Consumers have woken up to a digital world, but have we? Until the growth of digital media, most consumers had a rather passive relationship with brands. We worked hard to stimulate their response in our acquisition campaigns but, even with advances in profiling and targeting, a significant proportion of communication was mistimed or inappropriate. Even when we had acquired a customer, the relationship moved at a stately pace. CRM programmes were too expensive for low-margin brands, most customer communication followed a timeline set by corporate priorities, ad campaigns or a sales force "push" - the marketers were in control.
And then everything changed. After a number of false starts, mass access to digital media finally arrived. Few predicted that the applications that consumers would fall in love with would be texting and e-mail. However, mass access has not meant mass adoption. Avid surfers of digital TV may never surf the net, just as heavy users of new phone technologies may only have terrestrial TV.
Yet, we believe that the meteoric rise in internet access has fundamentally changed people's expectations and relationships with brands. Acquiring information from brands on their products and services has become not only simple but also pleasurable. Looking for gluten-free biscuits? No need to check the packs in the supermarket; a web search or e-mail to customer services and you'll have a list. Companies have rushed to fuel this use of the web by offering masses of content and tools. They recognised that they could differentiate their brands and add value to customer relations using online media.
Suddenly, consumers stopped being passive. Instead, they actively sought out brands online that offered useful content. While consumers don't naturally volunteer information about themselves, they soon learned that they could get tailored content in return for personal information.
Marketers rubbed their hands with glee. No more expensive brochures or costly snail-mail, more customer information for less effort, opt-in e-mails gave us warmer prospects and we had a cheap channel for CRM programmes.
And then we stopped grinning. Because consumers didn't just switch to doing it all online. They spent half an hour on the website and still requested a glossy brochure, they upgraded their phone online and then popped into the shop to pay their bills, they got all the quotes online and still phoned up to make their purchase.
Not only are customers mix 'n' matching the channels they use, but access to online content and applications has raised their expectations of service.
Brands originally evolved as trademarks, guaranteeing unadulterated consistency and quality. In a multichannel digital world, consumers still expect to see brands deliver that consistency through any channel - from website to call centre to retail outlet. Consumers also expect the service to reflect their chosen channel; so a three-day wait for a postal quote is acceptable, a three-day wait for an e-mail response is not.
In reality, what consumers discovered was that brand consistency was often only skin-deep. Creatively reinforcing the brand identity, personality and values is still vital, but it is not enough. The back-end systems within digital channels, and those which link offline with online media, may be invisible to the consumer, but they can fundamentally affect brand perceptions. Making digital media work means ensuring seamless integration, both creative and process. Understanding how consumers interact with different media and their expectations of the channel they choose is the only way to ensure that the brand is positively reinforced at every point of contact.
When brands set up expectations and then fail to deliver, the consumer backlash is greater than if they had never raised expectations at all.
Brands that are inconsistent are perceived as dishonest; brands whose processes are not seamlessly integrated are seen as inefficient.
Consumers expect brands to recognise them wherever they interact with them, and to be provided with content that is relevant to the approach they have made. If they respond to the web address on a poster, they expect to land on content that is directly relevant, not a set of tedious company results or a generic home page. Too often sticking a web address on an ad is just seen as housekeeping, not the first step in building an active relationship.
So what does this mean for marketers? Well, the fundamental principles still apply: consumer insight coupled with an in-depth knowledge of the brand and understanding of the medium (whether it is DRTV or e-mail) is still critical to the success of communication programmes. The creative approach needs not only to drive response but also to reinforce consistently the brand's values and bring them to life at a personal level. With more communications being initiated by the consumer, direct marketers need to develop communications based on how different target audiences interact with different digital media. We need to recognise the different buying processes - a consumer buying a book will have different needs and expectations from digital media, than someone buying a pension. We need to be more responsive, and quickly tailor communications to individuals and their needs. We sometimes forget that a fast response to a problem, or a simple "thank you" or "sorry", can do more to cement the relationship than offers or promotions.
Our brand planners work closely with database planners, digital strategists and creatives, from strategy to execution. This approach has helped us deliver the seamless customer experience that really builds brands and rewards customers for their interaction, whether it is acquiring 16- to 25-year-old prospects for Young Persons Railcard, or building loyalty to Gordon's among regular gin drinkers.