Welcome to your new world, American business.
An employee mishandles a customer issue, someone captures it on their iPhone camera, and in no time the Twittersphere has exploded.
Millions have weighed-in, fairly or unfairly, on this issue. The public court is dragging you across the coals.
Your first instinct is to side with your employees. You send an internal memo.
Unfortunately, a disgruntled employee captures that memo on a thumb drive, walks out with it. Your multi-million-dollar security system is worthless against such a simple device.
That internal email goes viral.
Kerosene on the fire.
The public discourse heightens. You look insensitive. Because you were. Rather than respond to the needs of the customer, you pandered to your employee base. The message? Employees matter more than paying customers.
Now the issue spirals out-of-control and you have a public relations nightmare.
Your stock crashes overnight, people scissor their loyalty cards and picket your offices.
Hello, United Airlines: people dragged off screaming, a companion dog dies in the overhead compartment, an aging German Shepherd is mistakenly sent overseas instead of cross country. Hello Facebook: your illegal internal workings hung out to dry in front of the entire world.
David Avrin, international expert on branding, (http://www.visibilityinternational.com) and the importance of backing-up your brand promise with excellence, speaks to CEOs and international business audiences about surviving in today’s sometimes ruthless environment.
I spoke with him about the sea-changes of branding, brand politics and what has shifted, even in the last few years, that today’s businesses and entrepreneurs must face.
Avrin outlined two significant trends:
“On the positive side, I see successful companies, companies like Amazon, Tesla and Ikea relying less on clever verbiage and more on building products, services and companies that are truly remarkable, unique and disruptive,” he emphasized. “It’s a lot easier to market your products when they are eminently more worthy of attention.”
For example, Amazon’s mantra of “Day One” constantly emphasizes an attitude of thinking about today, today, today, rather than getting weighed-down in process. Process eventually becomes the enemy of growth, more important than the customer. In addition, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has focused hard on not getting addicted to consensus, which can take far too much time, slow down getting to market, and end up costing critical market share. Such tactics have made Amazon hugely successful and incredibly customer-centric.
“The other trend,” says Avrin, “which is unfortunate, is the negative polarization that permeates our culture. Too many feel the need to demean others in order to look good. We saw it in the modern presidential and congressional campaigns. I see it as a pendulum swing. People see something that works, then they use it. When it stops working, they’ll stop doing it. Right now we’re seeing profound and pervasive marketing that trashes the competition. It’s a disturbing trend.”
Another challenge Avrin sees, especially with huge corporations, is that their brand promise is weak.
Don’t Just Claim Competency
“Companies are claiming mere competency — and that’s not very hard to live up to. Quality, commitment, customer service, caring people. It no longer means anything,” Avrin offers. “Wendy’s, for example has a new slogan: ‘Quality is Our Recipe!’ It’s stupid. They make good burgers, but quality is certainly not their differentiator. They even put it on their buildings. What a waste of money,” he laughs.
“When a company’s brand promise is so weak or bland -like United’s ‘no-longer: Friendly Skies’ for example, it’s effectively meaningless. Basically it’s watered-down drivel. It’s not hard to live up to because it’s a basic competency.
“I tell my clients: when they focus-group their messages to death, it’s like running their branding through the ‘de-flavorizer,’” he says. “It has to have some teeth.”
Avrin’s frankness is one reason CEOs love him. He’s in your face, funny and pulls no punches.
If you’re squirming in your seat a little, it’s likely because your marketing campaign, your own brand promise, falls into this category.
“Oh crap,” you’re thinking. “That’s us.” You just spent the farm on a campaign so bland a baby could drink it.
“And here’s the problem with that,” Avrin explains. “Any minor infraction against that brand promise gets shared with the masses today. The bigger the company, the bigger the audience. Oversight of your staff and their behavior becomes ever so much more important. Huge corporations have tens of thousands of employees to manage. It’s an increasingly unwieldy workforce.”
“The company can say, perfectly legitimately, ‘We do great stuff that nobody cares about. Then something like this happen and we’re getting castigated.’
“Precisely. That’s why you have to do such a superb job of responding. Which is also why American Airlines, after an attendant almost struck a child with a stroller, handled the uproar really well. Bad situation to be sure, but a reasonable and timely response. They’ll recover just fine. It was the opposite of how United handled their problem.”
