GM Financial, Inspire Brands and Marriott share their current obsession—the customer

You’ve heard it a million times—"the modern marketing landscape is in the middle of a major change"—which is inherently true. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed marketers to completely rethink the way they communicate with customers, and the deprecation of third-party cookies coupled with increasing privacy restrictions by the likes of Apple and Google have made it even more difficult to have that dialogue with customers digitally.

But the truth is, the industry has always been changing. These disruptions may seem jarring, but they didn’t happen in a vacuum, and they won’t stop anytime soon.

Talking to friends and colleagues throughout the industry, I’ve found a lot of marketers struggling to find their footing on unsteady ground. My advice is always the same: In times of change, the best thing you can do for your brand is to refocus on what really matters—the customer.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, "I’ve heard this a million times!" and you probably have. But the difference is not just considering your customers’ intent, but becoming customer obsessed. During our recent event, Epsilon Personalive, guest speaker Shar VanBoskirk, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, dived into the inner workings of customer obsession—defined as, “putting the customer at the center of your leadership, strategy and operations.” This means creating an enterprise-level shift where the customer comes first at every turn, whether it’s marketing and technology to customer service and product roadmaps.

Using customer obsession as a guiding philosophy, brands can reestablish strong relationships with customers, and ensure they’re able to get through whatever comes next relatively unscathed because of the bond they’ve created with people.

To better explain this concept, marketing leaders from GM Financial, Inspire Brands and Marriott International all spoke with Shar and myself (also at Epsilon Personalive) about the keys to creating customer obsession and how it comes to life at their organizations. Let’s dig in.

GM Financial pays attention to the little things

GM Financial has been working toward customer obsession for years, which prompted Will Stacy IV, EVP and chief marketing and digital officer, to take a second look at the company’s onboarding strategy. When a new person became a customer of GM Financial, the brand would send the customer a welcome packet with a personalized envelope stamped “Welcome to the GM family.” Seems nice, right?

“The message on the envelope was meant to be welcoming to customers,” Stacy noted. “I had a customer reach out to me and say, ‘Welcome to the GM family? This is my sixth General Motors vehicle. Why are you telling me welcome to the family?’ and it’s a great point. Even that came across as negative in the wrong context.”

This example may seem simple, but customers notice a lot. And they take things to heart. Even something like reframing a message on an envelope has huge implications on their perception of your brand. GM Financial shifted to a customer-obsessed mindset and put real people at the center of their decision-making process.

Inspire Brands applies data-driven insights to customer experience

Stephanie Meltzer-Paul, SVP of digital experience at Inspire Brands, understands the importance of a strong loyalty program—and even more so, the power of good data. During Covid, Dunkin’ (a subsidiary of Inspire Brands) had to close their dining rooms, similar to most other food service brands. But instead of taking the loss, Dunkin’ looked to customer data for answers on how to pivot to create true 1:1 relationships as customers navigated this new normal.

“As more business moved to the drive-thru, we needed to entice our walk-in customers to come in the drive-thru, so we did a lot of real-time emails,” Meltzer-Paul recalled. “Curbside was also a new channel, and we partnered with Epsilon to send emails to customers who were in regions of stores that now had curbside options, incentivizing them to choose curbside. Those are things that we just couldn’t do without a strong 1:1 strategy.”

By looking to the data, Dunkin’ was able to refocus on what customers not only wanted, but what they needed from the brand.

Marriott International uses email to proactively reconnect with customers

Like many other companies during the pandemic, Marriott needed to reestablish a connection with its customers. Some people were apprehensive about traveling and didn’t want to be left in the dark on important issues like cleanliness updates or new booking and cancelation policies.

Marc Sheinkin, senior director of member and guest communications, understood email is a great tool to balance more mundane, business-as-usual updates with a personal, human connection from the brand. “Email is truly a 1:1 communication channel,” he said. “There’s no reason email can’t be just like a conversation you would have with a front desk associate in one of our hotels. In fact, using the data our guests have shared with us, email is uniquely suited to continuing and expanding upon that conversation. We see email as part of the guest experience, and an extension of the relationship with a customer.”

Marriott International’s focus on creating a consistent, valuable and relevant messaging strategy puts customer concerns and questions front and center, making sure their needs are met.

The journey to customer obsession

As you can probably guess, the journey to customer obsession doesn’t happen overnight. VanBoskirk noted, “Customer obsession is the good idea that is easy to agree with, but very hard to do.” It requires leadership and organizational alignment to succeed. Plus, customer obsession means something different to every brand. It’s about finding what makes the most sense for you.

Things will keep changing; more privacy restrictions and mar-tech roadblocks will pop-up. If marketers don’t take the time to refocus their efforts on the one thing that keeps their business afloat—the customer—they’ll struggle to find solid ground in this ever-changing industry.

**This article was originally published in Adweek, August 2021.