News & Views

Opinion / How do brands create kinship in a digital world?

by Contagious Contributor

Tim Wade, expert in multi-channel experience and managing partner of Smith+Co, shares the customer experience consultancy’s ‘high-touch’ loyalty model

The notion of brand loyalty has become a predictable series of functional transactions in a purely rational process. This was the notion in my previous Contagious article regarding the overriding problem with loyalty schemes.

I was recently presenting at a conference in Sydney, and on the lineup was a corporate anthropologist called Michael Henderson. He gave a powerful presentation on the behaviour of humans within corporate environments with his research showing that as humans we crave and treasure human-to-human moments. He demonstrated that successful engagement in this environment is not about ‘high-tech’ but ‘high-touch’.

Real loyalty is more emotional and more human than many brands give it credit for. In fact, it’s more about kinship; a connection that provides us with a sense of community, culture and self-fulfilment. Very few brands achieve this level of loyalty. More often than not theres a strong focus on the rational connection, but a clear sense of obliviousness when it comes to an emotional one.

So what do those successful brands that achieve this level of kinship and ‘human’ emotion do differently? Well, in a world obsessed with over-simplistic five step guides to greatness, we thought we'd join in and create our very own five leafed flower model (if you can’t beat them, join them!). We’ve called this our ‘high-touch’ loyalty model (to jump on the new terminology bandwagon as well).

Build it Around your Purpose

A ‘high touch’ model will need to dramatise your overarching purpose. It’s specific to your brand, your strategy and how you differentiate. If you’ve not defined your purpose, don’t bother with the rest of the model, as you’ll just create a generic set of tactics that will be the same as everyone else.

Its Personal...

Kinship between the customer and the brand is personal, and its about both parties. Just ask the customers or staff of the clothing brand Patagonia, whose mission statement reads Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. Patagonia’s purpose is what drives the kinship. Unlike lots of clothing brands, this business is about using less resources and looking after the planet. Rather than pushing their loyal customers to buy new stuff, they would rather they repair their old stuff. What Patagonia understands is that kinship is a two-way thing; customers want to get to know their favourite brands, so as a business, its willing to open up and act in a human way, not a corporate way.

Create Experiences

Brands that are leading the way in inspiring high levels of loyalty and kinship have accepted that it's about creating experiences before pushing a product. They understand that lots of their customers have enough stuff but could do with more great experiences. After all, we can easily forget the details of our purchases, but we'll most definitely remember a great experience.

Take the award-winning O2 priority moments campaign and how they dramatise their purpose ‘connecting people to the things that they love in life’. The experience of getting priority seats to see the Rolling Stones at the O2 arena in London lives long in the memory, whereas getting some points for spending more money does not.

Re-enforce a Sense of Cultural Identity

Brands have long-since helped us define our identity, from driving a Harley Davidson to wearing Doc Martens. Building loyalty is about strengthening an emotional bond to heighten that sense of identity and belonging. It can be as simple as creating heightened status levels for those on the inside.


Purpose-driven loyalty schemes respond to the fact that their customers expect to be rewarded for being loyal. Though some freebies are always welcome, a more thoughtful and personal experience will re-enforce a sense of identity. When your favourite hotel welcomes you back and strives to put you in the room that you love, because you happened to mention it once during a checkout... youre going to feel the personal touch within the reward.

Don’t Try to be Good at Everything

Customers value certain aspects of the experience more than others, customers remember the emotional highs and lows of an experience, so the experience needs to align to your brand. Theres no benefit in trying to be good at everything – instead, create hallmarks of experience. These intentional experiences need to be aligned to the brand purpose in order to provide a high-touch path to kinship.

A great example of what high-touch looks like is the coffee specialists Nespresso.

Let me welcome you to Club Nespresso. This isn't the usual scheme that sees members thrown into a predictable points-based system to slowly climb towards the platinum loyalty level. This is a high-touch experience with some of the stand-out features including:

- Dedicated lounge space in every store to test new tastes or enjoy your old favourite (which the host will already know).
- Access to a high quality hotline or a virtual advisor to help with product or store information.
- A Nespresso app that tailors its content and updates around your location and life stage.
- Communications that offer the member first tastes of new coffees, leading coffee machines, accessories and limited edition merchandise.
- A global community of over 4 million sharing and learning together about great coffee

One of the stand-out touchpoints for club members is the exclusive subscription to the high quality Nespresso magazine which is published three times a year. This top-spec publication clearly puts Nespresso ahead of the pack and reminds you that you do not only buy coffee with Nespresso, but a very special, unique and qualitative experience. For Nespresso, it is clear that all communication is personal, but the way they communicate with their most loyal fans is the most personal of all.

Brands like Nespresso have opted to use their technology to provide a more human experience. The digital features simply help their customers achieve a more human connection, whether its with the brand representatives, other super-fans or those around them who haven't yet been converted to Nespresso.

Members of great loyalty schemes want to share their greatest brand experiences with everyone, and that is the key.