ED: The concept of being a high-touch brand is not a new one. It refers to the trust established between a customer and an employed individual or between a customer and the brand. Typically, we see this referenced in areas like the medical or real estate or legal area, service firms. But “high-touch” is something that is important to all brands, to all entrepreneurs. Anyone who’s thinking about starting a business or has an existing business they want to grow should be very familiar with the concept of high-touch branding. A high-touch brand can mean the difference between a product being considered a commodity or a beloved brand. When you have a high-touch brand, you have connection points that fortify the relationship your customers have with you.
Today we have brought back organizational leadership expert Dr. Denise Cumberland. Denise is an associate professor at the University of Louisville, teaching both in the MS and Human Resource education program, as well as in the BS Organizational Leadership and Development program. Denise and I have been great friends and colleagues for many years. I’m visiting with her today to discuss how you can take your brand and make it even more high-touch for your customers as well as your employees, and what dividends it can pay to your brand community.
So, tell the audience a little bit about what you’re doing right now and a little bit about your background.
DENISE: Sure. I spent 20 plus years on the corporate side, working in advertising and marketing and consumer research for some major ad agencies, and then some major multinational companies. I had a blast. And then I retired to become a professor. I still do some consulting on the side with organizations, trying to help them understand employees or consumers. I like to say that, I’m not a medical doctor. I’m more of a doctor who helps organizations get healthier. That’s my goal. I’d love to see everyone work in a place that’s healthy. Where consumers go in and have great experiences.
ED: You have a combination of years really trying to anticipate, understand, predict, connect with consumers, and now that you’ve flipped your focus, to helping organizations make connections. I’d love to talk a little bit about what ways you see brands connect well with their customers. I don’t know if this phrase is gonna survive the next couple of months, but the whole notion of being a “high-touch” brand. I recently read about a study about deprivation. Deprivation is when you’re denied something, not necessarily by choice. So, you could be sleep deprived because you’re working hard, and you don’t get enough sleep. Or you’re somewhere where someone’s not letting you sleep. But the whole notion was that we as consumers, as humans, are touch deprived right now. We have been living in this literal and figurative bubble. And one of the magical ways brands connected with us, was by being high-touch. How would you describe high-touch traditionally, and what are some key attributes you see that give great evidence of a brand being a high-touch brand?
DENISE: I think part of it is listening. I think good, solid brands, who have what I call high-touch mentality, really listen to their consumers and their employees. They try to uncover those things that will make life easier for them. What are they missing? What do they need? Now, you can’t always figure that out with research. Good brands, marketers, and really good executives go down on the floor. They go into the environment. They try to truly listen to hear what’s going on. A couple things I’ve been doing, in terms of high-touch recently, is trying to help brands understand what their employees or what their consumers are thinking. It’s not just listening, though. It’s then putting steps into place to address what they hear.
So high-touch is making it easier for consumers to adopt your product, be part of your brand, or want to come back. And that can be everything from a service to the friendliness. It’s the feeling that people want to be known for. I think you said it best Ed. the word “connect.” Whether we talk about it as “high-touch” or “connect,” I think connections are valuable. On a personal note, a lot of the healthcare organizations have set up Zoom exercise classes for older adults who can’t go to the classes anymore. I actually know a bunch of 70 and 80-year olds who are Zooming in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for their Parkinson’s Disease boxing class. You’ve got older consumers, who have adapted to technology. They’re teaching me things they’re like, “Oh, you change your name by clicking on the three little dots”. I love it. Kudos to those organizations for finding ways to stay connected to their clients or their customers through technology.
ED: That’s interesting, because I know individual adaptability has always been a real central part of your being. In early March, I can’t think of any organization that didn’t have to adapt in some way to everything that’s going on. What’s interesting is the example you described would have been direct before. It would have been, “I’m coming to the gym and I’m going to work out.” In this case, you have these older individuals connecting like we are. We’re connecting over 1000 miles, in real time, through computer technology. Are you seeing any best practices and brands that are doing a great job of connecting with their community right now?
DENISE: In the healthcare industry, their clients are connecting with them for medical reasons. Listen to the ads on television and how they’re basically explaining to customers the steps they’re taking. Those extra steps or precautions, to give consumers a sense of confidence. They obviously know consumers are worried, so they’re taking steps and creating ways to give them that comfort level. Connecting with the consumer based on their need. I need to know that you’ve made this environment safe for me to walk into. I need to see everybody wearing a mask. I think organizations have figured out that right now people’s threshold of worry is really high. Therefore, their touchpoints are meant to help people be comfortable and confident that they’re taking those steps. I’ve experienced it in the medical community in terms of walking in and having your temperature taken or being asked questions. Frankly, having to sit in the car while my husband is inside. I don’t even mind. I’m like, fine. I’ll sit in the car. I understand why I’m sitting in the car.
