Life Transitions: An Open Door for New Brand Relationships
It is during life transitions, or those life phases of significant change, that brand relationship-building opportunities truly abound and a great number of brand decisions are made. Focusing on life stages is definitely not a new idea; in fact, many people can recall their passage into adulthood being marked by a sudden deluge of credit card applications in their college dorm mailboxes. New homeowners have also been in the focus for marketers. For years new additions to a neighborhood have been greeted by the "Welcome Wagon," which has progressed over time from a neighborly visit over pie to a mailbox loaded with offers from companies like Home Depot and the local fitness center. Recently, marketers have begun to give lifestage marketing more attention, especially in marketing to women, and are becoming more sophisticated in how they use transition periods to attract new customers.
Life transitions are important for marketers because they are moments of brand reflection, brand consideration and brand decision. A transition requires a more conscious decision-making process and may result in customers exploring alternative paths or displaying a greater openness to new ideas and options. During transitions people think not only about what they need (retail space for a new business venture, for example), but they may also reexamine how to best fulfill those needs. These seasons of change cause customers to revisit their standards on quality and value, such as purchasing hardwood floors for an office space instead of a lower-quality carpet. As they enter new life stages, customers often make upgrades, seriously considering new brands and checking out new industries for the first time.
COMMON LIFE TRANSITIONS FOR WOMEN
Encompassing both happy and sad experiences, the stressful and emotional times we call "transitions" actually happen quite regularly in the course of a typical person's lifespan. Sometimes, they even repeat themselves , in the case of marrying and divorcing, for example.
Because these transitions do happen fairly often, there is all the more reason for marketers to study up and become aware of these opportunities to appear within a woman 's view. A few typical life transitions include:
Going away to college
Marriage or partnership vows
Birth or adoption of children
First house or apartment (away from parents)
Career or job change
Separation or divorce
Birth of grandchildren
Death of significant other
Illness or death of parent
Sandwich generation responsibilities ( simultaneously taking care of parents and children)
Empty nesting (all kids grown up and out of the home)
LIFE TRANSITION TRENDS
Not surprisingly, new trends in life transitions have developed at the same pace as our society and culture. Let's look at a few of these trends and how they might shape a marketing focus on women customers.
Women typically navigate through the change. Because women often make the buying decisions surrounding transitions, much of the emotional and physical burden rests on their shoulders. Whether newly seeking childcare, going through a divorce, experiencing empty-nest syndrome or caring for an elderly parent, women will deeply appreciate the extra service and support your products and services can offer them during stressful times.
Reruns are now common. Life transitions previously considered one-time events now commonly occur more than once. For example, marriage, raising a family and divorce sometimes reoccur at multiple times in a woman's life. It will be important for marketers to avoid a limited view of the typical age range for certain transitions and to cultivate customer satisfaction with your product or service, as many women will return to the same brands for assistance the second time around.
Timelines are shifting. The life transitions once traditionally associated with youth have shifted upward. Many women, for example, now experience their child-rearing years in their late thirties, forties or even fifties. Women are living longer and more youthful lives: But, when you think of those extra ten or so years, don't visualize them tacked onto the end of her life; instead extend her active forty- to sixty-year-old life stage to get a more accurate picture of her actual lifestyle.
"Mature" transitions are more frequent. Market opportunities for transitions of maturity are increasing. As Baby Boomers age, more women will be undergoing transitions like menopause, retirement, second marriages and grandparenthood. But marketers beware: This group of senior citizens will require you to reinvent your "senior" marketing ways to reinforce their youthful self-image.
HOW LIFE TRANSITIONS CAN INTERSECT WITH YOUR BRAND
A life transition can force a woman to zoom in on these concentrated decision-making times and lose her usual wide-angle perspective on life. When everything is going great, women certainly do appreciate good service and quality products, but when life gets more complicated, such service and quality will be all the more remembered .
For consumers experiencing a life transition, everything is new, including brand names , product categories and price ranges. Instead of taking advantage of the confusion to create a quick sale, brands that seek to partner with consumers through this accelerated education process will gain new business and deeper loyalty. Let's take a look at ways to partner with customers during life-stage transitions.
Help her get up to speed. She is often making multiple decisions in a concentrated amount of time so provide educational content including how things work, how they're used, what the options are and (maybe most important) what to do if things go wrong. In general, the Internet is the most logical channel for this type of information.
Tap into the human element. Whether the product is a high-tech gadget or low-tech clothing, an insurance policy or an automobile, women caught up in life transitions will always connect with the human side you present in their times of need. State Farm Insurance knows that their services often intersect with emotionfilled life transitions. In response, they highlight the ability to develop a long- term relationship with a local agent with slogans like, "We live where you live" and "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there."
