The Big Debate: Is becoming an ‘ecosystem’ brand the only way to win customer loyalty?

Connected and convenient, ‘ecosystem’ brands like Amazon and Google may have the greatest potential for future growth, but does this model work for every business?

Ecosystem

By offering a smorgasbord of different services under a single umbrella and streamlining the customer experience, ‘ecosystem’ brands are proving to be some of the most valuable companies in the world.

Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon – the top four brands in Kantar Millward Brown’s 2017 BrandZ ranking – fall into the ecosystem brand category, each of which connects with consumers across a number of different touchpoints making them highly desirable.

“Ecosystem brands cleverly meet our needs and make our lives easier by offering us all sorts of things that are connected so we gain this traction with them,” says Peter Walshe, BrandZ global strategy director. “Amazon, in particular, has mastered that way of establishing a perfect relationship with people.”

But is it a model that will work for every business?

READ MORE: ‘Ecosystem’ brands are the clear winners in the BrandZ top 100

Entering the BrandZ top five for the first time in 2017, Amazon grew its brand value by 41% to $139bn (£108bn), success driven in large part by its expanding ecosystem. Each aspect of the ecosystem is connected by the £79-a-year Amazon Prime subscription model, which offers members a range of exclusive perks, including free same-day delivery and access to Amazon’s own-brand fashion.

Expanding the brand proposition, as well as growing Prime membership, continues to be the goal. This year alone Amazon has launched live music venture Prime Live Events, own-brand men’s and womenswear fashion label Find and splashed out £10.7bn on the acquisition of natural food grocery brand Whole Foods.

Amazon is a convenience brand. You’re not loyal to Amazon, you’re loyal to the convenience it provides.

Zoe Harris, Trinity Mirror

The deal sent waves through the global grocery market, as rivals reacted to the prospect of Whole Foods being added to the Amazon Fresh grocery delivery service.

READ MORE: Amazon continues its journey into food with £10.7bn acquisition of Whole Foods

The acquisition was mentioned more than 304,000 times on social media during the days following the announcement of the deal on 16 June, according to data from social listening and analytics company, Brandwatch. While the public reaction was 63.7% positive, many questioned the synergy between Amazon and a natural food grocery brand like Whole Foods, which has 466 stores across North America and the UK.

Four days later Amazon expanded its ecosystem further with the announcement it is trialling a personalised subscription clothes service called Prime Wardrobe, similar to The Chapar in the UK or Trunk Club in the US.

Prime Wardrobe will allow Prime members to order clothing with no upfront charge and then pay for what they keep from the selection, receiving a 20% discount across Amazon’s site if they keep five or more items.

The roll-out of Prime Wardrobe on 20 June was largely overshadowed by the continued discussion around the Whole Foods deal, notching up just 9,500 mentions online, according to Brandwatch figures. These discussions were, however, largely upbeat, registering 89.1% positive sentiment, showing consumers continue to support the ever-expanding Amazon ecosystem.

By tying all these services together under a single parent brand, connected by a subscription model, Amazon is steadily extending its influence into a wide variety of sectors from film and TV to live music, clothing and food.

Building affinity

While Amazon excels in offering convenience across its ecosystem, that does not necessarily mean the business has built real brand affinity, says Trinity Mirror group marketing director Zoe Harris.

“Amazon is a convenience brand. You’re not loyal to Amazon, you’re loyal to the convenience it provides and if someone can do that convenience better or cheaper, I think people would switch quite quickly, which is different to a genuine brand where you have an emotional relationship. I think there’s a difference between brand diversification and this idea of ecosystem brands.”

Within the Trinity Mirror group, she explains, it is crucial that each media brand has its own unique sense of identity and connection with its readers, both in the local community and nationally.

“Some of our news brands are over 150-years-old, so they have this incredible relationship with their readers. In Liverpool people would say they are working for the Liverpool Echo not Trinity Mirror, but they are part of that bigger family,” says Harris.

“You look at what the Liverpool Echo did for 30 years after Hillsborough, it shows the real integrity of that brand and the real connection it has with the people of Liverpool. That would be impossible to have if it said Trinity Mirror on the masthead.”

Instead of sitting under a single homogenous brand, what connects the Trinity Mirror brands is a shared perspective on life. Harris defines that perspective as being for the many, not the few, producing journalism that holds people to account, gives a voice to the underdog and celebrates ordinary people.

She argues that having a suite of distinctive brands helps Trinity Mirror meet consumer needs at different times, catering for different mindsets. So while readers will look for an unbiased, national perspective about Manchester United on the Daily Mirror, they will also go to the Manchester Evening News to get that fan-first view.

Cultivating brand fans across every touchpoint is also key to success at ecosystem brand Microsoft. This strategy is particularly relevant as its data shows that fans of one Microsoft brand tend to have higher usage and adoption of other Microsoft products, explains consumer marketing director Paul Davies.

While each brand in Microsoft’s consumer portfolio, from Windows to Surface to Xbox, has its own distinct set of fans, some are fans of the Microsoft parent brand and therefore want to tap into the benefits of a connected ecosystem. It is for this reason that the technology has been specifically designed to connect best when used together.

“For example, Windows is our operating system, which is available on our own Surface hardware, which in turn can run Office software – and so everything connects seamlessly for consumers,” says Davies.

