Brand Strategy in an Omni-Channel World

Right now, “omni-channel strategy” is something of a buzz-word in eCommerce circles. Whether they’re discussing traditional brick-and-mortar businesses expanding their reach online, popular eStores opening a physical location, or evaluating the endless list of shopping portals and social media outlets, most of the conversation has centered on the channels themselves.

I find this sort of exchange quite interesting, but I’m typically the guy in the back of the room that not-so-politely clears his throat and says, “Um, how exactly will this affect your brand?”

Brand development is typically not at the top of a busy executive’s list of to-do’s, but I like to remind them that their brand is all they’ve got. If your brand loses its potency, you’re doomed to engage in price wars with other companies that may even be favored to win.

While it’s comforting to talk at length about omni-channel strategy, it’s important to remember that your customers don’t care about any of that. 99% of them have never used the term omni-channel in their life, and channel distinctions are fairly meaningless to them. No matter where a customer encounters a brand, they tend to see it all as a seamless whole from which they base their feelings. Your customers only care about their needs, certainly not yours, and you have to be enormously empathetic to them.

Wait a second here. Feelings? Empathy? Yeah, I know, this is getting kind of weird and uncomfortable, so let me bring it back down to the bottom-line: Buying is emotional. The less feeling a customer has towards your brand, the less they buy from you.

Now that should make you feel uncomfortable. In order to avoid that outcome, we need to get a little weird. We need to get out of our rigid routines and really evaluate why we're doing what we're doing. If meeting your customer's needs isn't your core inspiration, it's time to recalibrate. After all, you don't ultimately determine the success of your brand—your customer does.

You can’t look at a channel as something to control or exploit, because you can’t control your customers or their emotions. You can only influence them. So your job is clear: leverage your brand’s influence on all your channels to fully connect with your customer.

Let’s look at three ways your brand can accomplish that.

1.) Define What’s Different.

Branding is all about differentiation. Regardless of the channel, how does your brand differentiate itself against the competition? How do you stand out in the hearts of your customers?

There may be a tendency to play it safe with your brand—to appeal to the majority of people so that you can enjoy the largest possible reach. Most often, that dilutes a brand’s ability to emotionally impact its core target market. Not everyone likes soda, but absolutely no one likes watered-down soda. You have to remember that everyone won’t love your brand. My advice is to appeal to those that will.

You have to clearly define what your company stands for. What are you into and what are you not into? These differentiators have to be clearly communicated, or your brand will become so diluted that no one will care about it. Go deeper than stating how much you care about the quality of your products and the extent of your customer care. All of your competitors are saying the exact same thing. What can someone experience with you they can’t experience anywhere else?

2.) Strategize with a Vision.

Customers are able to make or break a brand based on their reactions. This truth requires company leaders to create a strategy that successfully engages customers across a variety of channels. If leaders aren’t in tune with the needs of their customer base, they can create a misguided channel strategy that fails to be relevant.

Leadership is based on vision. People follow those that they perceive to have a vision that ends up benefitting them. If no one is following after a particular brand, it means a lack of vision has resulted in its not being an industry leader. Even brands that land in the coveted pole position need to constantly refine their vision in order to retain and gain more customers.

A vision is naturally best displayed in a visual manner. After you’ve defined your brand and your target customer, the key to creating a terrific and unique experience is in how you aesthetically brand yourself. Prioritizing how your products are displayed, the way the navigation functions on your store, or how your ads are constructed all contribute to positive emotions that result in more sales.

Note that this requires a long-term commitment on you as a leader. There is no such thing as “set it and forget it” when it comes to proper design branding. Remaining true to the core attributes of your brand and envisioning where it’s going will help you choose the correct channel strategy. Just because a channel exists doesn’t mean it’s worth exploring. If a new channel can potentially damage or confuse your brand messaging, it’s better to stay within proven areas of influence.

3.) Be Authentic in Whatever You Do.

“Authenticity is big, and you can’t buy it. You have to earn it!” - Shaheen Sadeghi, former CEO of Quiksilver

If you’ve differentiated your brand and created an omni-channel strategy that’s causing customers to flock to you in droves, your competitors will obviously be paying close attention. How can you protect your brand from being ripped off by jealous copycats? The answer is the ultimate in differentiation: authenticity.

Put simply, no amount of channel involvement can repair the damage caused by customers deeming a brand as counterfeit.

These days, we all look past canned marketing messages to determine whether a company really walks the walk. We’re tired of anything that’s fake. We want to know if the people behind the brand are into the same things we’re into. Does the company, made up of individuals, have a genuine passion for the products they sell? If not, it’s hard for them to convince us to have passion for them in return. That’s when we start eyeing their increasingly attractive and credible competition.

This is why we’re seeing an emergence of company founders and key employees (such as clothing designers and product experts) get out in front of their marketing messages. Customers deem a company as an authority only if they perceive individuals in that company with something authoritative to say. What’s more, they trust the recommendations these authorities make, which can play a huge role in how your merchandising is perceived.

Make no mistake; this is not a marketing-only exercise. Authenticity that reveals a genuine love for your customers and your products must ripple throughout your entire organization. Transparency requires no shortage of bravery, and bravery is required for powerful twenty-first century brands.

Even the most powerful brands need constant nurturing and development in order to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded and complex marketplace. As technology continues to offer more and more channel options to reach consumers, it’s critical to keep true to the core differences that make your brand unique. If you have a genuine desire to positively impact your customers’ lives, it will shine through in a way that greatly impacts your bottom line.

About the Author: Eric Yonge is an eCommerce branding expert based in Atlanta. You can reach him for consultation at www.ericyonge.com and his e-commerce development company is www.eystudios.com.

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