Customer intimacy, the marketing strategy that helps you make powerful connections with your customers, is not new. The unconventional term has been around for three decades: Harvard Business Review wrote about it in 1993, Forbes caught up with it 10 years later, and today, we’re still talking about it. What is customer intimacy, and why is it relevant now?
Although the definition has shifted with the digital landscape, the basic concept of customer intimacy — building relationships through personalization, consistency, and outstanding experiences — has stayed the same. What’s changed? Consumers have more choices than ever. Showing that you understand them on a deeper level is critical to your company’s success and differentiation.
What is customer intimacy?
Customer intimacy is a relationship-building strategy in which brands acquire extensive knowledge about their customers, and use that data to meet their needs and expectations in thoughtful, personalized ways. Companies that excel at customer intimacy create emotional connections with consumers that can boost customer loyalty.
Think about how your favorite brands interact with you. Do you appreciate that they remember your birthday, send you customized newsletters, or offer loyalty points and exclusive perks? Your answers reveal your unique preferences and values — what’s important to you. That’s the idea behind customer intimacy: to discover what matters most to each customer, and to deliver that experience every time.
Segmentation was once an important tactic of customer intimacy, but not anymore. “You have to be tracking on an individual level,” said Salesforce Senior Vice President of Brand Engagement Mai Green. “Customer intimacy has to be personal. It has to be more human, and not generic.”
What’s more human and personalized than online pet store Chewy, which sends a customer a handwritten card and flowers after their pet dies? That’s customer intimacy.
And customer intimacy is a long-term strategy. A recent McKinsey study revealed that companies that shine at personalization prioritize long-term growth drivers and customer lifetime value over short-term wins. “True success does not come from the initial marketing and sales effort, but rather, growing the relationship with a customer for the long term,” said Michael Maoz, senior vice president of Innovation Strategy at Salesforce.
Why is customer intimacy important now?
“Direct relationships with individual customers didn’t used to be a priority,” said Green. They’re crucial now because customers have so many options. “You have to personalize every connection,” she added. “Otherwise, they’ll take their business elsewhere.”
The tumult of the last few years has also upped the need for customer intimacy. “We’re seeing unprecedented change,” said Polly Sumner, chief adoption officer at Salesforce. “When you have change, customer intimacy increases the bond between you and your customer.” For example, think of how the borders of many consumers’ work and home lives blurred during the pandemic, and how brands stepped up to address those changes.
Finally, there’s Gen Z, the demographic that expects “a degree of personalization that amounts to mind-reading,” according to Forbes. Studies show that 77% of Gen Z value customized interactions, and 76% want digital communications they can customize based on their preferences. By 2026, Gen Z will comprise the largest share of the U.S. consumer population. In other words, “In three years, you won’t have a customer base without customer intimacy,” said Sumner.
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What are some examples of customer intimacy?
A 2020 study found that the top customer intimacy brands in the United States are Amazon, Disney, Apple, Ford, and Jeep. Amazon was arguably the first brand to truly know customers and anticipate their needs, but Disney excels at using customer data to create experiences that surprise and delight.
At its theme parks, the company mines data from its smartphone apps and MagicBand devices to manage crowds and track guest interactions. That’s how staff at the parks have the perfect character toy to give a child if they trip and fall. That’s how a child ends up having breakfast with Mickey Mouse instead of pancakes with just Mom and Dad. And that’s how a child finds their next favorite movie from personalized recommendations on Disney+.
“We take our experiences as humans into our expectations about how we want to be treated,” said Sumner. “We don’t like negative surprises, but we don’t realize how much we love positive surprises.”
For example, “I love brands that communicate in my language, which is text,” said Green. “Reminders from my favorite brands like, ‘You left this in your cart,’ or a ‘We miss you’ message from my yoga studio. Brands that understand your language know how to engage you and bring you back in.”
Another example of customer intimacy doesn’t actually come from a brand — it’s from the world of online gamers. “Gamers do a great job of building a personal relationship that goes beyond games,” Sumner said. “Affinity groups evolve from people that play together. They learn each other’s behavior and get better and better at playing the games.”
