Some marketers were commenting and lamenting that brand loyalty is fading these days, and that it is more and more an uphill climb to build and sustain brands. I concur.
However, there are many reasons why even historically entrenched brands are facing more challenges to sustain their brands, while some previously considered as “underdog” brands are emerging to the surface, attracting and engaging new and old customers alike.
Social media has changed the world, along with its enabling cousin, the Internet.
Before social media and the enabling Internet came along, most of us rely on mainstream media to provide news and information, and historically, we would find little reason to question some of these mainstream media. Journalistic integrity was a discipline that many of us who plied the journalistic field wore proudly, and stood by what we wrote or commented on. And, the roles of the fact checker and the editor were seldom wavering, and often the firewalls of all written pieces before they could even make it into print.
Then the world changed. More and more corporations became beholden to shareholders and the stock market, and as we know now, stock market collapses and corporate death have become more rampant, having slaved for mere numbers and superficial performance in markets, rather than taking time and resources to slowly and steadily build for sustainability like before. Even mainstream media joined the joy ride of the stock market, many of which became public listed entities that ultimately had to account to shareholders. The many facades of success are now more visible and apparent, helped in part by the success of social media which has empowered the public.
From the previous model of a one-way broadcast from the mainstream media and the corporations to the end-customers, to the relational and questioning model of the social media that illuminates and clarifies every single broadcast of media and corporations, end-customers have since wrestled the control back into their hands. Modern customers have become more questioning, more skeptical, more informed, more rational, and more vocal. They are more social and more relational, strengthened by the ease of communicating with another human being, without the need for physical travel, with the mere movement of keyboards and digital bits across the world.
Customers are now connected to many other people around the world, and invariably open up new possibilities for themselves. The world is no longer demarcated by trade barriers or boundaries.
In the world before social media and the general availability of the broadband Internet, local suppliers could easily manipulate product pricing based on geographic conditions. However, with the socially connected world, consumers can now easily research all the available product options online, compare prices, check reliability of suppliers worldwide, make orders online, track orders and shipments, without moving from the chairs at all. This also means that it is harder to enslave consumers to particular brands, especially since consumers can easily find competing brands with equal or better products worldwide, and even the same products from the same brands at better prices elsewhere.
Social media also makes any brand or product failure virally communicated worldwide, catastrophic to those brands which did not attend to such lapses promptly and humanely. And it is happening more often as we find more products out the door to market faster than they have been thoroughly debugged and perfected. It is no longer uncommon to find many customers becoming beta-testers and paying for the products. Every product or brand failure can now spread to not just tens of people in a local context, but like wild fire, spread to hundreds, thousands or even millions around the world. The reparation of brand damage is no longer restricted to a single country or a single city, but may require a global effort sometimes, and yet cater to cultural and local sensitivities.
Brands are also on social media like its customers. However, many brands have thought of social media as yet another one-way broadcast channel or advertising medium. Many brands are still simply using social media to list new products, new product images, technical specifications, product availability and so on. There is no real social engagement on a relational basis. To some of these brands, social media platforms are simply seen as more channels to shout out unilaterally. It is yet more “sell! Sell! Sell!” And the net effect is that customers will become hardened to such unilateral and incessant shouting, and become immune to any and all shout-outs from such brands.
So while the landscape of brands has become more bleak according to those brands who have not kept in pace with its customers and prospects, and engaged them as humanly as possible, there will be those brands that have done the opposite – by engaging customers as sincerely as possible. Some are small companies, and some are large ones. There are emerging ones, and older brands too.
Let me quote an example of an established brand that has seen good days, and bad days, and yet survived through thick and thin, to keep going. It may not be the largest, nor the most profitable, but to me it is an endearing brand that has kept its customers close to its corporate heart, despite its challenges. It is Fujifilm.
It used to be a giant in the photographic film industry, when I would use its Velvia film for my medium-format photography with the Mamiyaflex C220 twin-lens reflex and the Bronica 645 camera. The “pop” from the Velvia film was stunning, especially on larger format film and transparencies.
When the film industry faded, Fujifilm did not fade out, but kept going, by developing towards the digital camera arena. It has not been a giant in the camera industry, but a bit player in the sea of larger camera makers. It went against convention in terms of camera sensors, camera design, image presentation, etc, with its innovative line of X series cameras. I have become a fan of its X cameras, using its X-E2 and the X100S (having owned its previous X100, X10 and X-E1). I also use Panasonic Lumix GH3, Olympus OM-D EM5, etc. But my go-to still camera these days is the X-E2 or the X100S if silence is needed.
But more than that, unlike many of its mainstream large competitors, Fujifilm actually updates the firmware of many of its cameras quite regularly. Through these frequent firmware updates, Fujifilm brings as many features as possible through software, to its older and even outdated cameras, rather than allowing older products to languish and hoping customers would simply buy new products every time. Of course, Fujifilm innovates with newer hardware too, and they win old hearts, and new ones.
Brand building has become exponentially more challenging, and it is more difficult to expect loyalty from customers, against the backdrop of social media and a more informed and inter-connected customer base worldwide. It is back to basics, in terms of engaging customers as we would in the days before, rather than unilaterally sell, sell, and sell.