Introduction to The Brand Cycle
The Brand Cycle is a helpful framework for your customers’ journey through your brand.
Executive Summary | Abstract | TL;DR
The Brand Cycle is a model of a customers journey with a brand. The Brand Cycle has the phases: Impression, Evaluation, Purchase, Learning, Use, Re-Evaluation and Leaving. Customers can choose to repurchase the brand and go through the Learning, Use and Re-Evaluation phases again.
We go through a packaged goods example (my DSLR camera) but this model also applies to free or paid media, subscription / SAAS products, and financial products too; the purchase phase just changes to a “decision” phase.
The Impression phase is after the potential customer is introduced to the brand, and advertising builds brand associations. The Evaluation phase if after a potential customer realizes they have a need for a product and they start looking at features and benefits of products to compare brands. The Purchase phase is where they make their buying decision. The Learning phase is where the brand gives their customer any knowledge they need to know to get the most value out of the product; this is sometimes called “onboarding.” The use phase is when the customer is independently using the product and see the most value. The product eventually wears out, or the nature of their need changes and the product starts providing less value. After the user realizes they need to repurchase, the Re-Evaluation phase begins, and customers assess their experience with the brand and start considering repurchasing and maybe evaluation options from other brands. They may choose to stay with the brand, but if they do not, they move on the Leaving phase. The brand needs to gracefully take feedback from them during the phase.
10 minute read | 2500 words.
The brand cycle is a way of thinking of your customer’s journey.
Our goals in branding are focused on leading the purchase decision over to us, and then increase their brand loyalty. But we do not think about the journey as a whole; we just do our best with the elements and abstract the customer’s journey away. This model is a way of bringing that back and making sure you are not neglecting any one part of it.
While we go through a packaged good example, this also applies to media products, subscription products, services and financial products. The difference is there is no “purchase” per say. Instead, there is a decision to spend more time, attention or money on the brand.
1. The Impression Phase
When a potential customer is growing a relationship with your brand.
The impression phase starts when the potential customer hears about a brand and ends when they realize that they have a need for their products. These are customers that either have never used the category of product or are coming from a competitor brand.
Communication is critical during this phase of the customer journey but is often done wrong. Communication comes in the form of advertising, product placement, and features in media. Communication should focus on building brand associations, mainly associating with the feeling of a life where a particular problem is solved. For example, a surfboard company featuring large photography of an at-ease surfer enjoying the beach.
Where brands go wrong with communication in this phase is focusing on features and product knowledge. The customers don’t care (at this point.) It is why those mini-infomercials ads seem so silly; don’t flood me with product details if I have no need for the product! Detailed product information is needed, but if the focus of the next phase: the evaluation phase.
DSLR Example: I am going to use my experience with DSLR cameras as an example of all phases. The impression phase started for me when I heard that Canon and Nikon were THE camera brands. This phase ended when I realized my Toshiba point and shoot was just not giving me the results I was expecting.
2. The Evaluation Phase
When customers are judging your brand as worthy.
The evaluation part of the cycle starts when they have a need for a type of product. This point is when the customer thinks “oh crap, I need ___________ .” The phase ends when the customer makes a purchase decision or decides they really don’t have a need after all (but this rarely happens.)
The realization of need is an important step because our communication before the identification of need should be branding advertising, and the communication after it should be features and benefits.
Retargeting is very effective in the evaluation phase because many of the customers will buy a product in the category eventually. Customers signal their ‘identification of need’ by starting to research: either visiting a product page, browsing retail or engaging a salesperson. You need for follow up with them continually after this point, through their purchase and beyond.
DSLR Example: The identification of need was when my Toshiba point and shoot camera just wasn’t giving me the quality and control I needed for pro looking photos. I researched cameras from Canon and Nikon online using their websites and other independent comparison tools and concluded that the entry level ones were roughly equivalent. And the phase ended when I purchased a Canon Rebel Xsi camera kit, my first DSLR.
3. The Purchase Phase
The moment when the customer says: “I choose you.”
The purchase phase is the easiest to define: it is when the customer chooses your offering over any other brands.
