Expert Interview Series: Aaron Shields Of The Cult Branding Company On SMS Marketing And Branding

14 Jul

Aaron Shields—a partner in The Cult Branding Company—is a lecturer, writer, researcher, and strategist that specializes in helping companies create brands that are loved by both customers and employees. 

Cult Branding created and defined the concept of "cult branding", towards the goal of creating the most effective digital marketing strategies. Could you briefly describe what "cult branding" is, and how it can help a marketing strategy? 

Although some of the work we do is related to the digital space, Cult Branding wasn’t created exclusively for it. We look at brands holistically and consider a brand the total impression a customer gets from interacting with a company; every touch point contributes towards creating what the customer perceives the brand to be. Cult Branding is applicable to the digital space but it’s just one among many areas that needs to be considered for creating powerful brands. 

The concept of Cult Branding, however, was born from the digital age. The founder of The Cult Branding Company, BJ Bueno, was involved in internet companies during the dot-com bubble and noticed that most companies failed because they never created loyal customer bases. So, he started looking into brands that had extreme loyalty—what he eventually termed Cult Brands—to understand how their loyalty could be replicated. These are brands like Harley, Star Trek, and Jimmy Buffet that have inserted themselves meaningfully into their customers’ lives in ways few brands have and turned customers into passionate evangelists that couldn’t imagine life without the brand.

Cult Brands tend to command premium prices, their customers can’t imagine buying an alternative, and they have high retention. But, more importantly, they create a mutually beneficial relationship with their customers by using the brand to fulfill the higher level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy—belonging, esteem, beauty, knowledge, and self-actualization.

In studying Cult Brands, we found seven rules they all adhere to:

  1. Differentiate: Customers want to be part of a group that’s different.
  2. Be Courageous: Cult Brand inventors show daring and determination.
  3. Promote A Lifestyle: Cult Brands sell lifestyles.
  4. Listen To Their Customers: Cult Brands genuinely listen to their customers.
  5. Support Customer Communities: Cult Brands always help create and nourish customer communities.
  6. Be Open, Inviting, And Inclusive: Cult Brands are open to anyone that wants to join.
  7. Promote Personal Freedom: Cult Brands promote personal freedom and draw power from their enemies.

These rules can be translated into strategies for companies of all types and sizes—not just ones trying to be the next Cult Brand—that are looking to cultivate increased customer loyalty.

The easiest way for a company to employ Cult Branding is to check their strategies against the seven rules. If the strategy isn’t fulfilling at least one of the rules, chances are it isn’t going to push the customer loyalty needle that far forward.

You've posted several books about digital marketing and branding on your website, including Customers First, discussing how serving your customers is the best form of marketing there is. How can SMS marketing be used in a customer-centric marketing campaign, and why is that important?

None of our books are specifically about digital marketing. But, they are all about building strong brands and organizations, and digital marketing is a very important tool in building strong brands. 

Customers First looks at a lot of the tools we’ve used to help companies build strong brands and how they translate into strategies to retain customers, turn them into evangelists, and attract new customers.

I’m a big fan of Peter Drucker. He really is in the top handful of the all-time-great business thinkers. Drucker knocked it out of the park in The Practice of Management when he wrote: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

If your campaign in any medium isn’t customer-centric these days you’re ultimately going to fail. Customers only want things that are meaningful to them. And, if you’re not offering it, one of your competitors will and you’ll lose. 

Every campaign, whether it’s digital or print, has to talk to someone whether it’s your current customer or a potential customer. You can’t just talk to a statistical average. This seems like an obvious idea but so many campaigns miss the mark because of it: they try talking to everyone and end up saying nothing meaningful to anyone.

Ultimately this gets to the heart of what’s in Customers First: how to truly understand who your customers are and why they do business with you. You’d be surprised how many companies—even ones with big research budgets that should know better—are trying to go after customers that aren’t relevant to their brand.

SMS marketing can be a great customer-centric tool because of how personal it can be. The most successful SMS marketing campaigns have been highly targeted and segmented. Not every message should go to every customer; a message should only go to that segment of customers where it's relevant. SMS easily allows for this type of customization. It also allows for a high degree of personalization with each customer. It’s a potentially powerful tool in a marketer’s arsenal. 