How to implement customer intimacy
What do your customers need? What’s happening with them on a personal level? How do they prefer you communicate with them? If you can answer these questions on an individual level — and integrate the answers into your communications — you’re on the way to customer intimacy. If not, read on for the two next steps you need to take.
The first is to get more curious about your customer base. “To this day, companies still don’t do enough discovery with customers,” said Green. “Who are they, what are their challenges, what can you solve for them? If we can solve and fill that gap, it’s a win and you’ll build a relationship.”
The best tool for learning more? It’s one of the oldest in our toolbox: questions. “Questions are the foundation of intimacy and trust,” said Sumner. “Questions provide a level of intimacy because it’s the customer’s choice to share or not. Just don’t take away the choice of sharing, as that can damage the relationship.”
Make sure you’re asking the right questions: ones that zero in on a customer’s needs, identify how to make their life easier, and highlight their values. Can you tell a full story about that person or customer? If not, you’re talking — and marketing — too much, and need to listen more.
Make sure you’re asking the right questions: ones that zero in on a customer’s needs, identify how to make their life easier, and highlight their values.
The second step is using the best technology. The following tools can transform customer intimacy. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Generative AI is technology that uses inputs such as algorithms, logic, and data to create something new – like poetry, an image, or a physics explainer – when prompted by a human. Companies will increasingly use generative AI to create personalization at scale. It offers huge potential for the future of customer intimacy.
Data is the foundation of personalized experiences. Today, larger companies use an average of 976 different applications to run their business. But if you have 976 potential versions of a single customer, you can’t create a seamless experience for them. By moving data into one unified source, you can access complete, real-time insights to power your customer intimacy strategy.
Customer relationship management (CRM) software gives every team a single, shared view of a customer. This means that everyone from marketing, sales, service, commerce, and IT is drawing from the same workspace to deliver tailored customer experiences. CRM is the final piece in the customer intimacy puzzle, tying everything together.
Looking ahead: The future of customer intimacy
Where is customer intimacy headed? “The next step is that we have to change how we engage in the 1:1 relationship,” said Green. “Only then can we change the customer relationship and grow.”
For many companies, that means drawing from two ideas that are already dramatically changing the customer relationship: compiling high-quality data and using AI to gain valuable insights from that data.
You can take your customer data to the next level with a unified customer profile, enabled by Data Cloud, that gives a comprehensive view of customers, prospects, subscribers, and more. Historically, marketing data has been locked inside marketing systems, service data in service systems, and so on. That setup doesn’t give you the complete picture of your customer’s activity.
Then, you can analyze that data with a technology like Einstein GPT, which integrates AI with all your data to provide the most personalized marketing yet. For example, Einstein GPT can generate personalized messages to customers. Think something along the lines of: “Hey, Steve, since your daughter is going off to college, you might want to buy her this plant for her dorm room.”
If Steve is upset that the plant didn’t survive a shipping journey, the technology can generate specific responses for customer service professionals to help them quickly answer his questions and solve his problem.
Another trend in customer intimacy is the use of psychology to understand what makes consumers tick. While that’s not exactly a new marketing practice, companies today have much more data available to change how they present, package, and sell products. Businesses that practice neuromarketing humanize, make emotional appeals, provide social proof, add humor, and use other tactics to position their brand in the best light.
Sumner senses a related change on the horizon. “Something about the senses was missing in the pandemic,” she said. “I missed the sense of smell. You can’t get that through video calls. So, I predict that something that engages all the senses is coming soon. Because the more senses you can engage, the more you can have a multiplier effect on loyalty and demand.”
Scent marketing is already an entire practice in consumer psychology. The sense of smell is tightly linked to emotion, and can increase spending and brand loyalty. One of the most well known studies in scent marketing revealed that Nike could increase customers’ intent to purchase by up to 84% just by using scent.
Start implementing your customer intimacy strategy
Customer intimacy is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done exercise. Want to make it a part of your strategy? Make an effort to listen more to your customers and talk less, and use generative AI and other technology to create tailored experiences for them. And if you need inspiration, think about your favorite brands and how they interact with you. After all, imitation is the highest form of flattery.
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