The purchase may or may not be an actual purchase, but it is an active decision. For media products, like this blog, “purchase” is really just the decision of an audience member to spend their time with us instead of another piece of media. A subscription model or SaaS product does not go through it’s “purchase” phase every month, only when the customer makes a decision to start the subscription in the first place, or is making an active decision to let it continue.
This is the critical juncture and can go either way no matter how well your brand navigated the ‘Evaluation’ phase. This is why point of purchase marketing has such a high return on investment; I know, I worked in this field for ten years.
The first hurdle is just to be present at the point of purchase; if your products are not where the customer wants to buy, then you lose by default, so get your products into those channels. The second hurdle is to give them all the info they need to make their decision. The third hurdle is price point; does the value customers place on your product and it’s price match up? And the fourth hurdle is to ease the customers’ minds of the consequences of making the wrong decision, like with a guarantee.
DSLR Example: This phase was when I chose the Canon Rebel Xsi as my first DSLR. Why not Nikon? Canon had a better deal on an entry level kit at Costco; sorry Nikon, but I can’t say no to a free lens.
4. The Learning Phase
A customer learns how the product can give them the most value.
So this phase is after the purchase, and before a customer feels comfortable with the product. When they “get their hands on it” so to speak; literally with physical goods, but metaphorically with digital goods and media.
Communication between the brand and the customer is essential here. Classically, companies botch the communication on this phase, with only a passable instruction booklet and maybe some stickers saying “press here to start.” But software companies started thinking about this phase since the early 2000s, and physical products people have learned from them. User experience designer and growth hacker are two jobs that came in and re-thought how to get a customer up to speed with a complicated product. Casey Winters talks about this phase far more eloquently and knowledgeably than I can.
The goal of the brand during this phase should be to get the customer using the product well enough so that they can get as much value out of it as possible. The higher the value, the more positive brand associations they will develop. Those positive brand association will pay off when a customer decides to re-purchase, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
DSLR Example: I can’t say I turned to Canon to get the most out of my Rebel Xsi. They did have a reasonable instruction booklet, but I turned to friends and family who had experience with photography to explain it to me in person. I would have appreciated some online videos and tutorials. Canon now has those, and other ways to learn, but didn’t at the time.
5. The Use Phase
Where your brand’s product sees it’s the highest value.
There are some products we buy just to have them, but most of the time we buy something to use it. The use is where the value is.
This phase is between the point of fluency and the repurchase realization. The point of fluency is where the customer feels knowledgeable enough and skilled enough to use the product.
This phase has an arch because the value they receive increases and then decreases: products wear in then wear out, technology changes, the nature of the users need changes. For whatever reason, products peak in value and then decline. The length of the phase can be anything from seconds (a piece of candy) to a decade (a pickup truck.) But it is inevitable that a product will lose enough value for a person to wonder if they need something else, and that is the repurchase realization.
There isn’t much communication between the brand and the customer at this phase, and there shouldn’t need to be. The customers are doing their thing. The product should have enough references to the brand (logo, colors, smell, shape) that associations between the brand and the product value form. These will pay off later.
DSLR Example: My Canon served me well, and I received the most value from it when learned when each of the two lenses was appropriate for the situation and how to shoot in aperture priority mode (I now shoot full manual.) The camera was branded on the front and on the strap, so it always reminded that this good product was courtesy of Canon.
The camera started glitching out after six years; frustrating but expected at that age. Cameras since then started taking excellent video, even on the low end. So the camera wearing out and the increase in capabilities of new cameras triggered my repurchase realization, ending the use phase.
6. The Re-Evaluation Phase
When your customer looks back at their experience and decides how likely they are to return to your brand.
After the repurchase realization, the customer knows that they are going to use a product in that category again, but they haven’t (necessarily) decided that they are going to choose the brand’s solution again.
The entire reason brand’s work is because they form relationships and associations with the customer before the evaluation and the re-evaluation phase, so they have a leg up during the purchase phase. The idea is to build up brand associations that will pay off during this phase. The associations that pay off in the re-evaluation phase usually form in the first half of the use phase; a customer starts having a great experience with a product and the associate the feeling with that brands. Those good feelings they feel when thinking of the brand help the brand sail through the re-evaluation phase.
