Internet turns customers into ambassadors

Brands that embrace the digital space have much stronger relationships with consumers than those that fail to exploit the power of the internet. By Louise Jack

As every marketer knows, digital consumers matter. Not just because there are ever increasing numbers of people using the internet or because online environments impact on almost every product category. New research from Millward Brown suggests that digital consumers also have stronger relationships with brands.

A “digital consumer” is one who uses the internet to both shop and research their purchases. The research, which was compiled using an analysis of WPP’s Brandz database, examines how this relationship varies from category to category, exploring what marketers can do to take advantage of this trend.

Millward Brown analyses all the consumers surveyed in 2008 and compares the brand relationships of digital consumers with those of non-digital consumers. On average, across all categories and countries, digital consumers appear to have a 15% stronger relationship with a typical brand than offline consumers.

Brandz global director Peter Walshe says digital consumers are better informed about brands, giving them a greater appreciation of the products involved. As a result, they also like brands better than their non-digital counterparts, which increases their importance to marketers.

The relationships between brands and digital or non-digital consumers varies by category and country. The largest difference emerged in the airlines category, where a 93% stronger relationship was observed between brands and digital consumers.

Walshe says: “If you are an airline, then a huge number of transactions will take place online. It’s also convenient from the consumers’ point of view. There’s a similar story in the banking category; a very high number of people use the internet to transact with their banks.”

What is less obvious is that the stronger relationship seems to hold true across all categories. Brand relationships are found to be 8% stronger in the hair care category and perhaps most surprisingly, 5% stronger in the motor fuel category.

Walshe says: “Strong brands will still be taking place and taking part with the online and digital community. In soft drinks, for example, look at the strength and engagement a brand like Coca-Cola gets with music downloading and its other initiatives, or in hair care brands like Dove and Pantene with social networking and engagement strategies.”

The stronger relationship is driven by a combination of factors that Walshe calls a virtuous “digital branding circle”.

First, digital consumers appear to be more interested in brands, according to the research statistics. Carrying out so much digital research before purchasing online helps them develop strong brand knowledge, which in turn reinforces their interest in the brand.

Additional evidence for this mindset is supported by the fact that the difference in relationships with brands is higher in product categories where there are a greater number of digital consumers. The more people are researching or buying the brand online, the more interested those digital consumers are than the non-digital types.

This relationship holds throughout the world; Japan and Taiwan, each with +36%, have the highest average digital relationship differences observed, but even in China, relationships are 2% stronger among digital consumers.

Stronger relationships tend to exist in countries with higher web penetration – a larger number of digital consumers generally seems to result in more informed consumers. However, although Canada has a far higher web penetration than India, both countries have similar average differences.

Looking at ways marketers can exploit the results of the research, Walshe says: “Strong brands stand for three things – first, great product experience. Marketers can underline that experience digitally. The car industry does that really well and some FMCG brands are really involving people with co-creation initiatives.

“The second thing is to have a very clear and differentiated association with your brand. That’s about being fair and truthful and consistent in style. It’s easy to think of dynamic brands that exploit that, such as Google and Apple, while Dove is also a brand that has done it in a surprising way that sets it apart.

“Third is about dynamism – people love brands that they think are leading the way; either challenging things or leading because they’re the best. That’s exactly what the fun and co-creation in digital engagement does”.

Walshe concludes that the research shows strong brands can have a massive impact on digital consumers and so brands should not ignore online areas or treat them as less valuable than offline ones.

He adds: “Digital adds colour, vibrancy and immediacy to brands.”

How much stronger a relationship digital consumers have with brands than their offline counterparts

How much stronger a relationship digital consumers have with airline brands than their offline counterparts


The Frontline
We ask marketers on the frontline whether our ‘trends’ research matches their experience on the ground:

Frances Dovey
Interactive and emerging media manager, Cadbury

The conclusion that digital consumers have stronger relationships with brands makes complete sense. Anything that requires active involvement versus the passive receipt of information will naturally cause people to have a stronger relationship – although, of course, the experience needs to be a good one.

This doesn’t mean marketers should abandon other forms of communication – building awareness offline is essential to prompt people to research online, and digital needs to be a part of the mix.

In many ways, it comes down to just how much content a category is prepared to develop digitally and how varied it is. Digital gives a brand the opportunity to communicate and build relationships with different people in multiple and personalised ways.

Non-digital communications, by their nature, need to be singular in their messaging; through digital channels, you have the ability to communicate multiple reasons concurrently, such as why your brand is relevant, without contradicting the core message. This gives more reasons for your consumers to engage with you.

Rachel Bristow
Marketing comms planning and buying director, Unilever

The research almost confirms what your marketing intuition would lead you to think – someone who engages online is much more interested in brands and finding a solution.

There’s a real opportunity for a brand to be in that space and get ahead of its competitors by finding a solution for the consumer who is actively looking for one.

In terms of “transmitters”, we tend to do a lot of competitions, social network activity or games where we will get more comments anyway because the consumer has had a fun experience within that environment.

The research’s definition of a digital consumer is quite broad – someone who has bought or researched that category online – and I wondered if that meant it has missed out anyone who has entered a competition, played a game, made a comment or made a brand a friend on Bebo, Facebook or MySpace.

We play on those spaces because people are there and therefore we are trying to capture all the different touchpoints. For us, a very tiny amount of our sales goes through etail. We are trying to capture people by improving our brand metrics.

Lisa Rodwell
Vice-president of marketing,

I was not surprised by the research. In fact, it confirmed what I believe to be true. However, having a quantitative and thorough study such as this one provides additional support for marketing professionals when they are pitching their recommendations to a senior management team who may not believe in the power of the internet.

This is particularly true for brands who do not transact on the web so need additional support for online investment. The study demonstrates that influencing the digital consumer can in fact be of great value, regardless of the category.

While it doesn’t state it directly in the research, I believe that the interactive nature of the web and the rise of social networks mean that these digital consumers are more likely to be talking to more people about their brand choices online than in the real world. If a consumer chooses to be an advocate for a brand online, they are more likely influencing a much bigger circle than they would in the everyday world.

What would be of most interest to a marketer is to evaluate the results within their own category and see how competitive brands fair. I would then want to see whether my online marketing efforts were influencing the positive or negative nature of that rating.

Simon Duffy
Founder of Bulldog Natural Grooming

I thought the research presented quite a straightforward hypothesis that I intuitively agree with. The role of online for Bulldog is key because we see that our target consumer even when he is watching TV is often browsing the internet as well, so it’s very relevant.

When people visit our website they can really drill down to what they’re looking for. In addition, we’ve got our podcasts by comedian David Mitchell, which now have over 1 million views.

It’s a great thing to entertain because people are pulling the content towards themselves, rather than us interrupting them when they’re watching television, for example.

Regarding some of the more surprising categories – perhaps it is becoming increasingly ingrained behaviour. We always hear about how much people research cars online before they buy; perhaps it’s just over time, people see the internet as a first port of call for less obvious categories. For example, perhaps someone has seen a poster for a fragrance, or even heard a friend talking about it and they’ll go online.
It does surprise me though that even motor fuel is being researched online.