Thursday, March 31, 2011

why brands should care about customer care

From the manufacturing process to the layout of the company website, every aspect of a brand sends signals to consumers that constitute the brand image inside their minds. If even one of these elements is not in line with the brand strategy, it can weaken its integrity. For many companies, particularly those based online, the customer service department is the primary point-of-contact with the public. As such, a major question brands should be asking themselves is: "Does our customer care reinforce, or undermine, our brand?"

Prior to the rise of the Internet, companies could be insulated from bad customer service incidents with their customers. However, in today's social networked-world, a single bad customer service story can go viral within hours. Wireless carrier Verizon experienced this earlier this year when a customer service agent named "Wendy" began mocking a customer about his choice of cell phone. The story spread like wildfire online, and was eventually picked up in the news. "This conversation is not consistent with how we train our employees, or how we want to interact with our customers," Verizon spokesperson Audrey Lundy told an NBC affiliate. "This is totally inconsistent with our core values." The incident was another setback for an industry with a reputation of deplorable customer service.

But, brands should embrace customer service for more than just avoiding a bad reputation. Jim Bush, Executive Vice President of World Service at American Express, wrote in a Nov. 2010 article at that a study AMEX commissioned found American consumers were willing to spend 9 percent more at companies who provide excellent customer service. That same study also found that more than 25 percent of consumers believe companies have either neglected to focus on customer service, or now focus less on customer service.

The findings of this survey indicate that customer service can be a powerful advantage over competitors if leveraged correctly. One company,, discovered this early on. Founded in 1999, Zappos leveraged their customer service to become the top online retailer of footwear, and was bought by in 2009 for $1.2 billion. "Over the years, the number one driver of our growth at Zappos has been repeat customers and word of mouth," writes Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in a Huffington Post editorial. "Our philosophy has been to take most of the money we would have spent on paid advertising and invest it into customer service and the customer experience instead, letting our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth."

This word-of-mouth marketing costs Zappos nothing. Yet, its volunteer army of brand ambassadors reinforces Zappos' brand signal of exceptional customer service, which in-turn drives sales. "Customers today have unprecedented power to broadcast their experiences — good and bad — to a virtually unlimited audience," says Bush. "This new and growing power raises the stakes for every single service interaction a company has with its customers."

Looking at a Zogby International survey on customer service commissioned by MSN Money, it's clear which industries aren't leveraging customer service. The 15 companies ranked the worst for customer service includes six financial institutions, four Internet and cable providers, and three wireless companies. For people who have interacted with these types of institutions, the results don't come at a surprise. In turn, the 15 highest ranked companies include brands such as Google, Apple, and It just so happens that these are also one of the three strongest global brands in the world.

The lesson here is that in a market where consumers are demanding more from the total "brand experience," customer service can be an incredibly powerful brand signal that should not go ignored. Not only can good customer service keep your company's name out of the headlines, it can turn customers into online salespeople, which will generate first-time and repeat business that you would otherwise have lost.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

singularity and consistency

If there are two words that you need to know in branding, it’s singularity and consistency. These two branding concepts are the building blocks of establishing a strong, dominant brand. Singularity means that you keep your brand narrowly focused and constructed around one central idea or theme. Consistency means that you keep this focus unchanged.

Brands are ideas. They’re not a physical product, or a logo on a building. In order to get your idea inside the mind of a consumer, you must break through all the noise and clutter of competing brands in the market. Because the mind of a consumer has a finite amount of space it is willing to commit to brands, complex, ever-changing brands have a hard time winning the war for the mind.

In order to grab a spot in the mind of a consumer, a brand should be simple. Allen Adamson, managing director of Landon Associates and author of BrandSimple, calls this the “elevator idea.” If you can’t explain your brand’s idea in the time it takes to ride an elevator, it’s too complex. “People are busy, they’re inundated by message, and there are too many brands for them to choose from,” says Adamson. “Make it easy for them to get the idea.”

Keeping the brand narrowly focused ensures simplicity. And, simplicity means you can begin to “own” a term in the mind of consumers. It’s this term that consumers use to define your brand. When you think of some of the most powerful brands in the world, a “thought” or “idea” immediately comes to mind. Google elicits the idea of the simplest search engine, which they created by building a search engine page free of the clutter on pages like Yahoo and Lycos, their rivals at the time. Apple brings about the idea of “sleek technology” because of a product line with a very modern, streamlined look (they even replaced their rainbow logo with a simple, monochrome Apple to reinforce this look). And, Marlboro is the ultimate “cowboy” cigarette.

