Simple. Relevant. Surprising. Meet loyalty that does it all

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Originally published in Ad Age here.

Millions of people are stuck inside their homes, looking for work, homeschooling their children and fighting for social equality. Consumers are exhausted, scared and mentally overloaded. Dealing with this overwhelming combination has driven them to look for brands that align with their struggle and basic beliefs.

The known and familiar have an advantage at times like these. Case in point: General Mills sales grew 21 percent, driven by brands customers experienced in childhood. But there is room for growth in many sectors, especially for brands that embrace the right strategies. At tms (formerly The Marketing Store), we follow six proven tenets to strengthen engagement:

1. Listen.

Listening to your consumers has profound ramifications. Consumers share their opinions when they feel a brand is listening. Take a pause on messaging to ask consumers their wants, likes and concerns. Create a plan of action that highlights what you’ve heard and how you’ll address it. Listening is the key to relevancy, as consumers are keen to tell brands what they want or how they feel.

To assure people that they’re being heard, tms (formerly The Marketing Store) uses a bevy of digital tools to connect clients with consumers in real-time and pivot according to their preferences. Working with McDonald’s, we executed COVID-19-focused research that helps us understand consumer preferences and how to help them feel safe.

2. Use your voice.

Brands have traditionally been afraid to venture into the political arena. There was a perceived risk to picking a side, but that time is long gone. Consumers actively look for brands that represent them. Let consumers know you are with them and how you are following through. Then use the amplification power of branded channels to share that message broadly.

Major brands are learning this lesson the hard way, with strong outrage over minimizing Black Lives Matter or avoiding the equality conversation.

3. Nurture loyalty.

Loyalty is often viewed as a transactional relationship, devaluing customers in the process. True loyalty thrives when consumers see themselves, or something that represents them, in a brand or products, and when the consumer feels they are getting the greater value out of the relationship. All too often, brands deliver near valueless points or hierarchal loyalty systems that are disliked by consumers. These systems scream high-dollar spenders only.

Consumers don’t want to decipher complexity. To diffuse this transactional relationship, create an exchange of value that feels authentic and considerate. Show the consumer the brand cares about them as an individual instead of a sales figure. Thank the consumer for engaging with and purchasing your products. Gift them with a warm feeling that keeps them coming back.

In order to create this, consider the value chain of loyalty. Using initiation in strategy, creative to drive an emotional connection, analytics to measure ROI, technology to deliver the final experience and compelling rewards that create true value exchanges with consumers, these building blocks are accessible for any brand.

For example, tms (formerly The Marketing Store) partnered with a major telecom company to launch a new method of rethinking loyalty. Its premise is simple: Customers in good standing get thanked every week with exclusive offers, sweeps and more. There are no points or strings, just a weekly appointment to thank customers.

4. Be transparent.

Millennials and Gen Z are growing resistant to manipulative advertising. They see through marketing, and they ask, “Is this company honest? Reliable? Do they stand for something?”

Letting consumers understand exactly what you want them to do and what the benefits are is tremendously powerful in establishing a bond and, ultimately, respect. Show transparency consistently so consumers will trust your branded messaging and want to engage with your products.

5. Create consistency through simplicity.

Consistency is key to engagement. When a brand sets a value proposition, consumers expect brands to follow through. This can tax resources, so it’s equally important not to overpromise. Be upfront about exactly what the exchange is and why it has value, deliver it consistently and make up for it when the value exchange is broken.

This is established through the prism of simplicity. The easier the program is to execute and maintain—and for consumers to engage with—the higher the chance it will be successful and create meaningful consistency.

6. Spark joy.

Never forget one of the most important elements of consumer loyalty: joy. Brands should provide moments of joy, whether through surprise and delight tactics, a personalized thank you or joyfully designed digital experiences that deliver a smile instead of focusing just on a sale. Surprise and delight can do wonders for customer engagement, but ultimately it is a tactic. True joy can be driven from being relevant, timely, thoughtful or just plain fun.

These steps will help brands build sustainable loyalty and engagement. We recommend brands should focus on curating the one thing that drives true engagement and loyalty, brand love. It sounds aspirational, but when you break down what’s happening with consumers, the brands they love that bring them comfort are succeeding during 2020 turmoil.

Using these six principles will help brands make connections while consumers are distracted and overloaded. Become a brand that provides comfort and be worthy of consumer love to drive lasting engagement and loyalty.

Ryan Hedges is VP, Digital Experience, at tms (formerly The Marketing Store) with over 16 years of experience in advertising and digital marketing. He’s led strategy and campaigns for Pepsi, American Express and Universal Studios and most recently has focused on tms’s (formerly The Marketing Store’s) loyalty and digital work. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and two dogs, while being an avid cook.