ED: One of our clients is urgent care. And one of the first things we communicated was you’re either gonna sit in your car, or you’re gonna be in a room, but you’re not gonna be in the lobby. Imagine four months ago, telling your customers you’ve gotta sit in the car because we don’t want you in. Now people are like, “Yes, thank you!”
DENISE: The things we want now, we wouldn’t have dreamt about four months ago. Yeah, I’m good with that. I’ll go to the car.
ED: I haven’t even thought about the whole temperature thing. I really wonder is that going to disappear? That’s probably a whole other conversation. It is interesting to see. There has been an interesting dynamic over the last couple of months, we all fell into—uncertainty. I don’t know about you, I kind of had a belief that “Oh, we’ll navigate the next two weeks and figure it out.” I didn’t want to visualize this as a multi-month thing, even though I probably realized it was going to be. That being said, every single brand had the email that went out to their entire database and read, “We’re concerned and we’re going to take care of you.” Then, a little bit of backlash of that is it all seemed like wallpaper because every brand was making the statement. Now that we’re all adapting to our present reality, I think people are not looking for the letter from the CEO, they’re looking for the evidence, the execution, that you truly are making my safety and that of your team a priority through your actions. Would you agree with that?
DENISE: Absolutely, and I think stores and retail organizations who took steps to change consumers behavior, whether it was “We’re only going to be open from this time to this time, and if you’re over this age, you can come during these times. And by the way, this door is no longer available to come in. You only come out.” I’d rather you have some rules to protect all of us than to just walk into a place that has no concern for it.
ED: It was funny though; you better do it in the way your brand exists. I would guess you’re probably a fan of The Container Store. My wife and I needed a certain hook and so we ventured out this weekend. And as you would expect, instead of tearing tape for the little arrows put down on the carpet, you could tell they measured out each piece of tape. They cut it with clean cuts. So instead of looking like a 17-year-old did it, it looked like an engineer did it and all it was simply masking tape on the carpet. That little nuance confirmed for us, “yep, this is The Container Store.”
DENISE: I always try to remind myself that, regardless of who your customer is, you want to make sure that your employees feel safe as well. Whether you target an 18 to 24-year-old, you still have to have people working for you. And those people need to stay healthy. So, from the standpoint of brands and good organizations, they try to understand they’ve got two audiences. Their customers and their employees.
ED: Right, for sure. Relative to customers, while service models have been turned upside down and sideways right now, one of the things that actually reinforced itself for me this morning, while you’re on the research and organizational side now, I know that at heart you’re a communicator. It’s safe to say that words really matter to you. I had an interesting memory. As you know, I’m a heavy user of Chick-Fil-A. Still a huge fan. This morning, I worked out and wanted to get some easy protein on the way to the office. And Chick-Fil-A is a brand known for their incredible operation, execution, and efficiency. I don’t know if you’ve been through one of their drive throughs recently, but it’s amazing. It’s like Six Flags meets Disney World. They’ve got all these cones and stuff, everything. It’s amazing efficiency.
What I noticed this morning as I drove up was there were no cars in line, and they had two drive through windows open. They took my order. They weren’t as warm and friendly on the speaker. They weren’t definitely weren’t impolite, but there was nothing more than taking my order. By the time I got to the window, I noticed that they handed me my bag and my drink, then the employee turned to her team member and started talking about the next order. They did not say goodbye to me.
ED: Now, the probability of that happening at Chick-Fil-A is typically pretty low. But what was crazy about it was that, I noticed that. I noticed that the typically bright, shiny, happy Chick-Fil-A person was more concerned about the next order than sending me on my way, politely. Now, there’s a lot of other brands that I would not have noticed that. In this case, it was pretty interesting. Now, I’m obviously gonna go back. But, isn’t it interesting? What are your thoughts on how brands adapt, but then stay true to their heritage? What are some ways brands can do that?
DENISE: About your Chick-Fil-A example, service has always been what they and every consumer would “crow” about. “Oh my god, they’re the nicest people ever”, right? So they’re an example of high-touch. And I will say my experience has been very satisfactory. They have those big masks on and it looks like they’re taking care of their employees. Everything is well thought out. Hopefully, that was an aberration.
ED: The question is how does a company adapt, but stay true to the things that are part of their brand DNA?