“We care about our fans more than ever as their influence has never been greater in today’s digitally and socially connected world. This approach is evidenced in a number of initiatives we have to create new fans and influencers, and to nurture them.”

Growth through investment

Spanning social networks, entertainment and utilities, Chinese internet giant Tencent has created an ecosystem of diverse services through a process of prolific investment.

“We call it the Tencent family,” says corporate vice-president of Tencent, Steven Chang. “The ecosystem is even bigger because we also invested, for instance in JD.com [China’s number two ecommerce site], Didi [the Chinese Uber] and [bike sharing business] Mobike. Three months ago we also invested in Tesla.

“We are investing in different ways, which is helping us build up a big coverage in terms of multiple platforms either through us or our Tencent family members.”

We care about our fans more than ever as their influence has never been greater in today’s digitally and socially connected world.

Paul Davies, Microsoft

Chang describes Tencent as building “a true ecosystem”, encompassing services such as instant messaging app QQ and social network WeChat, as well as online payment platform Tenpay, Tencent games and streaming service QQ Music. Tencent can then easily track the identity of its customers across its different platforms.

“This is really powerful,” Chang adds. “This is what I call the Tencent advertising ecosystem with recognisable ID that we can track.”

The ecosystem strategy appears to be working for Tencent, which claimed eighth spot on Kantar Millward Brown’s 2017 BrandZ ranking.

READ MORE: China’s biggest brand on its plans to conquer the West

Connected loyalty

With a portfolio spanning 30 hotel brands in 124 countries, Marriott International has developed three loyalty programmes – Marriott Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards – to connect and track customer journeys across the group.

The hotel chain then uses data on customer preferences from its more than 100 million rewards members to recommend different destinations across the group, thereby leveraging the power of a diverse portfolio. Members are also able to link their Marriott Rewards and SPG loyalty accounts in order to transfer points across the programmes.

“With 30 distinct brands that service millions of diverse people every year our members do not want a one-size-fits-all programme, which is why we created one that is flexible and places emphasis on creating an emotional connection by enabling our members to use their earned points for experiences, on and off property, personalised to them,” says Stephanie Linnartz, Marriott International chief commercial officer.

“Every day Marriott works to sharpen the distinction between hotel brands. Each of our brands has distinct traits, from room types, food and beverage options and amenities, providing a wealth of data and insights.”

Following the completion of the acquisition of hotel group Starwood in September, Marriott International chose to raise awareness of its wider portfolio of brands with the launch of the ‘You Are Here’ campaign, featuring the stories of real loyalty members at staying at different hotels across the group.

READ MORE: Ritson – Marriott faces one of the toughest jobs in branding

The organisation is working to bring its loyalty programmes closer together to gain richer data insights and drive relationships with brand partners such as the NFL and Universal Music Group, explains Linnartz.

The hotel group has also invested in travel search platform PlacePass, which enables visitors to search for 100,000 in-destination experiences across 800 locations, that can be booked direct through the Marriott and SPG apps.

A similar connected approach is being taken at Virgin. Leveraging the potential of an ecosystem spanning five core sectors and 60 million customers, Virgin is tapping into the rich data collected through its connected loyalty programme Virgin Red to create personalised experiences across every touchpoint in the ecosystem.

READ MORE: Why Virgin is launching a loyalty app to unite all its UK businesses for the first time

This means that a Virgin Media and Virgin Active member, who is also using Virgin Trains regularly, would receive different personalised rewards to someone who is only a Virgin Media customer. Virgin Red also uses application programme interfaces (APIs) to recognise and serve exclusive content to users. So for example, if Virgin Money wants to offer a limited edition credit card to its top spenders this can seamlessly be delivered through the Virgin Red app.

The seamlessness of the offer is crucial as consumers see Virgin as one brand and therefore expect a consistent customer experience, says Virgin Red head of marketing Gaelle Comte.

“We know that the more ‘Virgin’ a user is, the more loyal and engaged they are – across the whole group and all industries. They’re also more likely to favour Virgin over another brand when they’re choosing a product in a new category,” says Comte.

“I hope in the future we will be able to consolidate other aspects of the customer experience through our app – so as a customer you could book your spin classes or check your flight status all through Virgin Red – but that’s quite a big ambition.”

While the goal as an ecosystem brand is to offer a connected and consistent customer experience that reflects the Virgin tone of voice, Comte acknowledges that each company in the group has to tailor its approach to make it relevant for the industry in which it operates.

“You can be playful when it comes to a holiday, but a bank needs to have some gravitas to retain credibility. So our group customer experience strategy allows for the flex needed by all Virgin companies to ensure they can tailor it to their customers’ needs and expectations,” says Comte.

Reflecting on whether ecosystem brands are the future, Comte acknowledges a trend towards the consolidation of brands worldwide, from Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, to Google moving under the Alphabet umbrella.

“Many more follow their lead and these companies aim to make their users’ lives easier by connecting industries and touchpoints,” says Comte. “If they succeed and therefore create a new model of loyalty, then they will undoubtedly be the future.

By offering a suite of services under a single, connected proposition, brands like Amazon are cashing in on their convenience, using loyalty programmes and subscription models to keep consumers within their ecosystem. However, by keeping every service under a single brand ecosystem brands are ultimately reliant on the strength of the parent brand alone, which in today’s turbulent times could prove a risky strategy.

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