The Sky is the Limit: No Kidding
Another sea change, Avrin explains, is that years ago, conventional wisdom was that if a customer had a bad experience, they’d tell ten people. “Today, with Trip Advisor, Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, YouTube and the myriad feedback processes available to customers, that number is now in the millions.
“To give you a prime example of how the world works today, just go online and watch the video ‘United Breaks Guitars.’ Some guy had his guitar broken, it wasn’t handled well. He turned it into an online music video. It’s been viewed 34 million times.”
You can see that video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo. It’s hilarious, professionally done, and absolutely brutal. Rather than simply pay the man for the damage, they are now paying millions of times over for the refusal to own up to the violence to his equipment.
You can’t begin to measure that kind of damage.
Avrin jokes, “I cynically tell my kids ‘the difference between love and the Internet is that the Internet is forever.’”
In a world where huge international corporations spend hundreds of millions on tepid, milquetoast brand promises that their employees easily and all too frequently break, this leaves these same corporations vulnerable to public lynching when the CEO hides behind policy, or “the rules.”
In the case of Dr. Dao, who was forcibly dragged off the United flight in Kentucky last year, United may well have been in the right. But as the old 1970 public service driving ads used to say, “you can be in the right….dead right.” The same with the dead service dog, the ancient German Shepherd.
That leaves the corporation dead in the water, their stock plummeting, public favor at rock bottom, and customers flocking to the competition.
We’re Fickle Consumers
As Avrin emphasizes, there are just too many choices today to underperform. Customers will leave you for greener pastures in a heartbeat.
Entrepreneurs are challenged in much the same way, Avrin says. Whether it’s professional speakers who are looking to differentiate themselves or newcomers to any marketplace, he says that there’s a “fine line between being different and dismissible.”
“If you can come up with a unique solution, or a unique diagnosis to my business problem, then that’s meaningful,” he argues.
“But if you’re just wearing a sillier hat, well. It’s like peeing in your pants to get attention. It works in the short run. Gives you a nice warm feeling, but in the long run you just end up with cold wet pants.”
Branding is an issue of both style and substance. Splashing the word ‘Quality’ on the side of the building is worthless. That’s not something people can rally around. There are no metrics related to that word. And with a brand promise that bland and broad, you’re basically guaranteeing that anyone who goes to Wendy’s and gets a limp piece of lettuce has a viable complaint.
What happens if the brand promise is broken?
“People want to make a safe choice,” Avrin emphasizes.
“Those of us who are old enough to remember the Tylenol scare — before the safe bottle caps- remember the long road Tylenol had to regain customer confidence. If a customer tries a product based on a brand promise, whether it’s how I’m going to be treated on an airplane or the quality of the food, and the promise is broken, the choice is no longer safe. Today, one of challenges is that we have hundreds if not thousands of choices. I’ll take Ibuprofen.
“The road back to customer trust is long and difficult.
“Think Volkswagen, with their dishonest software fooling the emission testing equipment.
“United, with people videotaping cutting up their loyalty credit cards.
“People have long memories.”
The other challenge is that once a consumer has developed the habit of buying elsewhere, it’s nearly impossible to woo them back.
The Lesson of Chipotle
In a perfect example of what Avrin preaches is Chipotle Mexican Grille. Chipotle’s brand promise?
“Food with Integrity.“ A reasonable differentiator for those looking for a restaurant choice with a social conscious. Unless of course, you fail on the basics of safety and cleanliness. There is no greater expectation of brand promise than the safety of the product itself.
Beginning in July 2015, Chipotle restaurants experienced an unprecedented breakout of e.coli that sickened hundreds of people.
The Denver-based company reported third-quarter net income of $7.8 million, a dramatic fall from $144.9 million the previous year.
People fled the popular chain in droves. Chipotle was no longer a safe choice.
Today, slowly, customers are tentatively coming back.
However, their gains were almost immediately wiped out by news of a data breach. Chipotle told investors that it had detected “unauthorized activity” on a network that supports payment processing for purchases made at Chipotle restaurants.
It’s not just a food safety issue.
Trust. It’s a slippery slope back up the mountain.
Today, slowly, people are coming back.
Your brand is among your most important assets. Your public behavior, and that of your management and your employees, is as much an asset as your stock. Indeed, when you fail publicly, so will your stock value.
We’re all watching. And talking. How will you protect your brand?