When Brands are Compromised

I’ve had a few experiences recently that inspired this post, and I’m sure you’ve experienced the following: It’s a blazing hot day, you’re running late for a long meeting (or class in my case), and all you really want is a nice, cold Coca-Cola. You drive through a fast food restaurant and order your Coke, and as you pull away from the window, you’re ready to take that first satisfying sip. The liquid hits your tongue and it’s a flat or syrupy or otherwise compromised version of your favorite soft drink. This has happened to me twice at the same drive-thru, so I’ve decided to just avoid ordering Coke from that place. While it’s not Coke’s fault, and it’s not really in Coke’s control, their brand has been compromised. So, as one major part of a marketer’s job is to protect the brand, how do we fix this situation?

Absolute control. Let’s talk about control, the kind where every piece of a product is made for and by the company, sold by the company, and maintained by the company. The first company that comes to my mind is Apple. Apple is all about the control, from every piece that enters the computer and every sales person that walks onto the Apple store floor. They are reluctant to give any piece of quality control over to any other company, which makes for fewer opportunities for the brand to be compromised. If you maintain strict control over every aspect of a product or service, you’re much more likely to keep the brand image in place. While control can help you maintain your brand, it can be expensive, and in some cases, can limit growth. It can be expensive because efficiency and therefore lower costs are generally achieved through specialization. The likelihood that a company can efficiently produce every piece of their product puzzle is slim, so complete control will make it difficult to cut costs. Further, complete control can limit growth. This is particularly true in the service industry, since one person may provide the service better than another, and you can’t clone that person. So, if you get to the point where customers only drink coffee made by one barista, or only do business with one teller at a bank, you’ll have a hard time growing. It’s great that you’ve got one or two stellar employees, but you’ve also created a bottleneck if you can’t get the rest of your employees or partners up to par.

It wasn’t me. Another tactic to avoid compromising your brand, is to make your partners or franchisees take the risk with their own brand. This is especially prevalent in the fast food industry, where most of the restaurants display a plaque stating that each store is individually owned and operated, with a local contact for complaints. However, this approach is a little frustrating to customers. I’ve found that Taco Cabana is very inconsistent throughout the metroplex, and it drives me nuts! I get a craving for some enchiladas, and I know there’s a Cabana in close proximity, but then I have this fear that it will turn out to be one of the “bad” ones. You never want anyone doubting the quality of the brand and changing their purchase based on the fear induced by several bad experiences. Technically, Taco Cabana the parent company can claim that it’s the individual store’s fault. But, realistically, Taco Cabana has entrusted their brand to these individuals, so the “it wasn’t me” trick rarely pans out.

Better training and personal ownership. I think the best way to combat brand compromises, is better training and personal ownership. We all know my affinity for Starbucks, and I’ve got to give them credit once more. This company goes to great lengths to train their employees to take personal ownership of each customer experience. They have several weeks of training to ensure that each barista knows how to make a quality product, and empowers them to embody the Starbucks brand. They offer incentives for long-term partners, from benefits to career paths, which helps employees feel more invested in the success of the company. Many large companies offer tuition reimbursement or additional certifications to help train their employees to better represent the company. By giving employees the tools, and empowering them to own the brand personally, companies ensure that their brand experience will be consistently delivered by those on the front lines.

Be “known” for something. Finally, I think brands can avoid being compromised by picking one trait to be “known” for, and make sure that this aspect is always consistent. For example, Nordstrom is known for outstanding customer service, and they instill this sense of service at every level of the corporation. It’s less important to customers for the size to be right or the shipping to be fast, because they know that dealing with the Nordstrom customer service representative will be pleasant. The customer service is always consistent, which covers any mistakes in other areas of the purchasing process. Some companies try to be everything to everyone all the time, and this lack of focus often results in inconsistent experiences with the brand. Thus, one bad experience isn’t viewed as just “one”, it’s viewed as a reflection of the brand as a whole. After you’ve mastered the aspect you’re “known” for, you can begin tackling the other issues. Again, Nordstrom has become known for quality and consistency in sizing, shipping and materials, but only after mastering customer service.

So, how do you deal with a compromising brand experience? Are you putting in the effort to make sure that customers trust your brand, or is it a risky choice each time they decide to try out your product?

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