Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Blogs can kill brands

Blogs can kill brands
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At the last moment, my wife and I decided to drive north and visit with family for the holidays. Flights were sold-out or seemed rather overpriced, and our little Tercel seemed hardly up to the journey, given the potential driving conditions. We ultimately agreed that the time had come to give in to that dreaded suburban icon: the minivan.

Given the practicality of this type of vehicle and our expanding family’s plans for future road-trips, it seemed to make perfect sense. So, I slogged through endless car reviews, comparisons, fuel-economy and safety ratings, and focused our search on a low-mileage Honda Odyssey.

A great performance, but a horrible experience

In my mind, there’s little enjoyment in a vehicle purchase, and given our urgency we were motivated to have it done with. Applying as systematic of an approach to the purchase as possible, I developed matrices for comparison, and narrowed our search to one car at Deer Lake Chrysler (now Metrotown Mitsubishi Clearance Centre) in Burnaby. I made a quick call and was then led through what seemed like a highly choreographed production.

We started with the routine that most would expect of a car dealership: haggling, bargaining, stories about how they were selling to me below cost, and those rather staged, “I’ll check with my manager” absences. To be fair though, the sales person seemed like a pretty nice fellow. I chalked the whole thing up to the nature of his profession. I agreed to a price and signed the purchase agreement.

I then was led to Deer Lake Chrysler’s Business Manager, who could well have been the model for a character in the play Glengarry Glen Ross. He brought out elaborate charts and launched into persuasive dialogue on how I really needed to spend $4,000 on a warranty package. The charade hit what I felt was a high note when he explained to me, “Don’t believe what those sales guys tell you; you can’t trust any of them.” I couldn’t believe this guy; why would any business-person state that their coworkers were dishonest?

Now I know what you’re thinking. Why wouldn’t I just back out then? The truth is that I was stuck, and so worn-out that I had little energy left to fight. Now, I could tell you about how he continued by trying to slip in an extra $500 in charges and then threatened me when I asked what they were doing on the bill; or, I could talk about the bait and switch involved in how the car was advertised; heck, I could even go on about the Oscar-worthy performance that he launched into for “taking the sales person’s commission.”

Instead, I want to talk about brands.

Brands are not identities (repeat, repeat, repeat…)

I’m always amazed by the magical reverence that people place upon identity systems. There’s a notion that many subscribe to, that these systems and strategies can transcend reality. Surely, brand assets can do amazing things, but a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling building doesn’t transform it into a sound structure.

Identities are positioning systems–quite often they can be looked upon as icons and patterns that assist in the taxonomy and understanding of products and services. (For example, clean photographs with ample white space help us identify an advertisement as being one of Apple’s.) Brands are less easy to define. They are a collection of both tangible and ethereal elements that typically become greater than the sum of their parts.

Brands are everything to a business, and many groups destroy their brands by confusing a well-designed identity system as a substitute for a positive brand experience. Your graphic standards are just one small aspect of your brand. Equally important is the sincerity of your smile, the cleanliness of your workspace, how you return or don’t return phone calls, and a litany of other experience-based markers.

Brands require long-term attention to detail, and regardless of whether your business talks about branding or not, you have a brand.

The cost of a negative brand experience

For all of the pitches and tricks that seemed to be part of Deer Lake Chrysler’s (Metrotown Mitsubishi) modus operandi, I still spent no more on the minivan than I had originally intended to. The song and dance simply did not work. I didn’t purchase the seemingly exorbitantly-priced warranty package; I demanded they remove the unauthorized charges; and I was unwilling to be “guilted” into overpaying, regardless of how that might affect the salesperson’s commission.

In the weeks since buying our van from Deer Lake Chrysler (Metrotown Mitsubishi), I have spoken with no fewer than a dozen people about how disappointing the experience was. I will never entertain the notion of visiting the dealership again. Perhaps more importantly, the experience sat with me for so long, that it made its way into this blog.

So, let’s add this up. I’ll never buy a car there. My friends are now unlikely to shop there. The 60,000 people who read this blog monthly will, at very least, think twice about looking at cars there. The total purchase my wife and I made added up to less than $25,000. My question is: How many advertisements have to be run to gain one new customer, versus the many lost to a negative brand experience?

Good brands are about common sense

On the flip-side, the people at Deer Lake Chrysler (Metrotown Mitsubishi) could have treated the transaction as our “first engagement”. It could have set the stage for numerous future purchases (I intend to drive something other than a minivan in the future), and continued positive word of mouth. I needed no special bonus, no gift package, and no “cash-back” allowance. I just expected to be treated respectfully. Total cost of doing so: zero. Isn’t that great for business-owners? The most lasting and memorable things you can do for your customer cost little to nothing.

I have amazing brand experiences all the time and I share these stories with peers. This is what Chuck Brymer from DDB alludes to when he talks about swarms. You create swarms around brands by doing something remarkable: acknowledging and correcting mistakes, being forthcoming, and treating your customers as humans, not “targets”. Any number of things can make a customer feel like they matter. This is often all it takes to establish a brand that will enjoy loyal customer relationships and naturally generate repeat sales.

I think the key to all of this is in tasting your own medicine. Walk in to your business as though you are the customer, and see how you feel by your own business practices. Do you feel attended to? Cared for? Respected? I would hazard a guess that few of the people at Deer Lake Chrysler (Metrotown Mitsubishi) would feel good about their company had they experienced their service as I did.

In the meanwhile, big ad agencies and brand strategists are talking about integrated marketing strategies, cross-channel alignment, and communities. Don’t get me wrong, these are all are relevant issues, but few seem to resonate with me as much as good, old fashioned customer service. When Paul (the owner of McInnis Lighting, and a client of ours) offers to carry my purchase to the car for me, I can’t imagine shopping anywhere else.

It is simple folks; and a lot of us are missing the mark by thinking that it has to be complicated.

Blogs build (and kill) brands

A few years ago, Robert Ouimet invited me to take part in a panel discussion in which we discussed whether blogs would supersede brands. I found the topic difficult to wrap my head around, as it seemed the two were hardly in battle with one another. All organizations have brands, be they good or bad; whereas, blogs are a delivery channel (albeit a very powerful one).

The reality is that blogs are becoming inexorably influential in maintaining brands. Blogs can both build brands up (think: Robert Scoble) and break them down (think: Kryptonite locks) with awe-inspiring force. Acknowledging this interconnection is in large part why I write this post. The situation I cite with Deer Lake Chrysler (Metrotown Mitsubishi) represents just how unaware many organizations are regarding the sea-change in marketing that is currently underway. In a pre-web world, marketing was synonymous with advertising; today, the customer is active and has true recourse.

Old-world communications were sheltered by “one-way” functions. Through technology, however, consumers have tremendous power. The new paradigm allows us to respond, and to broadcast (widely) our own messages. While in the past a passionate consumer might talk to a few, today’s tools amplify that voice exponentially; moreover, this voice is extended, as our posts are Google-indexed and etched into the fabric of the web. In this situation, I’d have hoped they would have learned something from the rather grave story that ran about the dealership a few years ago, and still ranks highly when searching their name.

What I speak of is hardly news to most of us. For the old-guard of businesses though, this will prove a colossal barrier. If the people at Deer Lake Chrysler (Metrotown Mitsubishi), and those like them, wish to survive in this changing world, they’ll need to change who they are to the very core.

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