'One-night stand' or 'secret affair'?
A view from Sue Unerman

'One-night stand' or 'secret affair'?

News broke last week that Air New Zealand is withdrawing its safety video after thousands signed an online petition claiming it was "culturally insensitive".

What could possibly be offensive about a set of bikini-clad Sports Illustrated models telling you to keep your safety belt fastened!? It's still available on YouTube for you to decide whether it offends you or not.

The airline claims it is not withdrawing the video because travellers find it inappropriate but simply as part of a regular refresh. It seems likely that the company may have misjudged its relationship with its customers. Perhaps some relationship counselling is needed.

A study by Jill Avery, Susan Fournier and John Wittenbraker in July's Harvard Business Review looks at customer relationship management through the lenses of big data and emotional understanding.

They divide customers into groups such as "one-night stand", "fling", "fleeting acquaintances", "dealer/addict", "buddies", "marriage on the rocks" and "old friends". Each correlates with the potential price premium that can be justified and market share. The authors write: "For instance, customers looking for a one-night stand with the brand are generally willing to pay a higher premium than those who see themselves as colleagues of the brand."

A "one-night stand" is, of course, a customer who just buys the brand occasionally, but with passion and as a betrayal of the usual brand they buy. Understood properly, there's great potential to drive frequency there. The authors characterise adults who eat the cheesy snack Cheetos as being in a "secret affair" with the brand, noting: "They relished the snack’s bright orange color, funny shapes, cheesy messiness, and even the telltale residue on their hands (licking their fingers made them feel they were breaking the rules)."

This understanding should inform every aspect of communication with the brand, and it's possible that Air New Zealand simply thought - or wishes to think - of its customers as buddies when, in fact, they are more like acquaintances. It's important to get it right or the brand/customer relationship is going to be undermined.

This is a much richer way to define customers - and potential customers - than traditional segmentation, and it is informed by ethnographic research, social monitoring and data. Just as you treat your friends, colleagues and relatives differently depending on the nature of the relationship, so a brand should develop different rules of communication relating to e-mails, service requirements, call-centre scripts, offers, pricing, communications strategies and, of course, advertising. In a "fling", the brand needs to offer novelty and excitement. A seasonal product for a limited timeframe is ideal. On the other hand, a brand with plenty of loyal "teammates" would want to consult them on new product development and offer previews of new advertising campaigns.

Service expectations from customers are higher than at any time in the past few decades. They are increasing all the time. Brands that are able to use big data to form clear, empathetic strategies for their customers are the ones that will have a competitive edge.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom