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Fair Exchange: Shifting of consumer benefits erodes brands

by Erna George (@edgeo23) Changing the rules of engagement for any relationship is not easy — let alone a brand-Consumer relationship. While I can certainly see how it can be necessary, how it leaves consumers feeling is critically important. Even if the why is understood, unless there is a Benefit to the consumer, a change is difficult to swallow. Finding a way to select the way to change the benefit and how to communicate it is a marketer’s challenge especially, when the benefit feels more company- than consumer-focused.

For example, a friend was waiting for an Uber late one Sunday evening which, on request, was three minutes away. Almost 20 minutes later, it still was not there and was heading in the opposite direction. Wary of Uber’s new rules, he waited another 10 minutes before cancelling and requesting another. As he was paying cash, it could not charge ahead of time but a cancellation fee of R25 was added to his bill for the next one. Frustration and disappointment. Now, to get a refund was relatively simple but still required effort at 10pm on a Sunday evening.

Consumer vs marketer

When the changes are ‘forced’ on me, as a consumer I get irate but, as a marketer, I may sometimes relate. These changes happen and may be required by changing market circumstances: costs increase, raw materials become difficult to obtain, consumer-demand or -usage of a benefit exceeds plans or the tough economic circumstances require cost decreases. Consumers may say it is not their problem but a negative impact on profitability will limit the ability of the brand to continue and, ultimately, the benefit or convenience they enjoyed will be lost.

I could spend a considerable time going through all the reasons to justify brand actions but the rationale is often not the point. The wrong move may mean the demise of the brand, especially if competitors are able to counteract.

Seldom do brand teams get to spend significant investment on explaining why. PR may help but the most effective would be to find the shorthand that conveys a benefit of the change to the consumer. Just how could Cadbury have conveyed that a move to a 90g and subsequently 80g bar was great for consumers? How does FNB deal with the continued reduction in benefits of its eBucks programme, especially loss of airport lounge entries? At this point, I have to take a step back and seriously consider if every change I’ve made in my career has been with purely the consumer at its heart — not easy.

Catch 22

Thinking of Mondelēz’s situation with Cadbury, the consumer was probably right at the heart of its decision, given that, in today’s economy, maintaining affordability is probably as important to the consumers and the business. This was a Catch-22 situation: simply increase price, and retailers and consumers would complain; reduce the slab size and consumers are unhappy. Difficult to win and difficult to communicate.

Colleagues and friends not in marketing often say that “we marketers” can make anything seem okay. I would hazard that this is less true today as savvy consumers are more questioning than ever before. With social media, public participation and, if managed poorly, public anger regarding these issues is guaranteed, simply putting lipstick on this type of gorilla will not suffice.

To be honest, I don’t have clever advice on this situation. As I think back on similar situations I’ve been in, I also struggle to sit in judgement of others. But I can tell you what I’ve learnt over the years:

  1. If there is a choice on where to cut or what to change, spend sufficient time and effort to understand where best to reduce benefits. Doing this in the least-important benefit area, feature or experience is likely to minimise the negative impact.
  2. To do the above, one needs to understand the decision hierarchy for the category and brand distinctive assets really well, plus the trade-offs people make. Consider checking with consumers (research) to see if you can turn lemons into lemonade and pinpoint the area of least impact while achieving the required business benefit. Thinking on Uber, asking for payment upfront reduces the value of paying for exactly what is received ie if traffic is light, cost could be reduced. Convenience is reduced if, as with my mate’s experience, the driver doesn’t deliver and clients need to extend their wait or go to the trouble of getting a refund, no matter how quick the credit process. The one thing I do know is that, if my consumer doesn’t love it, it doesn’t matter what I do — it is unlikely to take off.
  3. The communication plan and tone are key. Find a way to communicate the benefit of the change or to compensate for the change. Maybe identify a way to up-weight another benefit area to help offset the ‘loss’. Consumers don’t want to be told they must simply accept things or be told that they cannot afford something, so tread carefully

Little perceived empathy

The only point I may criticise is on repeating a shift with little perceived empathy for the consumer. As a rewards programme, eBucks is not a must-have; it is a tool for retention and a sweetener for acquisition. This non-core product has redefined benefits several times (reduced at least twice that I know of) and communicated it quite practically. Consumers have gone to great lengths, such as altering bank accounts, to get back to their same level of benefits, while others had shifted to the brand based on a set of promises that no longer apply. Loyal and new consumers might be reviewing participation and, if left with a feeling of being cheated, the concern is that this impacts their feeling towards the total brand offer.

While I understand the costs involved and the T&Cs around being able to change the offer, repeatedly reducing the benefits consumer deem valuable will erode the perception of the brand. The cost of this? Significant!

  1. Don’t be reactive — consider the best changes to make, based on consumer needs
  2. Be ready to be honest and have a PR plan ready to go to cover each touchpoint, as the feedback will be across social media and traditional media. (Maybe have a backup plan for resourcing on social media interface.)
  3. Beware of the ongoing erosion of benefits — not only could the buildup of frustration cause an explosion but, over time, your original offer (and benchmark) vanishes.

Benefits are currency

This is a tough area and will continue to be a reality. At least at a point in a brand’s lifetime, a change is likely, and keeping the consumer needs at the heart is vital. Benefits are currency — a practical business response about an issue people are emotionally invested in won’t cut it.

After starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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Fair Exchange: Shifting of consumer benefits erodes brands

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