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Customer-Centric Marketing and Digital Intimacy

Sep 12, 2022
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As technology advances in a mobile-first environment, customers have access to a seemingly unending supply of products, services, information and ads. End-users on any channel encounter constant marketing efforts that may or may not be relevant for them.

Given these realities, it’s difficult to catch and keep customers’ attention, and people are opting out in droves. As of 2021, 42.7% of internet users worldwide (16-64 years old) use ad blocking tools at least once a month, and 27% of American internet users block ads.1 Brand loyalty is dropping as marketing costs rise.2

To keep customers’ attention, business and brand loyalty, savvy marketers know to use customer-centric marketing. Keep reading to explore what that is, the benefits of using it, and what this essential approach looks like in practice.

What is customer-centric marketing?

At its core, customer-centric marketing is the use of relevant, targeted marketing outreach that puts the customer first. Rather than using a channel-based strategy that asks, ‘How can I use this channel to reach my target audience?’ the customer-centric marketer asks, ‘What does my audience want to see and where do they want to see it?’

In the words of Medill’s late Professor Emeritus Don Schultz, “This approach, starting with customers and prospects and working back toward the marketing and advertising organization to see how the products being offered might fit into customers’ lives, will necessitate a new approach to advertising planning … Advertisers now must listen to and respond to customers’ needs and wants, as well as try to initiate product interest and advocacy.”3

The priorities of customer-centric marketing

Customer-centric marketing prioritizes customers' needs and interests in all decisions related to advertising, selling, and promoting products and services. It defines marketing success in terms of positive changes in consumer behavior. As Schultz put it, “Customers became full partners in the marketing system, not just target audiences.”3

The goal isn't solely business growth; it's growth driven by demonstrating how your product or service will improve some aspect of customers’ professional or personal lives. It depends on a deep understanding of why customers need what a company provides. This requires an analytical approach that uses media data, identity data and conversion data to build a detailed, fact-based understanding of the consumer.

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Digital intimacy as a key benefit of customer-centric marketing

Fortunately for marketing professionals, customers want to be known and understood. Errol Gardner, EY’s Global Vice Chair of Consulting, wrote in 2020 of three dominant customer expectations:

Customers have come to expect that every interaction a company has with them will be personalized. [They] want companies to know who they are, what they want and how they want it.

Customers expect that because they have a relationship with a company—[because] they’ve demonstrated their preferences and purchasing behavior—the company should be able to anticipate product or service opportunities that may be of benefit and offer them before [the customers] even know that they want them.

Customers today live in a smart environment—smart thermostats, smart televisions, smart refrigerators. They expect companies to have the same sensitivity to their environment and adapt based on the specifics of that environment. They want companies to know where they are and how they want to engage.”4

This thorough, personalized knowledge of consumers’ priorities, made possible by technology, is known as digital intimacy. In writing for LinkedIn, Cloud 9 Online’s Chief Operating Officer, Henry Edinger, drew parallels between personal intimacy and digital intimacy, noting that both require trust, authenticity, reliability and access:

“Trust is, in essence, your brand … how you present yourself in the marketplace when you tell the world who you are, how you do business, and how you will be there for them when they need you.

Authenticity is about how every interaction is brought to life in the company, from the person [who] programs the digital experience to the person who answers the phone when a customer calls for support. Being authentic goes beyond doing the task and checking the box; it is about how you leave a customer feeling during and after the interaction.”5

Medill Associate Professor Ashlee Humphreys expanded on this idea in The Routledge Companion to Strategic Marketing, saying, “Customers provide not only obvious financial support but also recommendations that promote word-of-mouth, cultural recognition, and social approval that provides legitimacy. Consumers can be advocates, product developers, and a valuable sounding board, not merely buyers.”6

Edinger went on to say that, “Reliability, in the corporate world, feels like table stakes. We go to great lengths to have systems and processes in place so everyone works from the same playbook on how to get the job done consistently. Customers want to know what to expect, and count on us to deliver every time.

