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Aligning marketing with the consumer decision journey

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How consumers make decisions

Others are passive loyalists who, whether from laziness or confusion caused by the dizzying array of choices, stay with a brand without being committed to it. Despite their claims of allegiance, passive consumers are open to messages from competitors who give them a reason to switch. Take the automotive-insurance industry, in which most companies have a large base of seemingly loyal customers who renew every year. Our research found as much as a sixfold difference in the ratio of active to passive loyalists among major brands, so companies have opportunities to interrupt the loyalty loop.

The US insurers GEICO and Progressive are doing just that, snaring the passively loyal customers of other companies by making comparison shopping and switching easy. They are giving consumers reasons to leave, not excuses to stay. All marketers should make expanding the base of active loyalists a priority, and to do so they must focus their spending on the new touch points.

That will require entirely new marketing efforts, not just investments in Internet sites and efforts to drive word-of-mouth or a renewed commitment to customer satisfaction. Developing a deep knowledge of how consumers make decisions is the first step.

For most marketers, the difficult part is focusing strategies and spending on the most influential touch points. Other marketers may need to retool their loyalty programs by focusing on active rather than passive loyalists or to spend money on in-store activities or word-of-mouth programs.

The increasing complexity of the consumer decision journey will force virtually all companies to adopt new ways of measuring consumer attitudes, brand performance, and the effectiveness of marketing expenditures across the whole process. Without such a realignment of spending, marketers face two risks.

First, they could waste money: Second, marketers could seem out of touch—for instance, by trying to push products on customers rather than providing them with the information, support, and experience they want to reach decisions themselves.

Four kinds of activities can help marketers address the new realities of the consumer decision journey. In the past, most marketers consciously chose to focus on either end of the marketing funnel—building awareness or generating loyalty among current customers. Our research reveals a need to be much more specific about the touch points used to influence consumers as they move through initial consideration to active evaluation to closure.

In the skin care industry, for example, we found that some brands are much stronger in the initial-consideration phase than in active evaluation or closure. For them, our research suggests a need to shift focus from overall brand positioning—already powerful enough to ensure that they get considered—to efforts that make consumers act or to investments in packaging and in-store activities targeted at the moment of purchase.

For some companies, new messaging is required to win in whatever part of the consumer journey offers the greatest revenue opportunity.

A general message cutting across all stages may have to be replaced by one addressing weaknesses at a specific point, such as initial consideration or active evaluation. Take the automotive industry. A number of brands in it could grow if consumers took them into consideration. Hyundai, the South Korean car manufacturer, tackled precisely this problem by adopting a marketing campaign built around protecting consumers financially by allowing them to return their vehicles if they lose their jobs.

This provocative message, tied to something very real for Americans, became a major factor in helping Hyundai break into the initial-consideration set of many new consumers. To look beyond funnel-inspired push marketing, companies must invest in vehicles that let marketers interact with consumers as they learn about brands. The epicenter of consumer-driven marketing is the Internet, crucial during the active-evaluation phase as consumers seek information, reviews, and recommendations.

Strong performance at this point in the decision journey requires a mind-set shift from buying media to developing properties that attract consumers: Broadband connectivity, for example, lets marketers provide rich applications to consumers learning about products.

Simple, dynamic tools that help consumers decide which products make sense for them are now essential elements of an online arsenal. Finally, content-management systems and online targeting engines let marketers create hundreds of variations on an advertisement, taking into account the context where it appears, the past behavior of viewers, and a real-time inventory of what an organization needs to promote. For instance, many airlines manage and relentlessly optimize thousands of combinations of offers, prices, creative content, and formats to ensure that potential travelers see the most relevant opportunities.

Digital marketing has long promised this kind of targeting. Now we finally have the tools to make it more accurate and to manage it cost effectively. Consumers want to look at a product in action and are highly influenced by the visual dimension: Such elements have now become essential selling tools because consumers of these products are still in play when they enter a store.

Sometimes it takes a combination of approaches—great packaging, a favorable shelf position, forceful fixtures, informative signage—to attract consumers who enter a store with a strong attachment to their initial-consideration set.

Our research shows that in-store touch points provide a significant opportunity for other brands. In many companies, different parts of the organization undertake specific customer-facing activities—including informational Web sites, PR, and loyalty programs. These activities must be integrated and given appropriate leadership. The necessary changes are profound. A comprehensive view of all customer-facing activities is as important for business unit heads as for CEOs and chief marketing officers.

But the full scope of the consumer decision journey goes beyond the traditional role of CMOs, who in many companies focus on brand building, advertisements, and perhaps market research. Consider the range of skills needed to manage the customer experience in the automotive-insurance industry, in which some companies have many passive loyalists who can be pried away by rivals. Increasing the percentage of active loyalists requires not only integrating customer-facing activities into the marketing organization but also more subtle forms of organizational cooperation.

These include identifying active loyalists through customer research, as well as understanding what drives that loyalty and how to harness it with word-of-mouth programs. Marketers have long been aware of profound changes in the way consumers research and buy products.

Yet a failure to change the focus of marketing to match that evolution has undermined the core goal of reaching customers at the moments that most influence their purchases. The shift in consumer decision making means that marketers need to adjust their spending and to view the change not as a loss of power over consumers but as an opportunity to be in the right place at the right time, giving them the information and support they need to make the right decisions.

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