Profile: Jeremy Gilley

The man marketing world peace

Convenience gives digital the upper hand

The running theme through this year’s top performers of the Promise Index is offering customers the ultimate in making their lives easier, be it achieved through technology, product innovation and value-for-money service.

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Consumers are all for an easy life. So it is no surprise that brands offering the height of convenience through technological innovation top this year’s Promise Index, shown exclusively to Marketing Week. Online companies Google, Amazon and PayPal head the list of businesses which consumers believe offer a customer experience on a par with its brand image.

Each year, the Promise Index asks more than 1000 consumers to rate 250 brands out of 10 on two metrics: the ’image’ projected by a brand and the actual ’experience’ it offers customers. The companies achieving the best averaged scores have a solid brand image that is accompanied by an experience that overdelivers on expectations.

Promise senior consultant Thea Bowden says the online businesses topping the index are “continually innovative”, adding: “These innovations are based on consumer feedback and because everything is so automated and streamlined, it’s hard to disappoint people.”

As well as Google, Amazon and PayPal taking the top three spots, online auction site eBay ranks at 14th. Scoring 8.47 out of 10 overall, Google is up 0.32 points from last year. Amazon scores slightly lower with 8.38, but it demonstrates a marked improvement from last year.

“A lot of people are relying on [these brands] more and are pleasantly surprised by what they can do. PayPal has done very well because it is being used more and perhaps it benefits from its association with eBay,” Bowden adds.

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Also appearing in the top 20 are media brands Freeview (in sixth place), Apple (15th) and the BBC (16th). Their places appear to have been earned by their provision of digital content as consumer appetite for this type of service grows.

Freeview and the BBC score higher this year than last by 0.26 and 0.19 respectively, while Apple’s score has fallen by 0.41. Bowden claims this may suggest consumers are growing tired of Apple’s high prices.

The bottom 20 feature a crowd of telecoms and broadband firms such as AOL, BT, Tiscali, TalkTalk and 3, as well as utilities companies such as EDF and British Gas. Although these companies often use technology to provide services to consumers, Bowden says that their utilitarian nature makes these brands difficult to feel endeared to.

With this in mind, she suggests these brands could improve their scores by tapping into the convenience and innovation trend, taking the trouble to offer extra-special customer service or new products that make consumers’ lives easier.

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Santander is the only financial services brand in the bottom 20. Its counterparts are now scoring significantly higher, reflecting, says Bowden, the industry’s new-found responsibility and ability to get its customers back on-side after the past few years of financial crisis.

Breakdowns of individual sectors reveal some surprises. While well-known travel brands such as STA Travel, Expedia and Lastminute.com score higher on experience than image, they are beaten overall by lesser-known brands such as On The Beach and Kuoni, which come first and second in the sector.

Newcomer to the index On The Beach scores 7.03. As yet, it appears its reputation or marketing is more prominent for consumers than its product offer because its image outweighs its experience score by 0.12 points, but marketing director Alistair Daly puts this down to the brand still being in its infancy.

Bowden praises both On The Beach and Kuoni for their clear, defined offerings. On The Beach is a seaside specialist, while Kuoni is a luxury travel expert. “Their propositions are very differentiated compared to some of their competitors who are trying to be ’something for everyone’,” she explains.

Budget hotel chain Premier Inn’s triumph over rivals Holiday Inn, Travelodge, Best Western and Ibis may be testament to its brand consistency, value for money and customer service, as sales and marketing director Gerard Tempest explains in the Frontline. It scores 7.39 for experience, exceeding its image score of 6.94.

Perhaps the top three brands in the restaurant sector - Gregg’s, Nando’s and JD Wetherspoon - reflect the economic climate. All three significantly exceed in experience scores over image.

Premier Inn is flanked by more upmarket brands such as Marriott (it tops the hotel sector with an overall score of 7.39), Crowne Plaza, Hilton, Radisson, Intercontinental and Sheraton, in that order. But it does score marginally above the more glamorous Four Seasons, Hotel Du Vin and Malmaison; perhaps an indication that customer expectations in the luxury hotel sector can be difficult to exceed.

“The hotel brands that stand for consistency are doing really well,” Bowden confirms. “Premier Inn has been pushing its brand heavily, and is obviously living up to it. People in the survey commented that some of the more expensive hotel brands were simply overpriced.”

The restaurant sector sees mainstream brands such as Starbucks relegated to the bottom half, scoring 6.18 overall. Marketing Week Engage Award Brand of the Year winner Costa beats its rival with 6.57 to take 11th place in the sector.

Perhaps the top three brands in the restaurant sector - Gregg’s, Nando’s and JD Wetherspoon - reflect the economic climate. All three significantly exceed in experience scores over image.

