3 Key Insights from Heavyweight Brands That Focus on Customer Relationships

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Author photo: Morgan Norman

Morgan Norman

The way that most companies think about customer relationships has gotten boring.

Many companies only focus on a single generic process for building customer relationships: Stay in contact with your customers, learn as much about them as you can, and personalize when possible.

This is a two-dimensional approach because there's no one-size-fits-all way to build great customer relationships. There are just as many ways to build relationships as there are to build products.

The best brands across all industries—from airlines to athletic apparel to SaaS—each take their own unique approach to building customer relationships. These brands are the heavyweight champions that prove companies that prioritize customer relationships are the ones who win in their industries.

But they're also showing us that customer relationships have more than two dimensions. To build the type of long-lasting relationships that make you stand out in an industry, you have to do more than send surveys or collect user data. You have to deeply understand what your customers want and then build this core value into your company's DNA so you can deliver it to customers again and again.

Below, we'll show how Virgin Atlantic, Nike, and MailChimp take nuanced and out-of-the-box approaches to building customer relationships. There are key insights that any company in any industry can take away, because these principles transcend the specific group of customers. They center around the core idea that lasting customer relationships are one of your best competitive advantages and best levers for growth.

Virgin Atlantic: Strong relationships help you capitalize on competitors' weaknesses.

Strong customer relationships aren't just a nice-to-have once you've built a product or established your business. These relationships can be your defining competitive advantage and your one crowbar into a crowded market.

This is how Virgin Atlantic found a successful niche in the airline industry. Virgin entered the airline industry specifically to compete: British Airways was the incumbent, and Virgin founder Richard Branson felt that these big airline industries had become corporate and soulless on the customer-facing side.

british airways vintage ad
An ad for British Airways in the 1980s. [Source]

Branson wanted to make airline travel fun again for the customer, so he specifically created Virgin to be a “fun, irreverent airline” that would stand out with its exceptional service.

And since 1984, Virgin has delivered.

They've earned consistently high ratings for cabin service and innovation, showing that they can understand and meet customers' needs while they're traveling. CEO Craig Kreeger says that this attentiveness is baseline and should be expected for any service business.

“We should know [your history and experiences] and take care of you the next time. It’s just like I would do if I were running a restaurant.” - Craig Kreeger, Virgin Atlantic CEO

But they also take their relationships several steps further and find the nuances of customers' needs that other airline companies aren't addressing. For example, while most airline companies' messaging pushes you to book the flight, Virgin wanted to continue the relationship past entering credit card information. They created a campaign to highlight passengers' unique experiences while on their flights. Their #FlyPE Free Ad Space contest called customers to tweet at them and explain how Premium Economy on Virgin helped their business.

virgin atlantic contest tweet
Tweet from the contest winner, who won free ad space.

This celebrates how customers' in-flight experiences can connect with the rest of their lives—something that not a lot of other airlines take note of in their messaging. By acknowledging that their customers are more than just airline passengers, Virgin finds a way to fit into a customer's bigger ambitions as more than just an airline.

In another campaign called Let It Fly, Virgin built an interactive web and mobile experience that allowed users to click on items to pack their own bag for a dream vacation.

virgin let it fly ad campaign

Virgin would then help the user plan the perfect vacation with that bag and give recommendations for where to go, what to eat, what to visit, and even show them tweets from the destination.

This free, interactive web experience is totally unnecessary for an airline company that focuses on bottom-line metrics like revenue and flights booked. But by building in those extra experiences that competitors don't think about, Virgin can carve out a unique space in customers' minds as helpful and inspiring.

Virgin shows that being creative and genuine about your customer relationships can be your best competitive advantage. Virgin's promise to prioritize the customer helped them see where competitors were failing and understand how they could make customers happier with air travel. This was how they broke into a very competitive market and became known as the cool kids of the airline industry.

Nike: Emotional currency paves the way for lifetime value.

You know you have a real relationship with customers when your connection with them transcends your product.

Nike's greatest marketing and customer relationship win has been their ability to establish an emotional connection with their customers. Through carefully crafted marketing campaigns and ads, they've set up a “hero's journey.” In this narrative, the villain is the voice inside your head telling you that you can't do it—you can't run another mile, or score the winning shot, or get out of bed to go to the gym. Then they position themselves as your biggest advocate and show you that you can overcome your doubts.

nike find your greatness ad
Nike's “Find Your Greatness” commercial is simply a one-minute clip of a boy running. No products are shown.