 You've also posted about another book, The Power Of Cult Branding, which investigates nine brand case studies and how their marketing and brand increased customer loyalty. What are some ways that SMS marketing could be leveraged for greater customer loyalty and, again, why does that matter in today's eCommerce?

If you’re not building loyalty, you’re eventually going to lose. 

There’s a reason outperforming CEOs are customer-obsessed: there’s no way to win in the long-term if you keep losing customers. 

If you’re thinking of how you can “leverage” a tool like SMS to create loyalty, odds are that you’ve already lost before you started. Leverage implies force and using something to your maximum advantage. Loyalty isn’t created by through one-sided strategies. Loyalty is created through strategies that are mutually beneficial to both you and your customers. 

I know this may seem like an issue of semantics, but it’s an important one, especially considering how often companies end up executing strategies that fail at creating loyalty. It’s exactly this forceful, company-centric—instead of customer-centric—type of attitude that makes loyalty strategies fail: they think about their own benefit before their customers’ benefits. And, that’s not how you create loyalty. 

Instead of thinking about leveraging a medium like SMS marketing, you first need to consider your strategy overall and in what ways it benefits your customers and how it may benefit customer segments differently. Then, think about what channels are best to deliver your message in different ways. 

A multi-channel approach to your strategy is key. The more touch points you can influence in ways that make sense, the greater the chance that you’ll achieve “stickiness” and sales. Oracle did a study that showed that customers are 43% more likely to purchase when mobile offers are part of a unified campaign. 

SMS marketing shouldn’t be treated as its own entity or a side project, which it seems like many businesses do. SMS marketing’s immediacy and personalization capabilities really make it a unique tool that should hold equal footing in a strategy that ultimately gives customers what they really want. 

Single-channel strategies are a thing of the past. 

 The third book you've discussed, Why We Talk by Bolivar J. Bueno, investigates word-of-mouth recommendations, advertising, and marketing. How can SMS marketing be used to generate word-of-mouth referrals? What are some of the main advantages of referrals and connecting with influencers?

Why We Talk holds a special place in my heart. It was the second book we published and it’s what began my career with The Cult Branding Company. BJ and I had been friends for nearly a decade when he convinced me to help him with the research for Why We Talk. I guess the rest is history at this point. 

The main premise of Why We Talk is that you have to give customers something worth talking about. It seems like a simple and obvious idea, but look at most companies’ social media posts and you see how often they try to get customer talk about meaningless things and the customers have no interest in responding.

In Why We Talk, we lay out seven principles that will make people more likely to talk about your brand or product in a positive way: 

  1. The Principle of Integrity: Don’t deceive.
  2. The Principle of Status: People share what makes them look good.
  3. The Principle of Cool: Don’t try to catch a trend; if you’re playing catchup, you’ve already missed it.
  4. The Principle of Groups: You need to influence many small groups to create a movement.
  5. The Principle of Influence: Everyone can be influential, especially on the Internet.
  6. The Principle of Meaning: People talk about what’s meaningful to them.
  7. The Principle of Surprise: People love to share what surprised them; never over-promise and under-deliver.

The unfortunate thing about generating word of mouth to the level that it has influence is that you can’t; you can only create conditions that will make it more likely to happen. The other unfortunate thing is that negative word of mouth is more likely to spread than positive word of mouth, which is why it’s so important to understand your customers and not let them down—never under-deliver. 

A big problem I’ve seen with a lot of campaigns lately is that they’ve become more obsessed with being liked and shared than generating sales; it seems like becoming viral has become more important than contributing to the bottom line. I’m a die-hard David Ogilvy fan—I think Ogilvy On Advertising is still the greatest book ever written on the subject—and agree with him on advertising campaigns: If a campaign doesn’t lead to sales, what was the point aside from the agency wanting to win a Clio?  

If you want an SMS marketing campaign to generate referrals you have to give them something worth talking about. Nobody is going to talk about a 15% discount. It isn’t meaningful. The problem is that there really is no magic formula to get people to talk; you can only create the conditions—by adhering to at least one of the seven principles—to make it more likely to happen. And, what works for one company isn’t going to work for another because their customers are different and have different things that are meaningful to them. 