DENISE: I think during these times the challenge is is staffing, training, and keeping morale high. It goes back to employees. I’m a big believer that, organizations that have teams, really have to make sure their team has an understanding of what your brand is. They must truly embrace it. They know it’s part of the organization’s DNA, it’s part of their DNA. I think for organizations it’s critical to ensure they have the right teams. Teams that are constantly kept trained and who really understand. Employees are the lifeblood to your DNA.
ED: Exactly. What’s interesting is that in that case, the chicken was breaded perfectly, but the hospitality wasn’t what is should be. Brands—now more than ever—better really recognize what the key three, four, or five touch points of their brand are. Even if you’ve got masks or you’ve got less staffing or even there is more uncertainty, you aren’t going to get a free pass if you’re not delivering on your brand DNA. The challenge is how you adapt in this world where it’s high-touch marketing, but “don’t touch me” because it scares me.
DENISE: I’ll give you an example, Trader Joe’s has done a good job. The experience there is they limit how many people are going in the store, and they explained it. Brands have to tell the customers why they’re making these steps. And I think a brand that says, “we’re protecting our employees and you” or “we don’t want our employees to get sick,” I think, “yeah, you’re right. I understand the importance of your team members. And I like you better because you are taking those steps to protect your employees.” When this first started, I heard, “we’ve cut our hours so that we can make sure our stores are safe.” And I’m like, “alrighty, so I can’t go to the darn pharmacy at 7am. I can’t go until like nine o’clock.” I’d rather you tell me you’re keeping that store safe for your employees. I think they can do it in a way that suggests they have humanity in front of them. So again, I do believe that there’s a way for organizations to frankly take away some things from consumers but let them know the reasons in a way that makes the consumer feel okay about it.
ED: And that “we may not be doing it this way forever, but we’re doing it this way now, not only for us, but for you.”
DENISE: Absolutely. There’s a lot that can be said for happy, safe employees and happy, safe customers. I can stand in a line six feet away from someone waiting to get in, because I want to go into the store. Do I love it? In the old days, I just walked in, but at the end of the day, I’m six feet away. I’m looking at my phone, I’m keeping myself busy. Then the customer who greets me up front says “thank you, our carts are clean.” They let you walk through. I know they’re doing it for good reasons.
ED: Right. It’s funny, that you and I have had the conversation in the past about how marketing is in some ways one of the most complex things in the world and some ways it’s just the simplest thing. You said not just the what, but the why. I think back to being a parent of a teenager. Well, he’s 21 now. But our son oftentimes would not respond well to the “what” of the request, if we didn’t explain the “why.” And sometimes I’m thinking, “I’m the dad, I don’t have to explain the why.” But the reality is that we’re all kind of like that teenager. If we just explain the “why,” then a lot of times that is one of the touchiest things you can do, in a good way, is show that you care enough about your customers that you’re explaining “why” you’re doing the things you do for them.
DENISE: Absolutely. Whether it’s postings in the store, or it’s online on their site, it says, “These are the steps we’re taking to keep everyone healthy. We want a world that is x, y, and z,”. I do think the why matters. It has always mattered. It probably matters more now than ever, because we’re having to see organizations scale back on some of the things they can do for us as consumers. As consumers, we’ve been spoiled rotten. In terms of having a cart blanche wherever I want to go. Now if organizations can help us understand the why, they’ll keep our business.
ED: Well, that and also from a business owner standpoint, if you do it well, there’s a high probability that in the future you can give greater sales velocity with less product assortment.
DENISE: Absolutely. And doesn’t that make life easier.
ED: That’s profitable!
DENISE: Absolutely! I mean, when you think about waste in terms of write-offs. Now it’s like, “wow, this could be so much more efficient.” So, we’ll see what happens. I liked what you said, we’re sort of in a “new normal” or what was the word you used? I really liked it.
ED: Present reality.
DENISE: Present reality. Our present reality is such that we have become, more adaptable, more forgiving, but also realizing that this too will change.
ED: It will. But you know, the truth remains. If you’re not listening to your customer, they’re gonna know it.
DENISE: Absolutely. I think and people do. I’ve been very proud to see organizations follow the rules and guidelines. They have a right to protect their employees. Whether a smaller establishment or a larger establishment the goal is to keep people healthy. And that’s, right now in this environment, the number one goal. If I can’t get something, I’m going to be far more forgiving right now then, than I was probably four or five months ago.
ED: And if you take care of me well now, you’re probably gonna have me a lot longer as well.
DENISE: Absolutely. That’s high-touch.
ED: Now that’s high-touch. Thanks, Denise.
DENISE: Thank you, Ed. Take care.