These brands are successful because they stick to the basics, and don’t undermine their core brand by making it more complicated. Consumers don’t like complicated. The more complex or complicated your brand is, the less likely they’ll commit your product to the limited amount of storage space they have available in their mind.

They also stay consistent with their image. Apple knows that if they started producing computers that were bulky or boxy, they would lose their image of innovative design. And, if Marlboro released a line of cigarettes for women, it would destroy its rugged, masculine perception.

Xerox saw firsthand the dangerous repercussions when they deviated from simple and consistent. In the 1970s, Xerox was relishing in the success of their copier. They began exploring the idea of expanding their services to include computers. However, the idea never took off with consumers and cost Xerox millions of dollars. To consumers, Xerox was copiers. Xerox was not computers. As a result of changing the brand and making it more complicated, Xerox allowed other competitors to gain ground against them.

A narrow, unchanging focus is more important to a brand’s strength than the mass appeal of a product. Without a narrow focus, your brand lacks relevance and a core idea. Without consistency, your brand will never have a firm root in the mind of a consumer.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

the real lesson from groupon’s flub

When Cuba Gooding Jr. first walked onto my TV screen during the 2010 Super Bowl, lecturing about the need to save whales, I rolled my eyes. "Really?" I thought. "An advocacy spot during the Super Bowl?" But then, in an M. Night Shyamalanian twist, Gooding donned a life preserver and spoke gleefully about his huge discount for whale-watching via I chuckled at the spoof, but the American public, not sharing my fondness for irreverent humor, raised holy hell.

Groupon quickly pulled the ad campaign and apologized for their lack of judgment. In their first spot following the Super Bowl disaster, Groupon released a very simple, vanilla ad featuring a "calendar week" filled with deals their members would receive. It ended with the line: "If your week doesn't sound quite that exciting, maybe you should sign up for ours."

Groupon's follow-up was a home run, but it was a home run not because it avoided to offend people, but because, this time, they kept the spot simple, direct and on message. Groupon's brand is simple: people who visit Groupon get big discounts on services and activities in their local community. With a simple brand, why distract the consumer with a complicated (or, offensive) commercial?

If there is one ubiquitous theme throughout all the disciplines of advertising and branding, it's simplicity. Simple headlines. Simple logos. Simple ads. It may sound dull and plain, but simplicity is the foundation of lasting brands. Groupon's faux-advocacy ads took a simple brand, with a simple sell, and managed to completely fail at communicating with the audience. And, not only did they fail to connect, they actually turned consumers against them.

When you have a simple brand, complex ads needlessly confuse. Apple has time and time again proven that simple works. Their commercials, like those advertising the iPad, feature the product exclusively, often on plain backgrounds. There is no excessive effects or storyline. The now iconic print campaign for iPod features silhouettes wearing an iPod on a solid background. And, despite their simplicity, these ads have high recall among consumers.

The purpose of advertising is to sell products and reinforce brands. The most effective way to do this is keeping things simple -- as boring as that may be. Ad agencies aren't in the entertainment business. Ads created to win awards, or get laughs, will never move product as effectively as an ad designed to sell.

This is not to say that entertaining ads don't work. When done right, they can be particularly successful. But, what creativity giveth, creativity can taketh away. And, like Groupon learned, it's important that you don't let your creativity get in the way of your brand.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

the $26,000 kia

In case you haven't heard, Kia has a car they want to show you. You may have seen NBA All-Star Blake Griffin jump over it in the 2011 Slam Dunk contest, or in a plethora of other places, as Kia seeks to shove its new Optima into every conceivable placement spot. For a company with a reputation for, well, uninspired styling, the redesigned Optima is a welcomed change. If you want to snag the premium edition of the car, you'll need to be prepared to fork over more than $26,000.

At the top of the market are makes like Audi, BMW, and Lexus. Kia plays a respectable role at the low end, and they do a good job of it. Budget-conscious consumers gladly sacrifice the styling of more expensive vehicles for the affordability and dependability of a Kia. For what many used cars cost, consumers could get a brand-new Kia, warranty and all.