The term influencer is a bit of a loaded term: everyone can influence someone. It’s true that some people have bigger platforms of influence than others but just because they have a big platform it doesn’t mean that they’ll have any influence on your customers or the ones you’re trying to target. And, you never should pay someone with a big platform of influence that’s not genuinely passionate about your brand to try to use their influence. It violates the first principle: the principle of integrity.

The reason referrals can be powerful is because they have already established trust with people and trust is one of the keys to generating word of mouth. People are more likely to believe someone they trust than someone they don’t; and they’re more likely to believe someone they trust than a company trying to sell them something. 

Gaining trust is really at the heart of a lot of what companies are trying to achieve right now. The biggest buzz word in marketing in 2017 is probably authenticity and trust is one of the key dimensions of authenticity. Genuine referrals from a trusted source have trust already built in and that trust can be transferred onto the company or product. 

 Many major corporations are heavily investing in SMS marketing, including American Express, who created an entire brand, called SmallShop and Small Business Saturday, to take advantage of this digital marketing trend. Why are major corporations so enthusiastic and optimistic about SMS marketing? What need is SMS marketing filling that traditional marketing just can't meet?

 Companies are mostly enthusiastic because of three things:

  1. Reach: SMS marketing messages have much higher open and conversion rates than email will ever achieve. The rates are so high that it’s almost impossible for anyone aware of how high they are to ignore. 
  2. Immediacy: We live in a now culture. And, text messages are the legal crack of the now culture. People have their phones on them almost every hour of the day and almost all texts are opened within a few minutes of being sent. And, with people now accessing the Internet more on mobile devices than any other device, it makes following up on the message not only easy but also natural. 
  3. Cost: Marketers have been burned too many times on expensive campaigns that don’t work. SMS marketing campaigns can be comparatively very cheap so the financial risk is lower.

The thing more marketers should be enthusiastic about is personalization. SMS marketing messages can easily be delivered in ways that are highly personal and influenced by individual customer preferences. Personalized messages are much more effective at conversion than mass-produced messages. 

SMS marketing’s ability to easily combine reach, immediacy, and personalization is what potentially can make it fill needs traditional marketing doesn’t meet. But, just because it has the potential, it doesn’t mean it does all of the time. 

People’s phones are very personal devices. Sending a mass message that isn’t relevant to a particular customer in a text has a much greater risk of having a detrimental effect on that customer than sending it via an email. This is because the SMS message is more likely to be seen, more likely to be intrusive, easier to opt-out from, and the juxtaposition of an unipersonal message on a personal device can be very off-putting. 

But, if you send a very personal, relevant message in a way that it makes it easy to follow up, SMS marketing can be very powerful because it puts the message in front of people on a device they’re already using to make a lot of their purchasing decisions.

In 2006, BMW implemented a SMS marketing campaign, culminating in 30% more conversions at the end of the fiscal year. Why is SMS marketing so effective for conversions?

Let’s break down the 2006 BMW campaign that you referenced because it’s a good illustration of several points I brought up earlier and it gets to the heart of the potential effectiveness of SMS marketing. 

For those readers that might not be familiar with the campaign: In Germany, most new cars need snow tires in October and they’re unlikely to buy them until that month. To get customers to purchase snow tires from a BMW dealer, BMW sent out an MMS campaign to customers in Munich, Germany that purchased cars in the warmer months that year—March through September—as soon as the first snow started to hit. The campaign converted 30.31% of recipients 

So, let’s break down why it was effective:

  1. Relevancy: BMW only sent the MMS to 1200 customers. These were customers that had recently purchased a car in warm months—March through September.. Snow tires were relevant to this segment because they didn’t have snow tires yet. It wouldn’t have been relevant to customers who purchased cars the year before that already owned snow tires. 
  2. Immediacy: They sent the message in October when the first snow hit. The message was sent when the customers needed the tires. If they sent it in the summer telling customer that they would need the tires in a few months, it would likely have fallen flat and people would have forgotten about the message by the time they would need the tires.
  3. Personalization: Each message showed the specific car model and color that that the customer bought with a tire that would look good on the car. In addition, it linked to an app where the customer could view different tires on their car.
  4. Ease Of Use: The MMS included the price of the suggested tire so the customer didn’t have to spend time looking for it. The app made it easy to try out more options and the app made it easy to follow up by including the option to call al local dealer or have a local dealer call the customer. 

