Relationship Marketing: Connecting With Customers in Times of Crisis

Last updated on April 8, 2020

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Relationship Marketing: Connecting With Customers in Times of Crisis

In a time of crisis when circumstances turn the world upside down, your customers aren’t necessarily looking to uninstall your mobile app. Although they will if your brand continues to pump out marketing that’s generic or screams “business as usual.” Nothing is as it was — and your marketing strategy, particularly your language, must reflect this.

No matter which vertical you serve or what category your app is in, your brand has an opportunity to deliver unique value to users. You should speak to their desires and challenges in a different but meaningful way.

This is the essence of customer relationship marketing: communicate with them on a human level.

What customers are looking for during a period of uncertainty is meaningful engagement. And that can only happen when you take the time to repurpose communication and make it relevant to the situation we’re in.

Building a long-term relationship with a customer requires crucial decision making not just at the onset of the relationship, but at every encounter and engagement. As a mobile brand, you’re building loyalty by delighting your users and providing them with an unparalleled customer experience at all times — in good times and in bad.

This decision making is at the core of relationship marketing. And it is the secret to retaining your customers for life.

What is Relationship Marketing?

Relationship marketing is simply forming long-term relationships with customers.

It’s not done by serving up a “click-baity” ad and trying to scam them into buying a ridiculously marked up item one time and then moving on to the next victim.

Rather, it’s done by providing an exemplary customer experience at every stage of the customer journey — from initial advertising campaigns to your sales cycle, from the quality of your product or service all the way to your after-sales customer support and everything in between. What you receive in return is trust and loyalty from customers so they keep coming back, spending more on your product/service, and driving up customer lifetime value.

Relationship Marketing vs. Transactional Marketing

There is a very clear difference between transactional marketing and relationship marketing.

In transactional marketing, you engage in aggressive marketing tactics to increase the number of individual sales — think: limited-time offers, flash sales, and other types of FOMO marketing. Your success is measured by the number of units moved or number of subscriptions filled. Transactional marketing emphasizes conversion and celebrates the immediate gratification of a won deal.

With customer relationship marketing, you emphasize the long game — optimizing the way you do business in order to maximize the value of your relationship with each customer. It is about connecting and bonding with customers. Eventually this translates to increased revenue and customer lifetime value as your customers build up loyalty with your brand.

So what do you need to put relationship marketing into action during uncertain times?

3 Elements of Customer Relationship Marketing

Remember how I mentioned that building relationships requires commitment? Creating a sustainable relationship marketing strategy requires commitment, too. Not just to serve up a world-class product or service, but also to have systems in place that give customers a valuable and delightful experience.

There are three main requirements to this:

1. EMPATHY: Basic humanity in your approach and messaging
You have to understand the reality that both you and your customers face: they may be struggling with isolation, joblessness, or forced into homeschooling their children as well as remote working for the first time. They may be stressed out by dwindling supplies, contradictory news articles, and staying indoors for long periods of time. If you continue to send them messaging that disregards their reality, your brand runs the risk of appearing opportunistic, tone deaf, or simply callous. Concretely, this may lead to customer churn.

To strengthen relationships with customers, you have to engage with them as humans first. Double check your content and your imagery carefully before campaigns go out. What may have been harmless a month ago could be considered unsympathetic in a time of crisis. Be sensitive to each user’s need for physical safety, provisions, even delivery expectations, and make sure your campaigns communicate how your brand will address these issues.

2. FLOW: Streamlined internal operations that make things run smoothly
You must have optimized operations in place so that you provide excellent service. This means everything from releasing a mobile app that runs smoothly to providing world-class customer support when problems arise.

This also means systems and processes have been set up so that your customers can engage with you on the channels and platforms that they prefer. And you can shepherd them into various nurturing funnels that can strengthen this relationship with them.

3. TECH: Marketing technology stack that automates engagement
You cannot expect to build customers for life if you’re sending generic, one-message-fits-all notifications. You have to be sending marketing messages that match where each user is at or what each user likes. Think: Netflix recommending the latest educational TV series to a user who has young children that now must be homeschooled.

For this, you will need the proper marketing technology stack. Firstly, mobile app analytics so you know what your customers do in the app and where they’re at in the buyer journey. Then you’ll need tools to segment your users into smaller, more niche audiences. Next comes marketing automation tools to engage those segments with relevant messaging for each user.

The point of this stack is gathering and making use of the user data already at your fingertips to personalize the experience and offer users more of what they want.

Relationship Marketing Strategy: 4 Ways to Build Relationships

What tactics should you put into play to build your relationship marketing strategy? Here are four ideas complete with relationship marketing examples for inspiration and guidance in communicating with your mobile app users.

1. Brand Identity: Live Out Your Brand Values

During a crisis, your brand has the opportunity to live out your mission and core values in a very public way. Every interaction with users is a chance to demonstrate the ideals you stand for and solidify your brand identity.

Because if you want long-term relationships with customers, you must have a solid brand.

Branding isn’t about giving your company a cool logo or ensuring your ads look glamorous, it’s that your brand mirrors who your customers want to be. Your brand story should show customers a better life — one that can only be attained through your app, your company, your brand.

Think Nike and how every marketing campaign leads the viewer to aspire to a healthier body and a more active lifestyle. But with the current need for isolation, the brand launched its “Play Inside, Play for the World” campaign to encourage people to stay indoors and practice social distancing. Still aspirational, but pivoting to show it is thinking of its customers’ safety.01

Or think about DoorDash’s recent #OpenForDelivery campaign letting customers know that local restaurants are open, delivery is safe, and that now more than ever, restaurants need patronage to weather the COVID-19 situation.