This emotional connection doesn't directly promote the sneakers or the workout clothes that Nike sells. But it does create a framework for Nike's products to fit into customers' narratives of their own lives. Nike provides the emotional encouragement to inspire a customer—and then, almost as an afterthought, they provide the technical equipment that will help a customer reach their goals.

Nike can do this because they understand that emotional currency can be just as valuable as revenue. On a practical level, a lot of the tactics that the brand takes to connect with customers mean sacrificing sales. For example, Nike has created free apps like the Nike Training Club app that competes with gyms and personal trainers.

nike exercise mobile app

The app lets users set goals and create customized workout programs. In many ways, the app experience is even more personal than a pricey gym membership—and it costs the user nothing. This is a key way for Nike to show customers that they're supporting the entire journey towards achieving fitness goals, not just selling products.

Even if Nike isn't cashing in on app subscription payments or sneaker prices directly, their long-term investments pay off because they create brand ambassadors. For example, they take unnecessary steps to continue relationships with their Nike Training Club fans outside of the app. One NTC user blogged about Nike's personal tweet to congratulate her for reaching her fitness goals in the app.

nike congrats fitness goals tweet

The user, Rohini Vibha, also explained how after using the app for about a year, Nike sent her a free pair of training shoes and a handwritten card. These unexpected gestures and free services established that the brand was there to support her journey.

Nike's success in the sports apparel market—which is predicted to grow to over $100 billion by 2020—shows that the most valuable long-term customer relationships take up-front investment.

Metrics that companies use to measure the financial value of customers like customer acquisition cost and lifetime value are not strictly black and white. They include some non-quantifiable factors, like brand loyalty and emotional investment. Companies can build better and stronger customer relationships when they don't overlook emotional currency.

MailChimp: Thoughtful plan structure and pricing helps you grow with customers.

You can't build genuine relationships if you aren’t evolving alongside your customer. To show that you're in it for the long haul, customers have to know that you'll provide a great solution for them even as their needs change.

MailChimp, the email marketing automation platform, has championed this key insight to build solid relationships with customers who have a lot of other options for marketing software. Even though the email marketing space is crowded with competitors like Constant Contact and Marketo, MailChimp is doing $400 million in yearly revenue and growing. This is because customers know that they can trust MailChimp to support them from their scrappiest days to their ultimate successes.

MailChimp originally built their product to help small companies create email marketing campaigns as a way to scale. But they've also made sure that they can support these same customer businesses as they grow and as their needs change.

An important part of this was creating plans and pricing that could cater to companies at different stages of growth.

mailchimp pricing options

Their most basic plan, the free plan, is for new businesses that just need the most basic email marketing tools. The other plans offer increasingly advanced functionality like multivariate testing and reporting. This is important because if MailChimp is doing its job correctly, customers' businesses will grow and they'll need more than just the basics.

Even the website copy speaks to the needs of the most novice business owners and the more holistic needs of mature companies.

mailchimp website targets beginners

For example, in one section, MailChimp makes total beginners feel comfortable and supported by providing them with a guide to marketing automation.

mailchimp website talks about marketing automation

Meanwhile, another section explains that businesses can tie in learnings from MailChimp to better understand their metrics and grow their business. MailChimp is showing that they can be whatever a customer needs them to be—a point solution to simply make email a little easier, or a more robust platform that could become a one-stop-shop for businesses that need to ramp up their marketing.

MailChimp's success shows that planning for the future with your customer matters. To build long-term relationships, you have to create a structure that allows customers to keep finding value in your company even as their needs change. This ensures that your customers don't outgrow your product or your company.

Heavyweight brands build relationships that transcend the products.

For Virgin Atlantic, Nike, and MailChimp, customer relationships are about a lot more than just importing data on customers. They use what they know about customers to go the extra mile. They do things that are weird and unique.

Although these brands are powerhouses in their industries, their strategies are completely accessible. The common theme throughout all of their tactics is to build relationships that are about more than just the company or the products. Connect to the customers' experiences outside of your service: their emotions and their big-picture goals. Acknowledge them and support them over the long haul by conveniently providing the tools they need along the way.

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