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July 28, 2011
Copywriters Without Borders and Customers Without Loyalty

The store may be gone, but the data they’ve collected on me isn’t.

The final implosion of Borders bookstores has left me with a number of questions and observations. But my biggest questions were not about where I’d go now to buy books or magazines, or whether physical books and bookstores have a future.

I simply thought: What’s going to happen to the information in my Borders Rewards Card Loyalty Program? 

Perhaps some IT or corporate tech guys know the answer. But as a consumer, no, I don’t know. All that information is sitting on a server, or some hard drive, somewhere. Maybe it’ll be tossed. Maybe it’ll be erased. Likely it’s already been integrated with some other consumer profile on me somewhere. 

But what if there’s money to be made to help with the liquidation by selling my personal information? Will some company attempt to profile me using my years of Borders purchases? What about that one time I bought issues of “Cooking Light,” “Garden & Gun,” and “Penthouse”? Could they discern the difference between my personal reading preferences and the purchases I made for research as a copywriter? 

We’re leaving a trail of personal data turds behind when we shop, whether it’s online or offline. And while it all seems fairly innocuous, many data mining firms reconstitute consumer data into more specific chunks they can resell to information-hungry advertisers. Marketers want every scrap of purchase or behavior data they can get, whether they know how to use it effectively or not. And I’m willing to bet my Borders purchases reveal more about me than I consciously realize.

My Borders Rewards Card is one of only two I actually have. I largely stay away from so-called “loyalty cards.” It maybe the result of a little healthy paranoia, perhaps, but privacy is a concern of mine nonetheless. 

And here’s the real truth: My Borders Rewards Card, like all these loyalty cards, had nothing to do with loyalty. I wasn’t loyal to the store. I was loyal to the discounts the card came with. 

Borders emails showed up two or three times a week once I signed up for the card. And the only emails I paid attention to were the ones that featured coupons — significant ones. 20% off one item? Nah, I’ll pass. 30% off? That’s tempting. 40% off any one item? Bingo, I’m there. And frankly, if it was easier or cheaper to get a book through Amazon, or find a used copy on the Internet, I did that. 

So ultimately, I wasn’t loyal to Borders with my business, and they likely won’t be loyal to me by protecting the information I gave them.

But on the surface, it would seem that I had an ideal customer relationship with Borders. I was in the store often. I usually walked out with at least a magazine. They had my purchase history and could communicate with me easily. In the end, though, it was a hollow relationship.

Are all customer/brand relationships that superficial? Is there really brand loyalty anymore? And if there is, what does it take to sustain it?

It’s worth remembering that Borders started out as one store — a beloved one, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was an indie before it grew and eventually got sold. Many marketing gurus spout the idea that every brand has a story to tell. Well, there was one to tell for Borders. Once upon a time, that is.

Would more “engagement” and “conversation” have helped Borders? Probably not. In the end, the product was the problem. The locations, the economy, the rise of e-readers, bad management decisions, other market forces, etc., played roles in the chain’s demise. 

Life will go on without Borders. The void will be filled. But what seemed like a steamrolling force 15 years ago is gone. In an era where many marketing and advertising agencies claim to know exactly how to keep a brand relevant, I’m not sure any marketing help would’ve kept the bookstore alive. 

Brands, retailers, and marketers of all kinds need to keep on their toes, lest they too become a relic. So I’m careful, both as a consumer and a copywriter working in advertising, not to assume that loyalty exists on any meaningful level.

As Borders shows us, these days the only loyalty consumers have is to themselves. End of story.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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