Five Game-Changing Insights for Lasting Customer Connections


Great customer experiences are key for business success—all marketers will agree. But many firms are still struggling to get it right. During the 64th Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity I sat down with eight marketing, creative, and media leaders as part of an Adobe Think Tank to get their take on customer experience. Specifically, I wanted to hear these leaders’ views on how to build a brand’s emotional intelligence, if/how brands should engage in social and cultural issues, and how these leaders actually deliver great customer experiences in their own organizations.

There was wide panel consensus that brand experiences must be meaningful to customers and consistent with the brand promise (or purpose). But how do marketers strike that balance? It isn’t easy. Our discussion uncovered five insights to help marketers find that emotional sweet spot with customers.

1. Stay true—and act before you speak.

Customers love brands that stand for something that is relevant to them. For products that are important to them, customers are careful about attaching to brands that don’t match their personal beliefs. This can be tricky for companies, especially for those that have been around for decades. Why? Communicating a broader brand purpose wasn’t perhaps always as critical as it is today. And as companies have evolved, their purpose may have become fuzzy.

How do these “legacy” companies keep up with what customers identify with now? The temptation to simply message to what (marketers think) customers want to hear —without being true to what the brand actually delivers. That’s not a viable route to success. Pepsi, for example, had to pull its recent high profile TV ad when customers found it hard to see the link between joining a political movement and a fizzy soft drink. I’m certain the Pepsi marketers were well-intentioned and purposeful—but the case shows how sensitive customers are.

For the book “The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader” Patrick Barwise and I could prove that marketing leadership success is all about increasing the overlap of customer needs and company needs (we call this space the “Value Creation Zone”, or “V-Zone” for short). The balance matters. It’s good advice for brands to remain committed to their authentic brand promise, even as products and services evolve.

Start at home. If your brand promise, for example, is to bring people together with your soft drinks, your fleet of airplanes, or your mobile phone contracts—make sure you bring people together at home too. Start with your own staff, your suppliers, your communities. Let your actions speak louder than your advertising. Once you get this right at home, talk about it.

2. Purpose-minded marketing can ignite emotional connections.

Unless they work for a charity, marketers get paid to help their companies sell more things to more people—at a profit. Whenever we talk about purpose and mission, I suggest we don’t forget this principle (even if that may sound uncool at your next dinner party). However, many executives today are increasingly concerned with their brand’s impact beyond their product. The best marketers want to be part of a brand that makes a positive impact, in line with its promise. That’s great—and not at all a contradiction!

Boost Mobile, for example, primarily markets to lower-income households. Some of its mission-minded marketers realized their target demographic was underserved for polling locations. Seeing the need, Boost offered up the mobile provider’s retail locations as polling places on Election Day, helping its customers have access to voting facilities.

Purpose-minded marketing efforts like these can be the perfect win-wins. They connect the company with its customers at a deeper level, and they support the business in the market it serves. That’s the power of mission-minded marketing.

3. Customer data will put a halo on your best interactions.

Meeting every expectation of every customer can be overwhelming—and impossible. Your brand can’t be everything to everyone. Pick your battles and fight for your best or most passionate customers; don’t worry too much about “everybody” at first. Rather than trying to perfect every moment of every customer interaction, use data to figure out the critical and relevant interactions, and then make those perfect. Reach out to your customers. Get feedback from them directly on what works—then, do more of that. The rest of the experience will glow under the light of that halo.

Software can be of great help too. Today’s campaign management systems give you unprecedented insights into what customers like. Don’t use these tools to simply fire more messages at customers. Use them to dig deep into your customers’ needs.

One side note: measure also how important emotional connections are for your brand. I once marketed kitchen towels where, with the best marketing in the world, customers couldn’t care less about my aim to “connect.” The truth is in the data.

The customer data message is no news to any 21st century marketer—everyone who participated in the Adobe Think Tank agreed. But are you really doing it? What are your three most important interactions in the customer journey, and how is your company performing against those?

4. Relax: customer experience-success is a moving target for us all.

When you are trying to make emotional connections, remember that you are aiming at a moving target. You will miss. Don’t quit there. Find out what worked and what didn’t, refine the approach, and try again. Success in marketing often looks like this: test, fail, test, fail, test, succeed…

Markets are constantly changing, and you need to adapt with them. Be prepared to let go of last year’s great idea if it stops working. Agile is an overused word these days—but it describes well how your organization must behave.

5. Get out of your office!

Many enterprises have big-data analytics to measure and track the emotional appeal of brands and customer experiences, But that’s only half of the equation. Data can never replace talking to customers directly. Don’t just look at the data, live it.

Leave your office and engage in actual conversations with customers. Marketers should spend more time talking TO customers than ABOUT them. You can’t fake empathy. You have to put in the time to gain a real understanding. Find out what it’s like to be your own customer; then leverage your first-hand experience. If you believe you have no time for meeting customers, read this article on how you can make the time.

Ideally customers can trust you to deliver a consistent and relevant experience and you can trust them to keep coming back—that’s what I call a real connection. The condition: understand your customers first before build an emotional connection with them. That may not be a news flash, but it’s an exclamation point! Dashboards and metrics have an important place in keeping you on track. But it all starts with a simple task: get out there and connect with customers one-on-one.

But don’t take my word for it. Watch the recording of the live discussion and discover your own perspective on the future of experiences. #AdobeTT

Thomas Barta

Thomas Barta is the world’s premier expert, speaker, and author on marketing leadership. He is a former McKinsey partner and speaks to global Fortune 500 leaders about marketing from a CEO’s perspective. As a professional keynote speaker and conference host, Thomas presents at over 30 annual events for companies, industry associations, and conferences. His latest research is the world’s largest study on what makes an influential CMO, and he is the co-author of the book “The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader.” Thomas is also a former senior marketer and organizational psychologist, and he has trained hundreds of McKinsey leaders on effecting change.

Thomas Barta