Consumer empowerment is a phrase most marketers hear regularly but few have grasped just how far reaching its implications are. It means that customers are leading the way in their relationships with brands, and they get to choose not only which brands they want to deal with but also how many of them, according to a panel of marketing experts at the Aimia Institute's recent 'Empowered Consumer' seminar. This article is copyright 2015 The Best Customer Guide.

One of the biggest factors in this growing global trend - or perhaps more accurately, this pandemic - is technology, and the sheer rate at which it is enabling people everywhere not only to talk to each other in near real time but also to find the best deals and the most appropriate products or services for their needs.

This is a trend that marketers and their advertising agencies do not have the power to change; instead they have no choice but to embrace, enable, empower and even encourage it.

The problem lies in "the old way of doing things". You can no longer try to trick consumers into being a monetisable resource; your brand has to be good, honest, trustworthy and give customers a reason to want to do business with you.

You can't differentiate on price or efficiency any longer, either, because there is simply too much technologically-enabled competition. Instead, brands and their marketing teams need to find other factors that can help them differentiate themselves from the competition.

No new technology will succeed for long as a differentiator, so innovation is no longer the key to winning repeat business that it was once seen as. Every new technology that attracts consumers is - sooner or later - copied and even improved upon by competitors.

However, being seen as an authentic brand can be a true differentiator, but it usually requires some serious internal changes within the organisation.

And, while price is definitely a reference point in buying decisions, there is a far more important motivator among today's customers: purpose. This is where real engagement and meaningful personalisation can become "the new religion" of how customers perceive and choose businesses and brands.

Loyalty programmes therefore need to transition away from being about points, prize, rewards and earned perks, and move instead toward being platforms that drive meaning brand engagement and purpose. Loyalty must change from meaning "always buy from us" to inferring a sense of membership of a community of other people who made the same personal choices.

A customer needs to feel good about choosing a particular brand, product, or service, and feel that they made the best choice possible. And it's when they get this "warm, fuzzy feeling" about a brand that they become a true Brand Ambassador: they won't need a reward for spreading the word because they will naturally want the people they care about to get the same warm, fuzzy feeling about the same thing.

The customer increasingly wants to lead their relationships with brands, and not be led or manipulated or cajoled into behaving in a particular way. The bottom line is that customer engagement isn't just about being relevant; it's more about connecting with the customer on a personal, emotional level - whether that be through storytelling or showing an understanding of their personal needs - and then listening, observing, and responding. And that's the new purpose of a loyalty programme.