SMS marketing is inherently effective at conversion because of its immediacy in relation to how quickly people read text messages and how much they use their phones for purchases and purchase decisions. But, it can only reach its ultimate effectiveness when it hits all the pillars that BMW did. 

 Can you share any advice or recommendations on how to increase conversions using SMS marketing? What are some of the main advantages of SMS marketing, both financially and in terms of brand recognition?

I think I’ve covered a lot of what will increase conversions in this interview so far. But I’d like to bring up two other points that will really allow marketers to maximize the effectiveness of their conversions.

First, make a customer’s choice to opt-in really worth their time. Don’t send them offers that aren’t meaningful; don’t send them offers they can get elsewhere; don’t send them offers at inconvenient times. SMS messages are very intrusive so you have to really make the offer matter if you want to keep them subscribed over the long-term. And, the long-term always should be the goal. 

Second—and this really is one of the keys to effective loyalty programs that so many companies miss—reward the behavior you seek. This is another one of those ideas that seems so obvious but one that so many people miss. I doubt there’s any company whose goal is to sell more printers at 15% off, yet so many companies offer deals and loyalty programs just like that. One of the best examples of an SMS marketing campaign that really took advantage of the idea of rewarding the behavior you seek was the Orange Wednesdays campaign. The campaign ran from 2003 to 2015 and was a partnership between the mobile company Orange and cinemas in the UK. The slow day at cinemas was on a Wednesday, so the campaign ran a two-for-one promotion just on Wednesdays. Cinemas wanted more customers on Wednesdays—not discounted tickets any day of the week—and the promotion helped get them there. 

The main financial appeal I’ve already touched on and is pretty simple: SMS marketing campaigns are relatively cheap. Brand recognition, on the other hand, is much more complex. 

A typical SMS campaign isn’t a great tool for brand recognition. The most successful SMS campaigns have been those where customers already have a high degree of brand recognition. A brand a customer is unaware of is unlikely to generate positive awareness through a text message; it’s more likely to generate annoyance. In places like the United States where opt-in is required before being contacted, generating this type of awareness is really a non-issue since customers are highly unlikely to opt-in to receiving messages from a company they know nothing or little about. 

There is a roundabout way to generate brand awareness through SMS marketing and it’s through getting existing customers talking. And, it’s exactly what Orange did for their own company through Orange Wednesdays. It provided a fun reward for its existing customers that was surprising at the time. It got people talking about the brand enough that it generated increased brand awareness.

It's a common SEO trick to use a branded message in headlines, as a kind of shorthand, to tell a reader what an article is going to be about. How might SMS marketers work branded messages into their SMS marketing, as a way to increase brand awareness and authority?

I can’t imagine why any company would deliver an unbranded message. Communication in any medium that doesn’t make it obvious what the brand is and that doesn’t express itself with the personality of the brand is just bad branding and bad marketing. At the very least—and it really is the very least since the language of the message should be on-brand too—the name of the company should be somewhere in the SMS message. 

So, I’ll take the question from the standpoint of how can you use SMS marketing as a way to increase brand awareness and brand authority.

I think I covered the awareness and recognition issue in the previous question: through generating content that is powerful and meaningful enough to get people to talk about it.

As far as brand authority, the way to develop brand authority isn’t channel-specific, so I’ll address it in the broad sense: Every message you send is either going to increase or decrease your authority; it’s never static. And, one wrong move can decrease your authority much more than one right move can increase it. 

Authority is gained by consistently providing things that are meaningful to your customers and showing them that fulfilling their needs rather than your own bottom line is your primary interest. 

