When brands break their promise

When brands break their promise

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle published the results of research it did into Airbnb rentals around the city and how they may affect the cost and availability of actual housing for the people who live there. To be clear, my intention is not to pick a side in SF’s emotional housing debate or point fingers at who’s “to blame” for the sky-high rents driving many middle-class residents out of their homes. For those of you unfamiliar with this issue, the median price of a home in San Francisco is around a million dollars these days. Even a one-bedroom condo will run you around $750K (and it might not even include parking!). Rents have gone through the roof too, and evictions are up, as property owners try to displace long-time residents under rent control (often low-income and/or seniors) so they can jack up the price for a new tenant. Needless to say, it’s created a lot of tension, outrage and heartache.

This is a blog about branding and content strategy, so that’s the angle I’m examining.

The article begins: “Airbnb calls its hosts ‘home sharers’ and spins folksy tales of regular people who make ends meet by occasionally ‘sharing’ (for money) their home. In a deep dive into Airbnb data in San Francisco, The Chronicle found several contradictions to this just-plain-folks narrative.” For example, almost two-thirds of local listings are entire homes or apartments, while about a third are offered by people who control multiple listings. In other words, lots of these folks don’t actually live in the properties and are just pocketing a nice chunk of change, essentially running “illegal hotels.”

That disconnect — between what a company says in its branding and what people experience in the real world — is what I want to talk about. What does it mean to make a brand’s promise and deliver on it?

The Airbnb example is what set me off, but I’m sure you can come up with your own list of brand-promise violators. There’s the telephone service provider that assures you customer satisfaction is their first priority — but when your service stops working, the support rep just reads off a script, doesn’t provide any actual help and says you’ll have to pay a crazy fee for a technician to come out and fix it. Or perhaps it’s a corporate exec making tone-deaf comments or behaving in a way that contradicts the company’s stated mission and values.

Even small businesses fail on fulfilling their promises. I read about a dog-walker here in San Francisco who locked eight dogs inside a hot van while she spent 2.5 hours shopping at a mall. Meanwhile, her website promised “lots of tender loving care” and “guaranteed excellence.” (Good news: the dogs are all fine.) If you don’t mean it or can’t deliver it, why claim it? CBS News’s Steve Toback put together a great list of company tag lines that just don’t match the reality of doing business with them.

And sins of omission are just as bad as sins of commission when it comes to acting contrary to your stated brand values. When it was discovered that Subway had been using a chemical in their bread that is also used in yoga mats, it was an unwelcome wake-up call to all of their customers who thought they were making a healthy choice when eating a Subway sandwich.

It’s not just the pretty things

Your brand promise encompasses all of the things you say and imply in your interactions with the public, not just copy and imagery in ads and on your website. Brand promise is reflected in the way your store or office looks and feels and the tone service agents use on the phone. It’s demonstrated in the way you source your materials and treat your global workforce (just do a search for “Apple Foxconn working conditions” or “Walmart Bangladesh factory”). Companies often betray the values they claim to uphold when it comes to responding to customer complaints or when they make it hard to complete a transaction or when their sales staff can’t answer basic questions.

Promises are easy to make and hard to keep. When customers are told your brand stands for one thing but their experience is something completely different, you’ve broken your brand promise.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Keep it together

To avoid having a split brand personality, marketers first need to understand how their role has changed since the days of the simple, linear sales funnel. Today’s marketers have to own the customer experience at every touch point — that includes the website, social media channels and advertising but also sales presentations, in-store experiences and customer service.

Every employee in every department needs to understand how they contribute to the brand’s image and must uphold it in everything they do. With marketing at the helm, companies can define and deliver a consistent, compelling and authentic experience that aligns brand objectives with customer needs in the real world. This puts tremendous pressure on CMOs to step up and show strong leadership, but the alternative is losing ground against competitors that don’t just deliver great products but great experiences too. This Harvard Business Review article offers a nice summary of the evolving CMO role and how CMOs and CEOs can work together more effectively.

A brand is more than a logo and a product line; it’s an ideal. Google built its dominance on the tag line, “Don’t be evil.” Have they kept that promise? I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Feel free to chime in with your comment.

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