Through our work as a professional branding agency, we often get this question: Are the people who spend money with my brand customers or clients? We think that’s an excellent question, and one that I’m going answer here.

A Branding Agency View: Customer or Client?

The words customer and client are often used interchangeably, and that’s understandable.

Customer stems from the root word related to accustom, which implies that the customer is accustomed to your brand – lending a feeling of repetition. However, in today’s marketplaces, we often refer to a customer as a one-time sale, who may or may not return for more. Supermarkets, boutiques, and petrol stations have customers.

The word client comes from a root word that means follow or incline. Traditionally, it has been used to describe a relationship in which the client is provided for, and protected by, the brand. Hair stylists, lawyers, and businesses coaches have clients. Today, it is often used to describe those who have demonstrated loyalty to a brand.

These distinctions have evolved into a contemporary trend that has muddied the waters for any branding agency attempting to answer the above-mentioned question. At How to Build a Brand, we give the following branding advice:

  • A customer is generally someone who makes purchases from brands that sell FMCGs (fast-moving consumer goods). Loyalty is demonstrated through repeated purchases and recommendations – even though those actions may not be tracked. There is generally no contract or person-to-person relationship beyond the exchange of goods.
  • A client is someone who is interested in engaging with a brand. There is a business relationship on some level, in that an agreement binds the client to the brand, either contractually (written or verbal) or emotionally. A real estate agent may count on a written contract for that client/brand relationship, whilst a hair stylist taps into the feel-good emotions that will preserve the client/brand relationship.

A perceptive branding agency will tell you that today’s consumer (referring to the spending public, in general) is demanding a higher level of personal branding than ever before. This means that they want to know more about the people behind the brands they’re considering – and it also means that they’re looking for the emotional connections that will lead to a client-type relationship and brand loyalty.

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For this reason, many brands are moving to referring to their loyal buyers as clients, even if there’s no contract in place. Remember that many purchases are now made online, and those purchases are tracked. What used to be nameless over-the-counter sales are now accompanied by names, email addresses, shipping addresses, etc. The loyalty of the buyer has come to be the determining factor in choosing client over customer, and therefore, those people who have invested in your brand will likely see the word client as a sign of appreciation for their loyalty, no matter the type of business.

And one more thing: Customer implies a state of facelessness, whilst client suggests a public profile…and pride in that relationship. Would your customers prefer to be called clients? If you’ve studied your target audience well, you will know the answer to that question. Of course, it might be silly to call your convenience shop customers clients, so the choice is ultimately up to you. Use your words to build your brand – and to build relationships with consumers, customers, clients…in short, the people who will show loyalty to your brand.

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