The products are fine, but tell us what you’re doing

Even competent companies often fall down when it comes to giving customers quality information.

Shell has been around in one form or another since the 1890s. Over the course of more than a century, it has sold its products successfully around the world. The Shell brand is a sure sign of a trusted, quality product. So when Shell got into a spat with Greenpeace about the decommissioning of its Brent Spar facility, why was it that this Johnny-come-lately – a mere toddler in terms of Shell’s lifespan, armed with nothing compared to Shell’s deep, longstanding and proven expertise – won the argument?

The answer is that while Shell has spent the past 100 years building a reputation for trusted, quality products, it has not devoted anything like the same dedicated, obsessional focus to building a reputation for trusted, quality information. It has paid heavily for this oversight, and it is not alone.

Welcome to the next big brand battleground: quality information.

How we got into our current dead-end is easy to see. Historically, companies made money by making and selling products people wanted, and everything else was seen as a means to this end. People wanted quality products, so developing a reputation for quality and integrity – as these terms relate to the product – was a must. Mountains of resources, expertise, time and effort were devoted to researching, developing and testing new products – and recalling them if they failed to pass muster.

But information was a different matter. Internally, information and expertise were simply a means to the end of producing a quality product efficiently. They were never seen as a source of customer value in their own right. Externally, information and expertise were seen as a means to the end of making sure the product got sold. And so we started down the long, slippery slope of marketing spin.

Products were designed as tools in the hands of the customer: they were developed with customers’ needs in mind. Information, on the other hand, was always seen as a tool in the hands of the company. So when information was gathered, deployed or communicated it was with the company’s needs in mind. While products offer value to the customer, information is seen only in terms of the value it offers the company.

Thus the supreme irony of marketing communications: it routinely ignores its own core mantra of “identify and meet your customer’s needs”. When we develop communication programmes, the only question we ask is whether it will meet the sales, brand-building or other needs of the company. The information needs of the customer do not enter the equation. When was the last time you saw a marketing effectiveness award where “effectiveness” was defined in terms of customer rather than company goals? Or where financial “accountability” or value for money was judged according to customer criteria? Yet, when developing products and services, we do these things naturally without even batting an eyelid.

Having travelled down this cul-de-sac for a hundred years or so, companies have dug themselves into a very deep hole. Yes, for the most part, people trust their products – but few trust their information to anything like the same degree. The consumer’s natural instinct is: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” And marketers only have themselves to blame.

It’s a problem, to be sure. But it’s also a huge opportunity. Trusted, quality information is fast emerging as the new mountain for brands to climb.

We need to rethink value. Every company is a knowledge and information factory as well as a producer of products or services: that knowledge and information should be placed in the service of the customer.

Quality information takes many forms. It includes expertise: a deep, stress-tested and often scientifically endorsed understanding of the nature of raw materials, ingredients, processes, pitfalls, costs and so on. With its At the Customer For the Customer programme, for instance, GE goes beyond selling products and services, sending in “black belt” proponents of its Six Sigma quality scheme to help customers streamline their processes, improve quality and boost profits. British Gas offers energy conservation advice to heavy domestic users.

Quality information includes operational data. How can the information the company uses to streamline its operations be redeployed to help customers? This is standard practice in logistics, as companies such as FedEx and UPS make once-internal operational data – where is that package, right now? – available to customers.

It includes transaction data. How can we analyse, package and process information from and about our transactions with our customers to help these customers reach their goals, cut their costs and improve their efficiency? One way Amazon stands out is the way it uses transaction and other data to help its customers to navigate their way to best value, for instance.

And it includes marketing communications. To what degree does the information we send out address the information needs of the customer, this time in his role as a buyer?

Quality information has to clear all the quality hurdles of a good product: integrity of ingredients and handling; being fit for purpose (as defined by the customer); targeting and segmentation (different uses for different users); being available in the right form at the right place at the right time; being easy to access and use; being worth the expense (in terms of time and/or money), and so on.

This requires its own equivalents of market research and new product development, production, distribution and marketing. And, if necessary, “product recalls”. The acid test is simple: if your reputation for quality information is as important as that for quality products, how are you going to build and protect this reputation?

The race to build such reputations is already on.

At the bottom end, the laggards are at risk. Like poor-quality products, poor-quality information risks destroying trust and driving customers into the arms of rivals.

At the top end, leading companies are beginning to see huge potential benefits. Quality information builds new levels of trust while adding customer value over and above that offered by the product. What’s more, it does this almost free of charge, because most of the expertise, infrastructure and communications costs are already being paid for, for existing operations. The challenge is to repurpose existing assets, not to create new ones.

And the benefits don’t just translate into increased market share and brand preference. If you have a reputation for quality information, customers will be far more willing to entrust and invest their information with you. Quality information also wins preferential attention: we pay much more attention to people whose information is useful, valuable and trustworthy.

Quality information is fast becoming the new “secret” of competitive edge. It also requires that we rethink marketing communications – almost from scratch.

If you would like to join a discussion group sharing ideas and experience on this theme, contact Alan Mitchell at asmitchell@aol.com

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