Goosing Sales Through Consumer Engagement

Marketing is filled with commonly used adages, though some of them are clearly half-baked. One that I hear often is, “Consumers are no longer brand loyal.” And while there’s a kernel of truth to that maxim, you could get burned if you simply accepted it on face value. True, most of us will not carry a flame for one store, product or experience from cradle to grave, but that doesn’t mean we can’t form affinities for certain items or shops. So even as marketers bemoan consumers’ fickle tastes, they spend millions of dollars a year trying to cook up ways to stoke our devotion, knowing that with the right ingredients of product, message and follow-through, we are likely to bite.

For this reason, for instance, soft drink companies have fought to keep soda machines in schools. It’s less about capturing the revenue from today’s middle-schoolers and more about planting a seed in these future consumers. They know once you proclaim yourself a Coke or Pepsi person that allegiance rarely flags. Of course getting kids hooked on sugary drinks is child’s play. Getting shoppers to consistently choose your swaddle blanket or pass up countless shops on the way to your boutique is a harder nut to crack. For that, the recipe entails a stellar product and what’s often referred to as brand engagement.

Adding Some Sizzle

Just like in the romantic sense, engagement results from commitment, involvement and an emotional connection. With these attributes as a measuring tool, it’s no wonder that we’re less brand loyal today than in the past. Think about your last trip to a superstore. Once you stepped inside those doors, you could have been in any office supply or electronics store in any city in any state in the country because they all dish up the same products and experience. Plus, you’re left to wander the aisles alone — and sometimes, even checkout is automated. Forget emotional connection, cursory encounters aren’t even on the menu. So, why not price shop and jump around from store to store? What do you have to gain by being loyal?

To quote another sales-y axiom, “It’s the sizzle on the steak that makes the sale.” This means your product is the substance, but it’s that extra bit of spice — whether it’s a compelling story, unique positioning or appealing persona — that whets the appetite. Too often today, brand managers and store owners fail to try to make a connection. They offer a decent product at a reasonable price and feel that that’s good enough. But merely offering things — even good quality things — doesn’t cut it. Shoppers can get “things” anywhere. And they will unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. The first step in engagement is giving customers a sense that they know who you are and what you’re about.

Spicing Up Your Persona

Which leads to another bit of marketing wisdom: “Shoppers vote with their feet.” It means our purchases reflect our values. Think of the mass retailers or fast food chains that ended up on the chopping block after reports surfaced about the political candidates and groups the companies support. It happens on the plus side too. In general, we like companies that are philanthropic or protect American jobs, and we’re willing to make our buying decisions based on this information.

But in order for shoppers to form these allegiances, your company or product has to first stand for something — whether it’s preserving the joy of childhood or supporting families through those first fraught days with their new baby. Yes, you make diaper bags or cater to the infant and toddler gift market, but so do many others. You have to add a little flavor to the mix to become more appealing.

Heating Up Interactions

Engagement is also a result of involvement with your brand. Whoever first said “absence makes the heart grow fonder” certainly wasn’t in retail. While you don’t want to badger your customers, you do want to remain top of mind by solving their problems, entertaining them and piquing their interests. If your target customer only thinks of your goods or shop when they need something, ultimately your company will be toast. It’s up to you to create opportunities for them to interact with your product or linger in your store.

For instance, recently a friend of mine has become a fan of a children’s brand from the UK called Waddler. And Waddler had a contest on it’s site that challenged fans to created the longest narrative possible using only words that started with the letter w. Naturally my friend roped me in on her efforts. While it sounds like just a fun little exercise, it was actually a smart marketing ploy. While writing my little story, I combed through the Waddler site, hoping to learn tidbits about the company that I could sprinkle into my entry. Sadly, I wasn’t a winner. But Waddler was. For a few days, the company had customers (and in my case, potential customers) thinking about its collection and interacting with its site. We were steeped in the Waddler world.

Bergdorf Goodman is a great example of a store that engages consumers. Through weekly Twitter makeup and hair styling tutorials, the Bergdorfs social media maven tweets step-by-step instructions and pictures on how to achieve the look of the moment. It could be smoky eye makeup or fishtail ponytails but whatever it is, she uses products from the store to help her accomplish these goals. At no point does she explicitly say, “Buy product X,” but by simply positioning herself and other store employees as experts (and models), she’s created a following of loyal fans that now have an affinity for the Bergdorfs makeup floor. By being consistently interesting, entertaining and solution-oriented, Bergdorfs engages customers in its beauty offerings in a way that a mere list of brands and product images on its ecommerce site never could.

Similarly, in-store events foster engagement better than repeated quick shopping trips to your boutique ever could. More important than an individual purchase, these events build relationships between your staff and your consumers. Suddenly your store is no longer just a place to shop for stylish winter coats but, for instance, through regular story times, it’s also a refuge for moms who would otherwise be cooped up at home with the kids on a rainy day. Further, events like this help to establish a sense of community where people want to come back not just to see what’s for sale but also to find out what’s cooking. By serving up engaging products and experiences, you’ll ensure your customers will want to come back for seconds.

About Caletha Crawford

Caletha Crawford is a children’s apparel consultant who has spent more than eight years covering the industry, most recently as editor in chief of Earnshaw’s magazine. Caletha has a unique perspective on the concepts, designs and companies that resonate with retailers and consumers. Her services include public relations, marketing, branding and social networking. In an effort to usher in the next generation of design talent, she also teaches and produces special events at Parsons The New School for Design.

Introducing Online Children’s Wear Orientation Seminar
To answer a need in the industry, Caletha recently teamed up with two other children’s wear veterans to develop an online orientation seminar to help aspiring and novice entrepreneurs get up to speed on the design, sales, production, marketing, PR and back office aspects unique to the children’s wear market.

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