Brands, consumers just aren't that into you – but here's how to change that

Loyal customers are the backbone of brand success. Advertising that keeps this core constituency devoted will drive sales and growth. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. As media buying has grown in sophistication, heavy users are now in the bullseye of brands’ targeting. The assumption is these buyers will deliver the greatest ROI.

In most cases, the opposite is true: the more successfully your media targets current users, the more likely your brand is to experience devastating losses. And you will lose on three fronts: advertising ROI, share of market, and long term brand health.

In his book How Brands Grow, Dr Byron Sharp uses solid data research to make the case against targeting a brand’s loyal users. He concludes that a brand nearly always has far more to gain by winning over consumers from the large group of light/non-users than by trying to convince heavier users to buy more.

There’s more at work than just the limited capacity of those who already buy a lot from your brand to buy even more.

Confirmation bias – the phenomenon whereby humans are much more likely to notice things that support what we believe to be true – is a well-known concept. It extends to advertising, as years of studies by Communicus show: existing customers are far more likely to engage with your ads than are non-customers. Specifically, a brand’s customers are 60 percent more likely to notice ads for ‘their’ brand than are non-customers.

This happens without any special effort on the brand’s part.

Further, advertising has less capacity to be persuasive among such customers. They already know what they think of the brand, and their day-to-day experiences with it outweigh anything you might tell them in advertising.

Perhaps marketers waste so much money, time, and effort on targeting heavy users because persuading non-users seems so difficult.

They are right to be daunted.

Because just as existing customers are far more likely to notice your ads, non-customers usually won’t. Unless a person regards your brand as affirmative of their perception of the world – and themselves – you’re unlikely to be on their radar at all.

To be very blunt, non-users aren’t interested in what you have to say. Their confirmation biases are constantly screening you out. Your brand is just another thing that doesn’t interest them.

Worse, most brands develop ads that wouldn’t resonate with non-users even if they did notice them.

It’s not that brand strategists are trying to be irrelevant to non-users. Typically, strategy development research identifies characteristics that are important to buyers in the category – usually aspects on which your brand rates high among users. “Let’s tell non-users how good we are at [X], and they’ll become users!”

Unfortunately for brands, non-users will not be persuaded with advertising that parrots what your existing users believe about you. These non-users already know who’s best at [X], and it’s the brand they already buy. They’re not looking – consciously or otherwise – for a replacement.

No wonder marketers avoid this group: once you’ve bought into the idea that you need to reach non-users, broadened your media buy to include them, and developed ads to engage them, they probably still won’t notice you.

Pursuing growth through non-users is a heavy lift. But unlike trying to extract significant gains from a segment you’ve already exhausted, the returns make it worthwhile. And it’s not impossible to foster feelings of affection for – or at least interest in – your brand.

First, remember there’s no inherent reward for anyone in paying attention to an ad for a brand they don’t already use. Unlike your current users, non-users won’t feel smart or part of some imaginary in-crowd because they watched your ad. Which means you must provide some other pay-off for doing so. More than with any other consumer segment, non-users must be drawn in with the potential enjoyment of the ad experience.

Yes, entertainment is the obvious route to this, but entertainment will only get you a fraction of the way to success. Many brands perform the service of entertaining a consumer and emerge with absolutely nothing to show for it. That’s because entertaining ads often amuse or otherwise satisfy the viewer, but give them no idea which brand provided the experience.

Think of those epic Super Bowl ads people talk about the next day. Very rarely will they recall which brands were being advertised. Think of all those cinematic car commercials that pull you in…but could be for any auto brand on the market.

Entertaining people only drives results if you’ve managed to connect the creative to what your brand stands for. So all advertising must establish the brand in consumers’ conscious and subconscious thinking. Which means any engagement must be anchored on distinctive brand assets woven into creative inextricably linked to your brand.

For example, you can’t hum the familiar “Nationwide is on your side” jingle and wonder if it’s about Allstate. By building marketing around this distinctive brand asset, Nationwide embedded itself in consumers’ minds as a reliable company that will have their backs. The line, and the associated melody, is sticky. And Nationwide has managed to make it the centerpiece of highly engaging, human, likeable advertising – for insurance, of all things.

Scaling the non-user’s wall of indifference isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort: If marketers can come up a way of making it worthwhile for them to

pay attention to their brand, the potential growth will significantly exceed that which heavy users could have produced.

But first marketers need to accept that the conventional wisdom about the importance of loyal consumers isn’t quite accurate. Once they do that, all things are possible for ROI, market share, and long term brand health.

Jeri Smith is chief executive of Communicus

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