Capitalising on the radical engagement from brand loyalty and customer referrals

Marketers have new opportunities to deliver long-term, loyal consumer relationships through the excellent customer experience baked into referral marketing


Marketers have an unending panoply of tools at their disposal when it comes to getting their brands in front of customers. But, the challenge they still face is in translating views and sales into long-term, meaningful relationships with brand advocates. 

At a recent roundtable, sponsored by ‘Referral Engineering’ company Mention Me, C-suite marketers from Boots, Currys, Just Eat and Made discussed their strategies around loyalty and referrals as vehicles for delivering acquisition, engagement and a transformed customer experience. 

While brand remains at the heart of marketing strategy, attendees agreed, digital and data have presented new opportunities for marketers. “We have to flex brands in a different way now,” says Mention Me’s marketing director Mark Choueke. “We’ve come through an era where it was all about broadcast messaging to an era where everybody was focused on customer experience. Now, customer experience is moving to customer participation.” Allowing customers to participate with brands facilitates a stronger relationship as people begin to identify with the brands they like and refer, he says. 

To achieve that, though, companies have to ensure they remain relevant to modern consumers’ lives. Pete Markey, CMO of Boots, says corporate culture, communications, products and services, and the channels used all play a role in uniting brands with consumers. “With the example of Boots, when you walk into a store, when you go online, when you use the app, they should all equally be screaming, ‘This is what we’re about,’” he says. 

That sense of authenticity is true of digital-native and of 150 year-plus heritage brands, alike. Made COO Nicola Thompson adds: “Authenticity has to be built into every single part of the service proposition. You can’t just produce a beautiful ad campaign for furniture and then not deliver against the quality, the speed and the price people expect.” To do this, Made has a strong sense of its own brand, but also puts a huge amount of energy into understanding its audience. 

In the pandemic, it had to listen to the needs of not only customers, but employees. In-store staff, Thompson says, did not want to go on furlough, rather they wanted to put their skills to use in support of the business. Made delivered a digital appointment service that enabled sales staff to meet with people virtually. This deepened the customer experience, but also enriched the relationship between the brand and its advocates, as customers invited Made into their homes through the screen.

People are talking about our brands anyway, that’s going on all the time. The challenge is making sure that we’re delivering those customer experiences that enable them to have that positive conversation

Dan Rubel, brand & marketing director at Currys, agrees: “Our colleagues are one of the things that make us special. Often you’ll see the big brand campaigns talking about our real-life human experts.” He says bringing the message back to the in-store experience, through the technical expertise of staff, can help Currys differentiate itself and build its brand authentically.

Participatory engagement is facilitating more personal, deeper relationships between brands and customers, thereby providing a richer landscape for referrals to grow. Great brand experiences typically lead to discussions with family members, friends or colleagues in which consumers become brand advocates, Choueke says. “You literally shout loudly and identify yourself with a brand and say, ‘I’m willing to put my reputation on the line to share this with you.’ After that, the beauty is that you post-rationally love that brand even more because you just heard yourself say you did.” 

Facilitating this, however, is not just about changing marketing strategies. The change also has to come from within. At Made, for one, Thompson also oversees supply and procurement and operations. Boots is starting its own in-house media agency. At Currys, the customer experience function is part of the marketing team. Integrating different elements of a business’ operations with marketing allows the marketer to better understand the company and better position it to customers and potential customers. 

Building a team that can better reach consumers will help companies build loyal followings. “It’s creating those moments that are truly shareable,” says Just Eat’s marketing director Matt Bushby. “That gives us something really meaningful that our customers can say about us.” But even beyond sharing and loyalty, engaging with the customer can help brands deliver new campaigns and products based on data and research. During the pandemic, Just Eat noticed that more people were ordering breakfast than they had in the past. The company ramped up its breakfast offer, bringing new restaurants on board and communicating the change, resulting in a breakfast trade up by 200% in a year. 

By improving loyalty and building powerful referral programmes, companies can glean a huge amount of first-party data – the gold standard – and in turn, better understand customers’ needs. Markey says: “Your brand can quickly move from being relevant to less relevant. The need to continually engage has created this cycle where we have to be, if we weren’t already, [connecting with customers] as custodians of our brands, to create that longer term connection and to drive value.” He adds that these opportunities weren’t always open to marketers, but digital transformation has enabled companies to become more sophisticated with their use and analysis of consumer data. 

Rubel agrees that loyalty is essential to crafting a better customer experience. He says: “I don’t think there’s anything new in brand advocacy being important conceptually. But the tactics we use to create it have dialled up. The key piece for loyalty schemes is value; creating real value for customers, that’s something special.” That, he says, leads to the creation of “sticky relationships with customers.” 

You literally shout loudly and identify yourself with a brand and say, ‘I’m willing to put my reputation on the line to share this with you.’ After that, the beauty is that you post-rationally love that brand even more because you just heard yourself say you did.

And now, the opportunity to reap the rewards of customer loyalty and referrals is golden. Once an intangible, referrals and advocacy are now measurable. 

“There is no better recommendation that comes for a brand than from somebody you trust,” Thompson says. “I think the challenge is making sure that you can engineer that in a way that is just as genuine as when it happens in a purely organic way.” She points to data and technology as a means to this end, but also the difference that can be made by simply delivering on the customer promise.

Others agree that experience is crucial to creating a brand advocate and engendering those all-important referrals. Bushby says: “People are talking about our brands anyway, that’s going on all the time. Those conversations are organic and they’re always happening. The challenge is making sure that we’re delivering those customer experiences that enable them to have that positive conversation. Without those positive experiences customers have with our brand, none of this works.” 

It’s a loyalty loop. Referral drives acquisition. Customers are acquired, then engaged, creating loyalty; memorable experiences are delivered and customers become advocates, then referees. Achieving this means prioritising data and insights, but so marketers must also listen to their employees and implement their creativity to achieve excellent customer experiences.

To understand how Referral Engineering® equips ambitious ecommerce brands to drive, track and optimise advocacy and propel customer acquisition, visit mention-me.com/sundaytimes