Create clarity through relevant associations. Life transitions often trigger first-time purchases. A key to introducing a consumer to a new product is building an association with a familiar concept. For example, a company that creates software for computer maintenance might describe their product as, "Spring cleaning for your hard drive."
Group products and information into sets. A woman preparing to paint her living room might find a basic "painter's starter kit" as a welcome time-saving solution, which includes a paint roller , a tray, a drop cloth, tape and smaller brushes. "Newlywed kits" are another good example of serving people during a stressful life transition or change point. According to The Wall Street Journal , county clerks are passing out plastic bags full of free samples and coupons for products to couples applying for marriage licenses.  Distributed by Time Warner's Parenting Group magazine, these kits include both their products and other company's products (for a fee). As so many people in Gen Y are reaching the prime time for marriage (their twenties), the number of packets given out will only increase in number. As the same article cited, research by Cond Nast indicates that couples buy more in the first six months of marriage than a settled household does in five years. Proof enough that the marriage life transition is a prime time to get your brand front and center.
Be a trusted filter. Build a network of solid companies and specific individuals that you refer to customers, and you will exponentially increase your value to the women you serve. For example, a legal firm that shepherds a just- widowed woman comfortably through getting her affairs in order, and personally links her with reliable and trusted people for her related needs, will be hugely rewarded by her trust and continued patronage .
Address multiple needs. Financial service companies are a good example of an industry that attempts to address a full spectrum of needs through a single company. A woman experiencing the transition of marriage might take advantage of a variety of services including: new checking and savings accounts, a change in investments (possibly including one for future children's college expenses), life insurance, retirement planning, prenuptial agreements, mortgages and home owner's insurance.
Internet-based metamarkets are taking the idea of addressing multiple needs to a new level. Metamarkets like Babycenter.com for mothers and Theknot.com for brides are consolidating and concentrating product education, comparison shopping and buying into a central location. The concept of metamarkets stems from a simple, yet profound, insight: Customers think about products and markets very differently from the way products and markets are actually bundled and sold. Customers think in terms of related activities, while companies tend to think in terms of products. Activities that are logically related in cognitive space may be spread across very diverse providers in the marketplace ; yet they form a single market in the minds of customers. Their boundaries are derived from activities that are closely related in the minds of customers, and not from the fact that they are created or marketed by related firms in related industries, or even unrelated firms in unrelated industries.
Consider the activities associated with home ownership. From an activity perspective, customers view home buying, home financing, home maintenance, home repair and home improvement as all logically related. This activity cluster can be viewed as the "home ownership metamarket." In the marketplace, however, homeowners must deal with real estate agents , banks, mortgage firms, newspapers, plumbers, electricians, lawn care services, maid services, home improvement stores, home remodeling contractors, architects and interior designers to perform this set of activities and to satisfy this set of related needs. In doing so, customers must search, evaluate, and negotiate with a large number of service and product providers.
By easing the anxiety of life transitions, and being there right when a woman needs you, your brand will have made a great start in building a long-term customer relationship.
SERVE THE WIDER PICTURE SO SHE CAN ZOOM IN
Unfortunately, the stresses and challenges of these life transitions are never just an overnight problem. The duration of the change may be longer or shorter, depending on the woman and the situation. So, brands need to develop ways to provide real support to these women over time.
For example, adapting to a divorce or to a new household of children thanks to a new marriage or a melded family may involve challenges that endure much longer than anticipated. By delivering customized products and services along with specially trained staff to understand such life crossroads , brands will develop the ongoing supportive relationships that go beyond the surface and truly equip women as needs arise.
If the stress of the transition itself weren't enough, somehow women have to keep the rest of their lives functioning as well. They certainly can't neglect the many roles they play or the many plates they must keep spinning just because a major life crossroad has been reached!
As a woman goes through a career change, for example, her personal life won't suddenly stop moving around her. It's just not possible for her to focus in and do her transition processing in a vacuum without distractions from the rest of her life.
How can your brand provide support if its products or services aren't directly life-transition related? By easing the other tasks she may have, or the roles she may be playing (as mom, businesswoman, household manager), and giving her the room to breathe, you offer a woman a cushion.
So, even though your product or service may not be front and center for a woman during her life transitions, your brand may still be able to provide the ever-so-important buffer zone that gives her the headspace to tend to the transition.
 Sarah Ellison and Carlos Tejada, "Mr., Mrs., Meet Mr. Clean," The Wall Street Journal , January 30, 2003, http://online.wsj.com/home/us.