The effect cuts both ways though. If a customer had a negative experience with the brand, they would judge the product more harshly during the re-evaluation phase.
DSLR Example: I knew I had to replace my Canon after it started glitching out, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get another Canon. My experience wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exceptional either. I found the build quality of my camera a little cheap, and the buttons hard to press. I wasn’t happy with it breaking even though it had a decently long and useful life. I put off the purchase of a new one for quite some time.
I started watching The Camera Store TV (YouTube) and other camera media and formed the impression that Nikon and Sony were ahead in the technology race and Canon was making some odd product feature decisions especially around video. This combined with my negative brand association from my Rebel’s lack of any video capture steered me away from Canon because I knew shooting video was a feature I was going to use.
I reached out to a salesperson from The Camera Store, and they recommended the Sony A6000 with 16-50 lens. Moving into the purchase phase, it was really between that Sony and the Nikon D5500. Both cameras are one step up from entry level in their camera lines.
7. The (Re) Purchase Phase
When the customers show their loyalty to your brand, or not.
This phase is exactly the same as the purchase phase before, except that the brand associations are built through experience with the product instead of media and advertising.
All of the guidance from The Purchase Phase still applies: 1) you need to be present at point of purchase, 2) you need to give all the information the customer needs to make a decision, 3) you need to have a price point in line with your products percieved value, and 4) you need to reduce the perceived consequences of a wrong decision. The only difference is you may be more likely to have a customer buy direct, or from a preferable sales channel so you can control exposure to your competition.
Theoretically, your customer has used an adequately branded product and had such a great experience that they wouldn’t even consider going to another brand. But the customer does face a fork in the road here; they can either stay with the brand and go through the learning-use-re-evaluation cycle again, or they can leave and be part of another brands cycle. The ratio between people that take the path A and path B is what we consider brand loyalty.
DSLR Example: You’ll remember that I reached out to a salesperson from The Camera Store and I intended to buy with them. But then I found someone through Kijiji who purchased a Nikon D5500 and realized that it was over his head and let me have it for $200 less than his purchase price. (I guess Nikon did not nail the learning phase of his brand cycle! Nikon’s loss, my gain.)
8. The Leaving Phase
You hope that a customer stays with your brand, but sometimes they don’t.
The leaving phase would be after the purchase if the customer did not choose to brand. Man, it sucks to end the article on a bummer!
You will note that this phase is not gold in the figure because communication is not essential in this phase as well as the use phase. The only thing for a brand to do in this phase is to be graceful in defeat; there is no point in burning bridges or trying to subvert the customer’s decision. Don’t hide ways to cancel subscriptions, contract customers into cancellation charges, or any such nonsense. Document whatever feedback the customer offers and wave goodbye. They may be back!
The leaving phase with your brand is the beginning of some other brands cycle. They may go through that brand’s cycle and end up back in another cycle with you again; don’t do anything that would kill that possibility.
DSLR Example: The leaving phase for Canon was the learning phase for Nikon in my case. I was learning about the video features from YouTube Channels like Peter McKinninon and Travel Feels, and I learned how to shoot in completely manual mode. The door is still open for me to return to Canon, but I am happy with my Nikon and enjoying the build quality and the design considerations for video like the flip out screen.
Use this model to imagine where your brand could do better.
The Brand Cycle is only valuable as a model if you can translate it into lessons for your brand and business. Two lessons are the most powerful.
The first lesson is to make sure your organization is communicating correctly during the Impression, Evaluation, Purchase, Learning and Re-Evaluation phases. My experience is that companies do well with communicating during one of two of those phases, but entirely drop the ball on the other phases. Do a communications inventory to figure out where you fall short. You may remove a barrier to purchase you didn’t know was there, and be rewarded with a sudden jump in sales.
The second lesson is that well-done product design and the communicating effectively during learning phase will increase the value your customer sees from your product (represented by the height of the figure.) Raising the value customers sees in the product will build positive associations that will make them more brand loyal during the (Re) Purchase phase.
If you have read to here, you clearly have found value from our content and went around the loop of our brand cycle. Please consider signing up for BMB article via email. Let me know how you plan to use the model in the comments.
Fun background. Here is my original concept sketch of The Brand Cycle.