Getting beyond customer loyalty. Customer apostles.

Marketers love loyal customers.
They are the customers that return to the brand without further considerations or market research. They are repeat customers and may develop a deeper relationship with brand associates which will keep them loyal.

I was thinking about brand loyalists in the context of social media sharing last week because of how easy it is now to share information digitally with our connections. Similar to my thoughts on how the news media has been transformed by social media, the same concept also applies to all businesses.

The idea is that the customer becomes a brand advocate to the extent that they also become a brand marketer. Before the internet, the reach of the customer was their immediate group of friends and family.  It was limited. With the internet and tools like Twitter, Facebook, Stumbled upon, Google+, etc. consumers now have a reach that extends to hundreds or thousands of individuals.

But there’s a class of customers more powerful than loyalists.
I looked at my MBA class notes on customer types and found the term “brand apostle”.  A brand apostle is the upper sub-segment of brand loyalists.  The apostles bring other people to the business and refer to the brand in whatever communication tools they use.  It’s the brand apostles that are messengers and advocates of the brand.

For the brand apostle, the connection to the brand is something that becomes second nature. Today a prime example are the brand apostles for  Apple.  I work with a few of them. They constantly talk about how great their devices are and how they believe they are superior and worth the price premium over a PC. (The mind tricks don’t work on me. I use Linux). Another good example was the Saturn the automobile brand from GM.  Do you remember the community of customers they built? They held events for the customers to attend and everyone drove their Saturn to it.

Marketing has always been about connections. Historically it’s the connection between the brand the customer. But today’s marketing is as much about shared messages as connections. It’s about getting customers and prospects to act as the marketing advocates for immediate and broad reach.  It no longer take a Superbowl ad to get a Superbowl reach.

Ideas to make brand apostles:

  • Open-up customer reviews for your products and services in the online catalog. What better place is there for prospective customers to be influenced for a purchase decision than when they are looking at the product in your catalog? This isn’t a new technology or merchandising technique, and many retailers already do it. It’s just an easy place and context relevant for brand apostles to leave their mark.
  • Educate your employees. A great product is only half the equation in getting repeat customers. The experience with the employees is the other half. When employees understand this and their stake in creating brand apostles they’ll feel more involved and likely to contribute. I realize employee interaction with customers and employee attitudes are much more complex than this. But the point is the employee needs to be a brand apostle to grow other apostles.
  • Do something the customer isn’t expecting. As I write this post I’m sitting at my local car maintenance shop Christian Brother Automotive. It’s a franchised business, but I’ve been bringing my vehicle here for years because I value the service and straight-talk about the maintenance needed. I remember my first visit when they told me that they do not charge for inspection of the vehicle. They only charge for worked performed. Coming from the dealership model where I was use to paying $70 for “inspections” this was a pleasant surprise.  In subsequent trips they’ve found burned out bulbs and just changed them for me. It’s little things like this that have made me an apostle for their local business.

If you have stories or ideas about brand apostles I’d love to hear from you.

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