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In Praise of Sloth
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

What If We Looked At Brand Engagement As Unconscious Routine?

I've just gone through a very lengthy and painful technology transfer, and I think my takeaway is this: instead of making life easier for customers, maybe a viable brand loyalty strategy is to make it harder for them?

I know it sounds counterintuitive but what if marketers chose to deliver brand "engagement" as habit, routine, and as something so extensively embedded in customers' lives that it wouldn't be worth it -- or even consciously imaginable -- to ever change?

This approach has been a fact of life in the technology space for years, whether avowed or not.

My latest tale of woe is no different than one of yours, I'm sure. I endured years of active abuse by Comcast, upon whom I'd relied for my cable TV and Internet connections:

  • Customer service was spotty, at best, so I ended up getting the wrong set-top boxes twice and had to figure out how to return them on my own dime.
  • Service itself was uneven as channels would crap out unexpectedly and without subsequent explanation, including some home games for my beloved Blackhawks.
  • Pricing was an utter sham, as it gave away service to lure new users at a fraction of what it charged me, which destroyed any value prop.

Yet I never bothered to change service providers, primarily because:

  • The effort of making the change seemed insurmountable. Ever spent a few hours trying to get some gizmo or connection to work? You enter a zone of utter focus in which try one thing, then another and another until blam! It works, only you have no idea why, or you're so happy that you walk away and forget to detail your steps. If you're lucky enough to get 2+ gizmos working together there's only more complexity involved, and a greater likelihood that setting up another deal would require that you start from scratch.
  • The investment of time and content seems proprietary, even if it's not. There's a lot to be said for knowing how to use things (like open files, order movies, whatever) so knowledge how-to is a proprietary asset, and it gets more valuable over time as you get better/faster at doing whatever it is you want to do. Add on top of that any actual exclusivity due to the technology, such as unique and/or stranded assets, and starting another configuration would literally require starting from scratch.
  • Getting ripped off financially just seemed so unavoidable. Pricing in the TV and Internet services businesses are unclear and bait-and-swtichish, which has the effect of taking cost off the table almost entirely. Or at least it changes the equation from what it should be ("what can I get for how much I pay?") to what is is ("I'm going to get charged an unfair tax to get my bare minimum expectations met, at best").

What eventually pushed me into taking action is immaterial. But what if all those miserable qualities of my customer experience weren't the byproducts of an uncaring, inept business and instead turned into positive that it did on purpose in order to lull me into complacency?

In my particular circumstance I can think of three things Comcast could have done to keep my business forever (and none of them involve looking for complaints on Twitter):

  • Guaranteed support. The company's policy is that if it sends a technician and he discovers something that you should have fixed, you pay a penalty fee. While it sends or beams programming to your TV it takes no responsibility for discovering problems and proactively communicating them to customers. What if it flipped this model on its head and made sure that it 1) gave support freely and without limit, and 2) identified problems instead of hiding from them?
  • Novel services. Why couldn't Comcast take full, complete, and unequivocal responsibility not only for making sure its service worked but actively encouraging customers to hook more stuff up to it? Instead of trying to control "bundles" of its own services why not enable connections with as many third-party services and devices as possible? It could let customers to literally record their own set-ups for future reference, or offer connectivity check-ups. Get itself literally hard-wired into lives.
  • Lifetime customers. My fees for Comcast services should have gone down over time, not stayed high or been increased. Current customers cost much less (and earn much more) than lead-gen first-timers, and the ROI on an automatic service renewal puts to shame any return from some stupid brand advertising campaign. Why aren’t older and/or more involved customers treated like elite-level frequent fliers?

Had it done these things I wouldn't have been a "happy" customer, per se, as much as an unconscious, automatic one. There'd have been absolutely no reason for me to ever think about changing my routine.

I wonder what this approach might look like for a non-technology brand? Are there ways McDonald's could make the prospect of visiting another fast food joint a non-starter for its customers? What about a deodorant brand or retail chain?

Finding those answers would require asking different questions about marketing, starting with this one: do we want our customers actively engaged in our branding, or should our brand be an active part of their lives? Maybe a smart brand strategy would be to help consumers be slothful?

Added: 1st July 2010

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