These stories weren’t just concocted by accident, they were crafted by marketing.

Some questions you need to ask about your brand:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What is your value proposition? What problems do you solve for your clients?
  • Who are your competitors? How do you differentiate yourselves from them?
  • If your brand were a person, what characteristics or personality traits might describe it?
  • What’s your story — both your history and the role you play in customers’ lives?
  • What does your brand voice sound like? How do you communicate with customers?

If you have none of the above, then you must take steps to define your brand. And you have to do it now. It’s that important.

Read our article on brand identity for a more in-depth discussion of brand and branding.

Pepsi: Relationship Marketing for Generation Next

If your brand is memorable or has a strong identity, customers will find you more easily and think of you when the need arises. Pepsi is a great example.

Pepsi has a mass market product line of everything from fizzy sodas to sugar-free health-conscious drinks and their general target market of people between the ages of 13 and 34 is broad. For Pepsi, relationship marketing boils down to building a brand that stands out from the rest. It’s the only real differentiating factor between them and the other players in the beverage space.

In fact, their 2019 global tagline “For the love of it” was born out of the idea of identifying with those consumers who are passionate about going for the things they love— whether that means sports, music, or Pepsi.


Pepsi relationship marketing involves brand identity

Pepsi released their 2019 slogan “For the love of it” in 100 countries, cementing their brand identity as one that is young, passionate, and entertainment loving.

2. Onboarding: Optimize the Starting Point for New Mobile App Users

With mobile apps, new users churn quickly. The average mobile app loses 77% of its DAUs within the first 3 days after install.

This makes the first-time user experience and onboarding process the most critical experiences in your app. Upon launching, users must learn: [A] how the app works, and more importantly, [B] why they need your app in their lives.

Effective onboarding can be the simplest and most effective way to demonstrate your commitment to giving value to the customer. Additionally, when done well, it removes any hesitation or doubt in the user’s mind about how your app benefits them, and paves the way for turning your app into a habit.

3. Loyalty Program: Take Care of Your Best Customers

What is relationship marketing without a loyalty program? A waste!

Since it’s all about building trust and loyalty (leading to repeat sales and patronage), then a loyalty program is a fantastic way to reward those who are already your super users as well as incentivize those who have the potential to become your champions. It’s also a quick way to get your mobile app users to make repeat purchases for points and rewards.

Typical loyalty programs offer reward points for every purchase, giving customers the chance to earn free or discounted products. On the customer’s side, frequent shoppers are motivated to spend more due to the rewards available. It’s a win for all involved.

Sephora: Relationship Marketing That Scores Major Points

One of the best relationship marketing examples is Sephora’s Beauty Insider Rewards. It’s a loyalty program that makes it easy for customers to earn points for every dollar spent, which can then be used to obtain more products (rewards).

On their mobile app, rewards are organized into point groupings, making it easy to navigate to your point level. Plus you get a birthday gift every year, free beauty classes, access to a community of vocal recommenders, and two free samples with every order.

There are two higher levels of loyalty based on how much you spend with them per calendar year — the Vib level ($350/year) and the Rouge level ($1,000/year). And each of these levels comes with its own benefits. Furthermore, the company also launched three credit cards as part of its existing loyalty program, giving members even more perks.

Everything about their loyalty program is meant to make the customer feel special, or at the very least, like shopping for more beauty products. Which further strengthens the relationship between brand and mobile user.


Relationship marketing by Sephora includes treating customers like VIPs

Sephora brings their A-game to their Beauty Insider Rewards loyalty program.

Delta: A Loyalty Program with Empathy

A shining example of how to deal with your loyalty program in this crisis is Delta. The airline announced that all elite flyer statuses and benefits will be extended for a full year, regardless of whether or not travelers fulfill the requirements during this calendar year.02

In an email from the CEO, the airline announced to customers that it would also be extending the ability to plan, re-book, and travel for up to two years, even waiving any change fees for trips through May 31, 2022.

It’s a pitch-perfect move that rewards its most frequent customers — even when they have no way of making use of the airline’s services at this moment — and showcases the brand’s values to non-customers.

4. Two-Way Communication: Listening and Acknowledging User Input

Clear and effective communication is probably the most robust relationship marketing strategy in the book. Nothing forges a bond with a customer better than a brand that listens and acts on customer input — and doesn’t just bombard them with marketing messages all day long.

This means an open line must exist between your company and every user. You must be monitoring social and email channels, and you will need a support team that can handle bugs, poor ratings, and even negative comments with tact and empathy.

Be proactive and ask for customers’ opinions on your app via social media, email, or in-app surveys. And make sure you show you’re listening, particularly to negative comments that may snowball if not nipped in the bud. Simply acknowledging feedback can be a powerful way to turn casual app users into customers for life.

The Secret is Being Human

In the end, relationship marketing uses the same “strategies” as any romantic relationship:

  • You attract them by being genuine and standing for something.
  • You show them your app’s ultimate value — how your presence impacts their life for the better.
  • You learn about one another and acknowledge each other by listening and communicating often.
  • And you reward them with gifts for sticking around.

The long and short of it is: you can forge the strongest of bonds with your customers simply by being a more human brand, and being a more compassionate marketer.

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