Something for nothing

Building brand loyalty means exploiting all that modern marketing has to offer – a lesson the National Blood Service would do well to learn, says Clare Dowdy

Brands love loyalty. But, of course, this involves us being loyal to them, rather than the other way round. And it works: who hasn’t been lured by offers of air miles?

The brand-customer relationship is pretty straightforward in the world of conspicuous consumption. We cough up regularly for said goods or service, and are rewarded (handsomely, or otherwise, depending on your view), not only by our purchase, but by certain peripheral attractions.

It’s all part of the ‘brand experience’, designed to cultivate a bond between us and the product. This so-called experience is ‘mapped’ by the marketers as a ‘journey’, one that often involves a ‘story’.

And because the brand-customer relationship is straightforward and well-trodden, we are accepting of these rules. Imagine the challenge, then, of building up loyalty when you have nothing tangible on offer. And, worse still, you are actually expecting people to give – not money, but time, and more.

It sounds like a non-starter, and yet the experience of blood donating is wholly positive, and could teach conventional brands a thing or two.

A phone call to the National Blood Service puts you straight through to a seemingly cogent person in a UK-based call centre. The options, locations and times for donating sessions are explained clearly, either over the phone or on-line, and donors can make an appointment or just turn up.

The best bit of the experience is at the session. These are often in halls usually given over to well-meaning civic institutions. There is quite a lot of paperwork processing, for regulars as well as beginners, but every NBS staff member is invariably friendly and helpful, and knows their stuff.

The atmosphere is one of tranquil benevolence, and after giving one’s armful, a smiling nurse presides over restorative tea, squash and biscuits, along with complimentary merchandise such as spread-the-word stickers. Then, there are the gentle SMS reminders of one’s next opportunity to donate.

It’s such a feel-good experience that it’s a shame you’re only allowed to do it every 16 weeks, and this may have something to do with the NBS’s struggle to maintain its numbers.

For its 1.6 million active donors are on the decrease, and fewer than half of those only give once a year, anyway.

There is a drop of around 6 per cent every year, which is put down to retirement (regulars stop giving at 70), health and relocation. The NBS also attributes the decline to a mismatch between convenience and lifestyle demands. And yet, in many ways, blood donating has an element of instant gratification to it, so beloved by modern consumers.

Given that only 5 per cent of the eligible population are active donors, there’s plenty of room for growth – there can’t be that many squeamish people around. It suggests that blood donating has somehow become one of those best-kept secrets, like an out-of-the-way restaurant that you’re pleased to think of as unknown.

If that’s the case, then the NBS, for all its customer care, should turn its attention away from seasonal ad campaigns and towards viral marketing.

What about having Formula One’s Lewis Hamilton snapped by the paparazzi, as he surreptitiously leaves a donating session, the small plaster on his inner arm in full view?

What more could a worthy brand ask for?

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