Focus on signals not communications

The new battleground for messaging isn’t your message to your customers, but instead the message your customers choose to share with each other. This message is influenced more by the meaning carried by your signals than the message carried by your communications.

 
What your brand means to people tends to be carried more by the signals you present rather than the messages you communicate.
 

For years brand professionals have focused on communications. Specifically, creating cut-through, stand-out messages for brands. However, what your brand means to people tends to be carried more by the signals you present rather than the messages you communicate.

Two years ago I was conducting an interview for a client project. The person I was talking to worked for one of the major US retail banks. We were discussing their approach to consumer insights and research when they said the following:

Right now, everyone hates their bank. And they hate us all pretty much equally. If you look at the research, nothing is cutting through. It’s just so frustrating. We’re all being put in the same box. If we can just find the right message to cut through and move that needle, it’ll be huge.

At the same time we were having this discussion, this persons employer was being hammered in the news for their proposed plan to add significant new fees to the accounts of their everyday banking consumers. A plan that ultimately didn’t come to fruition because of the fury of customer opinion.

This story perfectly illustrates the reality of the world brands live in today. On the one hand there are your formal marketing communications. On the other there are the signals you put out to market through the way you do business.

In this case, my interviewee was in search of a message to cut-through and engage the customer while at the same time the brand was signaling to those same customers that they didn’t really care about them.

 
For many years a bad customer experience went nowhere. A single customer might tell a few friends and family they’d had a bad experience, but this was hardly damaging to the brand. Today, however, a bad customer experience will be recorded, filmed, blogged about and potentially exposed to millions.
 

Rather than seeking a message, this bank could have cut-through by creating a whole new set of signals via product, service and customer service, in-branch one the phone and online. Signals that demonstrate to the customer that they are both valued and important, and showing that the bank can meet their needs in a compelling and cohesive way.

Without an underlying set of signals carrying meaning, even the best message will struggle to achieve results. When nothing the messaging says connects to the reality that customers experience, then success is unlikely.

In the past we could much more easily paper over our signals and replace them with our message. For many years a bad customer experience went nowhere. A single customer might tell a few friends and family they’d had a bad experience, but this was hardly damaging to the brand. Today, however, a bad customer experience will be recorded, filmed, blogged about and potentially exposed to millions. Creating an environment where the individual can achieve the kind of media reach previously only available to the biggest of brands.

It’s important to acknowledge that the people publicizing their own experiences aren’t the problem. Indeed, it is not their actions which are damaging the brand. These customers are simply reacting to the signals your brand put out into the world. These negative signals are what cause the real damage: The anti-customer policies, the product mistakes, the customer experience challenges.

For the forward thinking brand, these same customer instincts to publicize bad experiences can also be harnessed to encourage them to publicize the good. For every customer who blogs about, sings about, or records a bad customer experience, we should be seeking to cultivate two who’ll do the same about a good one.

Instead of exclusively thinking about our message, this suggests we should instead be thinking about our signals. Specifically the signals that carry the most meaning to our customers. Those we should over-emphasize in order to cut through,  that will have the biggest influence on people and how they talk about us both in-person and online. And fundamentally, the signals that demonstrate the message we want our customers to communicate to each other, and not the message we want to communicate to them.

 

Paul Worthington