STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD: Eight Alternative Customer Engagement Strategies

It can feel really good to go along with the crowd. There's not much risk in wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey, buying tickets to a Taylor Swift concert, or grabbing lunch from McDonalds.

Lots of people do those things and no one blinks an eye. Those things are all culturally accepted. You'll fit in with a big crowd.

But, you won't stand out.

(Okay, a grown-up without kids might stand out at a T-Swift concert, so maybe avoid that one.)

A few weeks back we took a close look at the Brand Keys 2017 list of the most beloved brands, and deduced that the majority of them fit into one of five categories of how they approach customer relationships.

These big, overarching branding and engagement strategies are pretty safe. They all work really well.

In fact, we argue that most brands would do well to pick one and run with it.

Some brands have veered completely off the roadmap, however, and found great success.


These brands identified what was working for others in their industries and pulled a complete 180. Or they built something entirely new and different based 100% on what they knew about their customers.

Some are major risks, but others…well, you might just find some pieces in there that are perfectly fine for your brand.

      • The Company That Listens

We've written before that great customer service is rarely a factor in why someone buys from a brand (but it's the top reason why they churn from one). Well, there are exceptions to that rule.

With some companies, their customer service is so good, and so responsive, that the product is almost irrelevant. Or at least, the reputation for service is the swaying factor between one company and a competitor.

Example: Zappos

shoes.jpgIt seems like every time great customer service is mentioned, Zappos is in the same breath. Well, there's a couple good reasons for that.

One, they built their company around great service and invest more in it than just about anyone else.

And two, most companies aren't even trying to bolster their customer service operations. They're content with an understaffed call center, or they're trying to make it impossible for customers to ever make human contact.

In other words, it's going to be a long time before someone dethrones Zappos from their perch.

      • The Gritty Underdog

Sometimes not being the market leader is an advantageous position. The pressure is on the big dog to maintain their lofty status, after all. For everyone else, there's nothing to lose.

Underdogs relish in being part of the 99%, a champion of the common person. They work harder for consumers and do the things the market leader won't.

As a result, Underdogs carve out their own niche of followers that may not want anything to do with any other brand in the category. 

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Example: Carl's Jr.

Carl's Jr (and/or Hardees) works very hard to be the opposite of McDonald's. Instead of families and kids, they project women in bikinis and comedy. McDonald's tries to message healthy ingredients; Carl's Jr. just debuted a "Thickburger" with baby back ribs and fried onion rings.

A lot of people will recoil at the thought, and the branding - and they're totally fine with that. Combined with the Hardee's brand, they rake in over $3 billion in revenue each year.

      • The Hands-On Company

Ever encountered a business with such a great customer experience that you wonder how they stay in business? 

As in, they go out of their way to make sure customers have an amazing experience not only with their products and services, but in the activity in which they're utilizing that product/service. Their "100% satisfaction guaranteed" policy isn't just whistling Dixie.

A great example of this type of company is LL Bean's famous satisfaction guarantee

Example: REI

There's a scene in the Resse Witherspoon movie Wild that finds her character stranded at a remote rest stop along the Pacific Crest Trail. The boots she had purchased from REI were too small, causing blisters on her feet and a lot of pain.

Upon calling REI, they agree to swap out her too-small pair for new ones - at the next stop along the remote trail. For free, no extra charges.

Turns out it wasn't just a movie gimmick - they really do things like that.

      • The Rebel

Every family has a black sheep. You know, the one who gets into trouble, smokes, and maybe belches at the Thanksgiving dinner table. The rest of the family may get tired of their rebellious ways, but they have their audience and fans.

Business-wise, think of this as casting out all norms. Rebels call out their competitors, create quirky marketing campaigns, and mix in off-color messages in their social channels.

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Example: T-Mobile

Just two years ago T-Mobile was sitting in fourth place among the large carriers, and was rumored to be cozying up to more suitors than the aforementioned Ms. Swift. Then they began bucking industry norms with what they called "Uncarrier." They ditched contracts, added in unlimited data to most plans, exempted music and video from counting against data anyway, and more. They called out competitors by name and hired a CEO who tweets back and forth with customers (plus shares out his crockpot creations on weekends).

Now, they're clearly vying for the top spot in the industry.