Wetherspoon’s score of 6.81, beating major food brands such as Wagamama, Zizzi and All Bar One is down to its value-for-money offering and its expanding menu, such as hand-battered fish and freshly brewed coffee, says its chief executive John Hutson (see Frontline).

So it appears that, like other sectors, convenience is a major factor in these top three restaurants’ score. Whether it is achieved through innovation, using technology or just making life more manageable - and cheaper - for customers, making life easy is the unifying theme for all the brands conquering the Promise Index this year.

The frontline

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John Hutson, chief executive, JD Wetherspoon

Promise Index image score: 6.56
Promise Index experience score: 7.06
Overall score: 6.81

The fact that our experience score exceeds our image score reflects the fact that in the past year we have been improving our range of products. For example, we have recently brought out fresh hand-battered fish and chips, increased our range of lager products and introduced brands such as Sky vodka.

We have worked very hard over the past five to 10 years to avoid any negative perceptions that people might have, and it is difficult, because issues such as binge drinking are a social problem in the UK. We work very closely with police and local authorities on this. And we don’t get many issues around social disorder - two-thirds of our sales come from food.

People these days are looking for value, so if you’re going to get a coffee at Starbucks and Costa, you can get it for half the price in a Wetherspoon’s. We use the same machines as Starbucks and use freshly ground Lavazza coffee. If you are going to charge, say, £3.50 for a coffee and people know the raw ingredients don’t cost nearly as much, they probably want a lot of other things such as service, cleanliness, and atmosphere. If these brands aren’t providing that, people will go elsewhere.

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Alistair Daly, marketing director, Onthebeach.co.uk

Promise Index image score: 7.09
Promise Index experience score: 6.97
Overall score: 7.03

I’m not surprised the results from Promise show our experience scores are slightly lower than our image, as we are still on a journey. An example of where our experience might not be as strong as our image is that we’re an agent, so we don’t have a 24-hour call centre. Customers want this, however, so we are implementing it.

We used to sell city breaks too but we made a decision about three years ago when I joined that we wanted to own a specific territory and be a beach specialist, so we’ve repositioned around that.

There are other things we have implemented to deliver on our beach specialist proposition, such as our ’closest beaches’ tool, which is a database of 1500 beaches and the type of sand, waves and activities you get there. We then plot the beaches and surrounding hotels on a map on our website.

We have had formal and informal feedback and it seems that our offering is now really clear to our customers. With Hitwise, we can track the number of online travel searches each month, and how many of those are for On The Beach versus a brand like Expedia. In the past six months, we have seen our scores dramatically go up because of an increased spend in marketing.

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Gerard Tempest, sales and marketing director, Whitbread Hotel and Restaurants (parent of Premier Inn)

Promise Index image score: 6.94
Promise Index experience score: 7.39
Overall score: 7.17

We look at the Promise Index every year and the results show that Premier Inn as an offer is better than the average budget hotel. So if you have a perception of budget hotels, you are pleasantly surprised when you have a Premier Inn experience.

We have rigorous brand standards that we measure. Every hotel has an unannounced audit each year and we use the same auditors as Marriott worldwide.

In this sector, value is massively important - we sold over a million £29-a-night rooms last year. We also send 2.5 million emails a year to customers after their stay so they can give feedback and help us get better. We get about 800,000 responses a year back. We look at individual comments to pick up on any issues.

We only relaunched Premier Inn in February 2008 and that was the first time we went on television with our Lenny Henry campaigns. That has really driven awareness of our brand. Before this we were operating under the Premier Travel Inn brand but we wanted to differentiate ourselves further - you can’t compare what we do now with what we were doing back then.

A simple proposition is easier to communicate and also easier to set up appropriate expectations. I would be really worried if we were ever in a situation in which we were promising something to customers that we couldn’t deliver.

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Remo Masala, chief marketing officer, Kuoni

Promise Index image score: 7.00
Promise Index experience score: 6.91
Overall score: 6.96

There’s a fine balance in getting your brand image and experience right. Setting high expectations and failing to meet them results in negative word of mouth, both offline and online. The reverse will be true if you exceed expectations. However, if expectations are set too low, people won’t come to you in the first place and our target market does have high expectations.

’On the Beach’ might score slightly higher than Kuoni, but it is a very different holiday provider. Online travel agents (OTAs) like On the Beach are basically self-selection tools designed to give customers a wide range of choice. People come to tour operators like Kuoni because they don’t want to trawl through all those options - they want someone to take the time to understand their needs and then use their expertise to offer a selection of highly relevant options. A customer experience with an OTA ends when you finish the booking, whereas a tour operator looks after you throughout your holiday and when you return.

Marketing has played its part in building our reputation, but our relationships with independent agents means they wouldn’t have recommended us to their customers unless we delivered on our promises.

We also have a team of individuals located all over the world who help us to identify and act on trends in the holiday market. We have also conducted a large customer segmentation study and this helps us to get better, based on the customer needs we have identified.

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