyalty “currency” thanks to Amazon Prime and its shipping benefit, and the advent of BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store), which quickly evolved to BOPAC (buy online, pickup curbside). Time as a loyalty driver is not only about faster fulfillment and a more seamless customer experience, it also relates to how brands value customers’ time—think customer service and wait times for voice, email, SMS, and chat support.
At the onset of COVID-19, we could all be patient, as we had little choice. Not anymore. A year later we expect brands to deliver—literally and figuratively—on time. On our time.
Time for Brands to Be Loyal
One aspect of time’s value over the last year centers around digital acceleration. Virtually every brand had a digital roadmap pre-COVID-19 but the time that the brand leaders shredded to shorten the distance over the past year was, to use an overstated expression, unprecedented. Nothing illustrates this better than Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, moving to contactless payments by the end of March 2020.
Seamless experiences reflect a brand’s commitment to valuing customers’ time and at least implicitly showing loyalty to them, a prerequisite for customer loyalty in return. That loyalty from the brand is what begins to solidify trust, another dimension of loyalty that saves a customer time in deciding to engage and do business with a brand. Showing loyalty to customers extends this trust by recognizing them, informing them, rewarding them, making it easy for them to solve their “jobs to be done.”
Time for Brands to be Less Transactional
Yet another and less surprising accelerating trend is the move towards relevance and experience mattering more than transactional value and things (once you get beyond PPE and TP 😀). This is important not only for customers, but also increasingly for all stakeholders, starting with employees.
Consumers will always say that saving money is important but, as Walker predicted years ago, 2020 saw the importance of the experience mattering more than price and convenience (time is relative and consumers do not mind spending more time if the experience itself is more valuable). Not coincidentally, Brand Darwinism is also accelerating, not just in retail but in other categories as well. This is going to continue if brands aren’t able to deliver a better customer experience and more relevance. Expect weak and non-customer-centric brands going out of business and making the stronger, customer-centric brands even stronger.
Time for Brands to Give a $#!T About Stakeholders
While we’re addressing our year of COVID-19, one thing that we can’t ignore is the broader social backdrop. Well after the Business Roundtable declared that Stakeholder Capitalism should be replaced with Stakeholder Capitalism, the rise of the woke brand is not a passing fad. Brands need to be loyal to and receive loyalty—or at least benign tolerance—from stakeholders. Not just customers and employees, which have been obvious audiences since The Loyalty Effect, but vendors, partners, and communities too. Forget short-term relevance here: this is going to be important and for a long time, if not forever.
Make Your Brand Worthy of Customers’ Time
All of this leads to what we see going forward, which is not a real departure from what we’ve been saying for years: Success starts with recognizing the importance of brands, and their ability to leverage data and insights to serve customers in a much more relevant manner, optimizing or at the very least improving the experience for the customer throughout the journey. In other words, brands that are loyal to customers.
While tangible and transactional value—think “spend and get” or “earn and burn”—remain important, along with tried-and-true loyalty mechanics, alone they are not nearly sufficient to ensure brand loyalty in the future. Relationships, whether with brands or other people, require more than the one-dimensional approach we’ve seen for more than forty years now. That kind of veneered transactional approach to loyalty failed during the onset of the pandemic and it will fail beyond it—save for customer-centric brand leaders and challengers, who reverse the 40-year paradigm of which way the loyalty flows.