How to Build a Brand That Inspires Loyalty

In this interview with Mailchimp CMO Tom Klein, he tells us what it takes to keep customers coming back

Customers using a revolving door to come back and buy more products.
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Posted by Jodi

• 6 min read

As a small business owner, you count on loyal customers—the ones who come into your shop, read your publication, use your app, or donate to your nonprofit time and time again. No matter what you offer, these are the people who advocate for your brand and help you grow.

An important part of building a loyal base is knowing who is (and who should be) a part of it. Then it's a matter of supplying those people with a great experience every single time they interact with your brand.

We talked with Mailchimp CMO Tom Klein about what it takes to create a brand that keeps the right people coming back. For him, it's all about driving personal connections, staying customer-centric, and putting your heart into what you do.

How do you build a brand that inspires loyalty from the start?

Knowing who is the target is one of the most important things, and so is knowing who is not the target. What I find so often is it's very difficult to develop a brand architecture—which is basically all of the benefits you want to communicate at an emotional level—when you're not really clear who the target is. That clarity is critical.

When you have that target in mind, focus on the differentiation that matters. Differentiation doesn't mean just being different for different's sake. It means being different in a way that's compelling and makes you more appealing. The tendency is to jump right into marketing tactics: What is the brand identity? What is my color? What is the logo? To inspire loyalty from the start, step back and think about who is my target? How am I different? And how do I want to be differentiated vs. other brands in the category?

Smiling flowers with stems intertwined.

What's the most important lesson you've learned about customer loyalty?

Creating an emotional connection with people is the thing that drives loyalty—that makes someone say, "I am this kind of person. I have connected with the brand in a way that feels like it's very comfortable." The way that people pick a particular phone or pick a particular vehicle. It's comforting, and it gives people a lot of meaning and also it drives loyalty to the brand.

People really want meaning and some degree of connection with the products and services that they use. And so if you actually want to be valued as more than a commodity, then I think a brand—that connects at an emotional level—is more important than ever.

How can a brand be human enough to foster loyalty?

I like to think of it as a kind of a pyramid of things to communicate to a customer. I have to communicate a feature set that says you know what I am. So whatever the product is—it could be a cleaner—you have to describe it in terms and use features so people know that it's a cleaner. It's cleaner for what? When do I use it? Just the real basics. On top of that, I have functional benefits that I need to establish, and that tends to be where new marketers live. They will think that they're done if they say, "My cleaner's less expensive than your cleaner." Or, "My cleaner works better on leather than this option." And that's where a lot of companies stop.

Think a little bit more about the person on the other side who's using the cleaner and connect them with an emotional benefit. What is the implication for the customer? How does using this cleaner make you feel? What is the benefit for the customer? So in other words, I go from saying, "My cleaner works better on leather," to saying something about what's in it for you, “if you use this cleaner, you’ll feel refreshed.” A lot of it just comes from some degree of transference of thinking so much about your product or your offering, to thinking about the customer.

Person sitting with lots of birds with one perched on their hand.

How can a small business establish trust with their customers?

Trust is something that has to be earned customer by customer, sale by sale.

Think about brand-building and building your business over the long haul, because I think anyone who's interacted with customers at any level understands that it takes a degree of maturity and patience. And you need to be firm but fair. Customers recognize that you should not probably be able to return a thing that you bought 2 years ago. But at the same time, if you have a problem, there's a general expectation that you're going to help someone get through it.

If someone asks me what's some of the secret sauce about Mailchimp, it's that we have a very large support organization that establishes trust, 1 customer at a time. In many ways, they make my job a lot easier. Trust is built day after day, customer by customer. And that is something that I think, for an entrepreneur, is a commitment.

Do you have any early customer loyalty lessons from a job outside of marketing?

I worked in retail for a small men's and women's clothing store and did everything. A lot of it was interacting with people and knowing who the regular customers were. And I was expected to be mature because it was a nice store, and so it was a lot about being polite. So it was a very high-touch, high-service place. Everything was, "Can I put things together? Can I deliver it? Can I courier it to you? Would you like it wrapped?" Everything was about extra service. That was a very formative experience for me.

And your most formative marketing experience?

My work at Chanel. That was the lesson of real clarity around who the target is, and just deliver, deliver, deliver and with a mindset towards this brand means something. And also a notion of quality, such that everything is made the way it is supposed to be made—even if no one knew, a quality that you don't see is in there. And that was something that really made employees feel proud to be there. At a certain price point, you have to tell the story. There's a romance behind things. And so it's easier to tell the story if it's a good story.

"Trust is something that has to be earned customer by customer, sale by sale."
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Finally, how can a brand give their audience personalized attention without bombarding them?

It's as if I started to take piano lessons and I were overly worried about becoming a concert pianist. It's not likely to happen. The greater risk is that I won't practice enough to even be able to play the piano.

My experience is if your marketing communication is thoughtful and creative and a little part of you, then people want as much as you can give them, as long as you're upfront about your cadence. Today, you have so many different options, whether it's social media, advertising, or email. Set the cadence that makes sense. Put enough heart into the things that are going out, and narrow what you're doing. Don't spread peanut butter everywhere so that it's unsatisfying. Put enough effort and enough heart into the things that you do so that customers will actually ask for more.