I want to acknowledge my bias from the start. I don’t like Amazon. I really don’t. I think they're terrible for the environment, support poor labor conditions, have way too much market power, and the list goes on.
"Amazon.com, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America." — Paul Krugman
This is why a piece of me dies when I see commerce and retail brands rolling over in front of Amazon because why even try, right? It’s not just the mom-and-pops either. I’ve worked with some of the largest retail and product companies in the country and almost all of them accept that eventually – some day – Amazon will win. It’s a morale killer and stifles innovation; two things I hold dear.
They obviously do a lot of things really well when it comes to experience. Convenience, speed-to-transaction, great customer service policies, and data-driven personalization to name a few. There’s one thing they’ve never managed to get right though. Loyalty.
"Our customers are loyal to us right up until the second somebody offers them a better service." -Jeff Bezos
Amazon's competitive advange sits almost solely in price competitiveness and convenience – both of which are transactional metrics (and probably the simplest to comprehend). In Amazon's sole pursuit of faster, cheaper, and more options (their definition of "better service"), they’re overlooking something...
Finding The Moments That Matter
Chewy.com has quietly and slowly become a dominant force in pet supploes (OK, maybe not quietly...they were acquired by Petco for $3.65B). Like most successful retailers, they offer recurring auto-ship delivery for consumables like food. It’s pretty common for customers to call in and cancel...and do you know what the most common reason is?
Their pet died.
If you’re like me, the feeling of gut-sinking despair immediately sets in just reading that. Thoughts of loneliness, sadness, and “what to do next”. It’s a deeply emotional moment. Chewy also knows this is a tough moment and they sympathize with it…genuinely sympathize with it. Chewy customer service will talk to the customer, help them, maybe even soften the loss if they can. And the last shipment? Don’t worry about it. You can donate it to a shelter or other pet in need if you want.
Chewy.com can own this moment because they genuinely and authentically care about the situation. After all, they built an entire company culture of caring about animals.
On the other hand, Amazon doesn’t care that your cat died. Sure, they may let you keep the last shipment too, but it’s merely a transaction for them. Relationships and loyalty aren’t built on transactions; they’re built on moments and shared values. This is Amazon’s Achilles Heel.
Get started with a simple question
As an experience & innovation firm we create a lot of connected consumer experiences. And because we believe that brand matters, it’s important for us to look each of these moments and see what the opportunity is to continuously strengthen loyalty. The most effective question we can ask ourselves in these situations is:
We know how Amazon would do it, but how would you do it?
That is, how does your brand personality, values, tone, voice, etc. shape a given interaction with your customer in a way no one else can? We can all figure out how to take a call and cancel an order efficiently in a satisfactory manner, but how Chewy.com infused and operationalized the brand at this moment of need is an extraordinary example of great brand experiences that drive towards differentiation and loyalty.
Aside from the Chewy example mentioned above, we can also look at the thousands of loyalty programs that have become a near-ubiquitous part of the commerce experience. On the whole, almost every one of these loyalty programs has been reduced to a transactional "earn points" model that's nothing more than a decades-old strategy of buy 9, get the 10th for free.
But, while most loyalty programs are centered around fancy coupon experiences, some leaders have been able to shape loyalty experiences into something that is uniquely them. Nike+ is leading the ways by providing insider access and training. REI’s customers can literally buy into their mission. Starbucks is tapping into the power of Web3. Marriot Bonvoy unlocks new experiences and elevated service. And yes, savings are part of every rewards program mentioned here, but they’re used in favor of the brand, not in place of it.
So whether we’re talking about Chewy.com’s sincerity or Nike's ability to deliver a personalized experience, understanding how your brand can uniqualy shape customer touchpoints is key to beating the Amazons of the world.
Operationalizing your brand is the foundation of brand experiences & loyalty
I have fond memories of my days working with Southwest Airlines and it started on the first elevator ride into the Dallas Love HQ. Southwest is a brand that’s always doing the right thing in an industry that’s usually not doing the right thing. That’s not marketing, that’s culture...and it runs deep. As a first time visitor, random strangers walking the halls were ALWAYS warm and nice in the hallways and in the elevator. To this day – they’re the only client that started our meetings off with hugs (which is totally rare when most clients dismiss us as merely a vendor).
Turns out it's in their corporate DNA to hire for attitude and train for skill. Their ability to operationalize what makes their brand special (in this case, hiring and training) has helped them create a brand that does the right thing, even when customers aren't looking.
The same goes for Chewy.com. Because their brand is based on a love for pets, people that love pets work there. And these employees answer the phones. The moments of sympathy and outreach that come with grieving customers isn’t a script because it doesn’t need to be. These genuinely sincere and sympathetic interactions help Chewy build the loyal customer relationships that Amazon can't.
This type of "operationalized brand" doesn’t come easy. It’s not a thin marketing veneer. It’s foundational. It’s how they do business. From hiring practices that place an emphasis on positivity to empowering all their workers with a sense of values, Southwest Airlines and Chewy.com make sure that brand comes through in the customer experiences whether they were designed to or not.
If you’re a brand manager, then you need to look inside of your organization just as much as outside of it.
Find Your Moments That Matter
In the world of business, there are a hundred things we could do on any given day. Twenty of them would move the brand forward but we can only pick two.
The same is true for customer loyalty. On any given day, there are a hundred ways to deliver loyalty moments for your customers. Your brand strategy can whittle your options down to twenty, but identifying the moments that matter most can get you down to your five most impactful moments.
Chewy found their moment.
Identifying the right moments starts with a lot of customer journey work. Be sure to think across the entire journey though. We see many of our marketing peers trip up because they over-index on the acquisition side of the formula and spend little time thinking about what happens after they become a customer – and this is where our opportunity sits. It can require more focus since the post-purchase journey can be much longer, but the payoff will be well worth it.
Personalization can be scary because it’s so amorphous and can mean so many things to so many stakeholders. There are a lot of questions to answer like what does it mean to your organization? What systems do we already have in place? How do we capture the user information necessary to drive personalization? What about privacy and social attitudes? How do we best activate the platform we just bought? These are all the questions that you’ll need to answer as you look to create continuity across the consumer experience. If you can answer these questions, you can level-up any brand experience to be that much more impactful.
Our Final Words
Stop being afraid of Amazon...you can do this if you can 1) understand who your brand is and 2) use that to fuel differentiated brand experiences.