I know this is a hard thing for many companies to grasp: putting customers before the bottom line. But, it really goes back to Drucker’s idea about the purpose of business being to create a customer. If you’re creating and maintaining customers profits follows. And, to create and maintain customers over the long-term, the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. 

I think one of the classic examples of building authority by putting customers first is Gary Vaynerchuk and his Wine Library TV that lasted from 2006 to 2011. He would often give bad reviews of wines his store The Wine Library carried. It made his store a trusted source where customers knew they weren’t going to be bamboozled by a salesperson selling them an inferior wine. 

It’s also one of the things that has made Amazon a go-to destination for consumers: they allow bad reviews of products they sell. 

Another great example is Zappos. If you call them and they’re out of a shoe, they’ll help you find it at a competitor’s store. They want the customer to know that they’ll always be able to get what they want when they contact Zappos.

I know not every marketer is going to be able to convince their company to allow such extreme criticism of their own products or direct sales to competitors. But there are things related to authority that are easy for any company to do through SMS. A dimension of authority is trust and a dimension of trust is caring. And, it’s very easy to show you care. This can be as simple as allowing customers to request notifications when a product ships or is delivered and following through on that request. It shows you care by being aware of customers’ desires to have their lives be easier and more efficient. 

Just like personal relationships, companies that truly care will be in customers’ lives over the long-term and companies that don’t care won’t be.

 With so many unsolicited marketing messages bombarding us, nearly every second of the day, how can the fact that users need to opt-in to receive SMS marketing be leveraged to a marketer's advantage?

Communications being opt-in only is a great thing. It ensures that you’re not wasting money trying to reach people that have no interest in what you’re selling.  

It really would be pointless to have an SMS marketing campaign that wasn’t opt-in. SMS messages are very intrusive: nobody wants to be bothered by something they are almost guaranteed to see but have no interest in.

The flip-side, however, is that consumers are very open to receiving SMS communications that they find valuable from companies that they’re interested in. 

Having customers opt-in also allows you to collect information like how and when they want to be contacted and what name they like to be called. As I mentioned before, personalization is a key to successful SMS marketing and collecting customers’ preferences during the opt-in phase can help you make your messages highly targeted and relevant. 

What are some of the best times and days to send SMS marketing messages, for different types of promotions? What are some different sorts of promotions that are useful for SMS marketing, and why?

There aren’t any times or days that are generally best in a way that would apply to all businesses. The time and day depends on the type of business, type of messaging that is being sent, and the person it is being sent to; this goes back to relevancy. There are, however, some guidelines for sending messages that are relevant to all businesses: 

  1. Don’t send messages at times you would consider intrusive. Don’t send them too early,, too late, or when you might be interrupting someone’s dinner.
  2. Don’t send messages when you aren’t open for business. People should be able to contact you immediately after the message is sent.
  3. Don’t send messages that are too long. You should stop at 160 characters since that is the cutoff for a single message from most carriers. If you go over that, the carrier might break it up in a weird way, the person’s phone could ding several times in an intrusive way, the message might get cut off, and any more than that is really too much for the medium. 
  4. The message should be time sensitive. It should be relevant to something in the immediate future.
  5. Don’t contact them too much. Two to four times a month is a good guideline. Make them count. The only exception is if you’re providing updates they requested for something like a delivery. But, even in that case, make sure the updates matter.
  6. Collect information on how customers like to be contacted when they opt-in. Customers are much better at telling you what times they want to be contacted than anyone else. You don’t have to adhere to this time 100% of the time if the particular message makes another time more relevant, but it gives you a guideline for the majority of your messaging.

The only real guideline for promotions that are best suited to SMS messaging is being time-sensitive. Beyond that, I would be doing a disservice trying to create any hard rules. 

A hallmark of The Cult Branding Company is adapting to the unique needs of the company we’re working with. Each company has unique needs and unique customers that must be considered in the context of every marketing decision. Any consultant that comes in with cookie-cutter ideas about what should and shouldn’t be done isn’t listening properly and will likely do the company a disservice. 

If marketers consider everything I’ve mentioned in this interview and apply those ideas to the unique conditions of their companies, that’s really the only way they can determine what SMS marketing promotions make the most sense for them.


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