      • The Place for Employees

We're firm believers in the idea that great companies are built from the inside-out. Employees have to love the company before customers will. 

Employee engagement = customer engagement.

There's often an overlap between employee-centric companies and companies with great customer service. A major reason for this is empowerment. Employee-centric companies empower their people to make decisions without having to run decisions up the chain of command, which makes for a much smoother customer experience.

Example: Boston Consulting Group

This global consulting behemoth is highly influential and prolific. A major part of that success is they're very employee-centric. $5 co-pays, diversity programs, lots of training and growth programs…and a lot more.

Over on our employee benefits blog we highlighted their practice of guaranteeing at least one email-free evening per week. Which sounds goofy at first, until you consider that over a third of employees spend more than an hour checking email outside of working hours each week.

      • The Useful Pal

"Your brand MUST have a mobile app" is just the modern version of "Your brand MUST have a website" or "Your brand MUST have a Facebook page."

There's a lot of truth there. Mobile apps can be a valuable source of engagement and an important foothold in the customer's stream of information.

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Example: Starbucks

Starbucks does a lot of things well, but none are as impressive as their mobile efforts.

We've spent a lot of time talking about what mobile wallets can do to grow their user base. The major reason is they're still stuck on being just another way to pay.

Starbucks, meanwhile, has offered more than just another way to pay for years. They've got ordering, special offers, gifting, loyalty program integration…in some stores you can even use the app to change the music playing. And they're still adding functionality to it.

      • The Niche Embracer

A close cousin of the Underdog, Niche Embracers dial in on a specific audience and cater entirely to them. Their product might work for bigger groups, and there may be a lot more money in those bigger groups. But they don't care - they serve a specific group of people with similar needs, and those people alone.

As they say, there's riches in the niches.

Example: Slack

Slack's platform could be a major challenger to any number of groupchat programs. Instead, they chose to serve business messaging.

Granted, that's a pretty big niche, but there's just as much money, if not more, in general population forums and group chats.

      • The Warrior

More and more people are turning critical eyes at the companies they do business with. They prefer to support businesses that do something good for the world or the surrounding community.

Warrior companies go beyond that. These businesses make their charitable initiatives a central part of their public branding and image. In some instances, they support causes that are politically divisive. Which is risky and sure to cause some churn, but is very endearing to likeminded customers.

Example: Tom's Shoes

Look, we're sure Tom makes some fine shoes. We've even owned a few pairs and they’ve been great, but we're hardly E! fashion correspondents.

It doesn't matter. Everyone knows Tom's Shoes because of their "One for One" policy. For every pair of shoes they sell, they give away a pair to an impoverished child. They help with a bunch of other causes as well, including vision problems in poorer countries and water in needy areas.

If you've bought something from Tom's, then there's a safe bet that a portion of it has gone to someone or somewhere in need.Loyalty Statistics The Ultimate Collection

Strategies vs Tactics

Of course, it goes without saying that these are strategies, and each has its own tactics. Those tactics boil down to meeting your customers where they want to be met - email, social, YouTube, mail, SMS, content, blogs, forums, mobile apps…the channels available for you to send your message across are limitless.

The question to ask is, what works for them? How can you speak to them like no other company does?

Then, how frequently? As we've stated before, frequency is really a matter of value. Be useful enough, you can bombard customers with messages all day.

Start with the big picture first, before you get into the how. Figure out who you are and what you want to be, first. Then go out and add value to make connections with customers.

Own Your Audience

Are there more strategies than these eight? You bet. When it comes to companies and their customers, all bets are off.

Sure, there are best practices and tactics that seem to work across industries, but the overall composition is between you and your customers.

You can follow the crowd and be fine.

Or you can be different, and connect with your customers in a way others in your industry aren't willing to.

There's nothing wrong with Golden State, or Taylor Swift, or a fast food lunch.

But you'll definitely stand out in that Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks jersey at the Migos concert after dining at the local greasy spoon.

Going against the grain a bit might make you stand apart from the crowd.

And when your customers are a little bit different from the crowd?

Well, that's when your customer engagement and loyalty can shoot off the charts.

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(Fan image courtesy of)

Topics: Customer Engagement

Written by: Brandon Carter

Brandon is a former writer and marketer for Access Development. He's a frequent blogger on customer and employee engagement & loyalty, consumer trends, and branding. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @bscarter

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