However, it seems that Kia is no longer satisfied with the low-end of the automotive market any longer, and its rising price tag is slowly moving them into what branding guru Al Ries calls the "mushy middle" of the market.

Ries warns brands to stay away from the mushy middle, and for good reason. "As a market matures, it tends to fragment into two different markets, usually at opposite ends of the scale," says Reis. "There just isn't much action in the middle of the market." Simply put, the middle of the market is where brands go to die.

The high and low ends of a market are like black and white. Companies can easily define themselves as a luxury or discount brand. However, the middle is an amorphous gray. Defining a middle-of-the-road brand is much more difficult. For example, Walmart's brand is based built on cheap products. Target's brand is built on more expensive, higher-quality goods. Then you have Kmart, which was never able to establish a strong foothold for its brand in the middle of the market and filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

The problem with a big price tag for Kia vehicles is that it's pushing them into the danger zone. Kia has a brand — and a strong one at that — built on producing affordable, reliable vehicles. A $26,000 car does not fit into that brand image.

It's mystifying as to why Kia would want to leave its position at the low end of the market. Low-end brands can still be winners. Nobody tells Bic razors that its brand of cheap, disposable razors is a joke. They're king of the low-end market for razor blades. Kia can be the same for economical vehicles.

Sales for Kia continue to grow, and more power to them for that. They've done a lot in recent years to really improve the look and quality of their cars. Nevertheless, short-term growth is not indicative of long-term sustainability, especially when the growth comes at the expense of brand integrity. If Kia wants to remain a strong force in the automotive market, they will need to focus on dominating with economical, reliable cars and leave the high-end cars to the luxury brands.

Monday, March 7, 2011

charlie sheen's winning position

"I'm tired of pretending I'm not a total bitchin' rock star from Mars," Charlie Sheen told The Today Show. "I'm gonna live my life the way I want. I'm gonna win inside every moment." It's easy to dismiss Sheen as a hurricane of unchecked, frenetic "passion" (that's what he calls it). It's even easier to laugh-off Sheen's assertion that he's "winning."

But, is he right?

With the start of his "Tiger Blood Tour," popping from The Today Show to Howard Stern to Good Morning America, Sheen doesn't seem to be hindered at all by his ruckus and destructive recent history. Drugs. Alcohol. Porn stars. Strippers. What could be a lifetime of vice for some is a single night for Sheen. Yet, his celebrity star is burning brighter than it has in more than a decade. The hashtag #tigerblood, a reference to Sheen's comments that he has tiger blood coursing through his veins, is trending on Twitter. He's overshadowed every other celebrity in the news just days after the Oscars. And, people can't stop talking about him.

Charlie Sheen has gone viral, and in the process served as an interesting case study for how negative behavior can reinforce a brand.

A fundamental rule in establishing a brand is selecting a single concept or word that you, alone, own. It's the "idea" that pops into the mind of the consumer whenever they think of your brand. Thanks to his latest shenanigans, Sheen owns the "Hollywood rock star" image.

He's positioned himself as the Four Loko of Hollywood. Four Loko is a malt liquor energy drink produced by Chicago-based, Phusion Projects LLC. It was originally launched in 2005, but up until last year, it was just another obscure alcoholic beverage. Then, people started dying. Lawmakers across the United States rushed to ban the drink in their state. As a result of the coast-to-coast press, Four Loko was rocketed into the mainstream and quickly established itself as the "rock star" of alcoholic beverages.

Four Loko's demise was not because of a tainted brand. Had it remained on the shelves, there is no doubt that the drink would have become an absolute powerhouse. But, legislative pressure forced Phusion Projects, and makers of similar drinks, to alter their formula in order to dilute the strength. The same lessons apply to Sheen.

As long as he continues to show up for work, hit his marks, and not kill anybody (yeah, I'm talking about you, Robert Blake), his brand as a Hollywood rock star will continue to gain strength, and offers will pour in. Of course, this is all easier said than done. Look at Lindsay Lohan. Lohan's "bad girl" persona started affecting her work, and her value tanked. Nobody wants a loser brand.

However, Sheen seems confident he can keep it in control. "The only thing I'm addicted to right now is winning," he says. While his wild statements make it hard to believe that this public "meltdown" is a cleverly orchestrated re-branding strategy, he's crazy enough to give it a shot. It's a gamble few people or brands would ever dare to make.

Then again, few people are Charlie Sheen, and that's the point.