Access to you can ultimately make or break the relationship with your customer. Even if you get trust, authenticity and reliability right, not being reachable when your customer needs you most will leave a mark. [Customers want] to reach you when they want, where they want and how they want … we need not only to enable but to invite customers to access us any way they wish. Nowadays, texting is king. It's fast. It's concise. It's super-efficient. And to boot, it saves money.”5

Edinger’s article explains that digital intimacy provides, “a deeper level to customer-centricity. We can create intimacy and loyalty in our relationships with customers … Digital intimacy requires us to invite the customer to the table when we are designing experiences and communications, and [to decide] to use digital tools to deepen our connection with our customers.”5

Challenges and rewards of customer-centric marketing

According to Forbes Senior Contributor Blake Morgan, customer-centricity is a major commitment. “Being customer-centric is about more than just offering a good product or staffing a contact center,” he said. “It becomes a cultural way of life for the company and impacts everything from employee engagement to customer experience. Customer-centric companies live and breathe their customers and are laser-focused on providing amazing experiences. They are innovative and do good in the world.”7

Gardner articulated a three-part need for companies to meet:4

  • To demonstrate empathy and create meaningful connection by putting humans at the center
  • To deploy technology at speed to gain understanding and insight into their customers and deliver new experiences in the time and manner customers expect
  • To innovate at scale by developing, deploying and delivering environmentally sensitive products and services

In accepting this challenge, what do companies get for their efforts? According to Gardner, “Those that can deliver on all three of these foundational drivers will be able to seize the opportunity to leapfrog competitors in hyper-personalization, prediction and adaptability.”4

Morgan seemed to agree. “Brands that have superior customer experience bring in 5.7 times more revenue than their competitors. Companies that invest in customer experience see financial gains and strong customer-focused cultures.”6

Examples of customer-centric marketing

So customer-centric marketing is important and profitable. But what does it look like in action?

Morgan’s article in Forbes gives examples of best practices from 100 top customer-centric companies that received customer service awards, topped customer satisfaction surveys and are considered great places to work. Representing retail, finance, healthcare, hospitality and agriculture, among other fields, his top 100 include these:7

Trader Joe’s
With the second-highest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) score, Trader Joe’s excels with quick response times and employees who will do anything—even opening products to give samples—to make customers happy.

Using technology, the beauty brand creates a seamless, personalized customer experience with a comprehensive app, virtual try-on of makeup products and a strong online community.

Huntington National Bank
Huntington spent two years listening to customers to create its digital banking hub that helps customers manage their money and set financial goals.

Recognized for being on the cutting edge of technology, Discover combines artificial intelligence (AI) with strong human interaction to predict when customers will need financial help.

UCB empowers Parkinson’s disease patients with an AI-powered app to give them someone to talk to 24/7 while also monitoring their progress.

Solv finds high-quality doctors available for same-day appointments and make those appointments available on a number of channels for easy customer access.

The ride-sharing company stays on top of data to revise its routes continually, using quicker and safer ones, while also remembering customers’ preferences for an easier experience.

Transparent processes allow insurance customers to see how their claims are generated. Unpaid claims are donated to the charity of the customer’s choice.

Good Eggs
This food-delivery service only uses food from local and sustainable farmers and prioritizes keeping the land, animals and customers happy.

Freight Farm
The innovation of creating farms in freight containers helps bring fresh produce to many people, especially in crowded urban areas.

Succeed by putting the customer at the center of your strategy.

Dive into the IMC way of thinking in Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communications Professional program. Learn customer-centric marketing from a faculty of innovators and successful marketing executives, in immersive courses and a hybrid format that fits with your full-time commitments. To learn more about our curriculum and application process, schedule an appointment with one of our Admissions Advisors today.

  1. Retrieved on August 23, 2022, from backlinko.com/ad-blockers-users
  2. Retrieved on August 23, 2022, from marketingevolution.com/knowledge-center/customer-centric-marketing-strategy
  3. Ruth E. Brown, Valerie K. Jones, and Ming Wang, Ed., The New Advertising: Branding, Content, and Consumer Relationships in the Data-Drive Social Media Era, (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016).
  4. Retrieved on August 23, 2022, from ey.com/en_us/consulting/how-do-you-create-customer-intimacy-without-proximity
  5. Retrieved on August 23, 2022, from linkedin.com/pulse/creating-digital-intimacy-your-customer-henry-edinger/
  6. Bodo B. Schlegelmilch, Russell S. Winer, ed., The Routledge Companion to Strategic Marketing, (Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK, 2020).
  7. Retrieved on August 23, 2022, from forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2019/06/30/100-of-the-most-customer-centric-companies/?sh=6e2e03a963c3