Category Archives: Authenticity

The Brand and the Apology Strategy

When a brand makes a public apology, we are sure of one thing: the story that people are talking about makes the brand’s leadership uncomfortable.

Whether it’s a gross error in judgement, negligence or corruption that is exposed, an apology is a clear sign that change is forthcoming.

But in this fast paced world of instant, permanent and amplified communication, brand apologies have taken on a new form; a knee-jerk reaction to the slightest ruffled emotions, or actually part of the (terribly misguided) strategy.

“Do it, and ask for forgiveness after” might be good wisdom for an innovative culture. And it’s a great tactic for breaking through red tape rules that get in the way of progress. Lately, though, it seems this mindset is also used as a lazy fall back when a sloppy attempt at awareness generates the wrong kind of attention.

Brand leadership is about honouring your stakeholders—the employees, customers and communities that support your brand.

As individuals, we align with brands that take a stand on issues and lifestyles. So it makes sense we’d rather see a brand accept that it might offend some people and not feign an apology after just to appease those who don’t understand or share the culture or sentiment in the first place. Show those that love your brand—and everything you stand for—that you are connected and understand them; that’s what deepens the brand relationship.

A little controversy—a difference of taste, opinion or attitude—is at the root of a great brand strategy. But when something appears to go sideways, and those differences show up as very public rage, brand leaders need to anchor back to the core of the brand promise.

If the action/message is inconsistent with your brand, you apologize and take action to change it.

It’s good to apologize for true mistakes; errors that occur when systems break and products fail. There is tremendous value in being accountable to your stakeholders and honouring your side of the brand promise.

However, if the action/message is consistent with your brand—perhaps just a little bolder than people are familiar, or more revealing to the uninformed—you’re likely apologizing to make amends with the wrong audience. Or worse, you’re apologizing because you really didn’t believe in your brand.

When you apologize to the rage of those who were never aligned in the first place, you reveal weak positioning and undermine your entire brand strategy, and all your efforts outside of this one controversy come under scrutiny. You’re apologizing for being who you promised you were going to be, but only apologizing because it got a little uncomfortable.

Brand strength is about honouring your attitude and culture. It’s about being proud of your values and how they manifest in the world. That’s authenticity showing up and adding value when it matters. That is brand strategy.

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Mind the Gap.

You’re probably well of aware of the concept of “the brand gap”—the difference between the experience you promise and the experience you deliver.

You should know that nobody cares about the ‘gap’ except you.

The brand gap only exists in your mind—it’s the strategic vacuum between your promise and your capacity to deliver the experience consistently. The gap doesn’t exist in your customer’s mind. Or any other stakeholder, for that matter.

No one else knows what experience you intended to deliver. No one else sees a gap. Everyone else sees it merely as a promise that you failed to deliver, and now over-promised or failed-to-deliver is part of your brand story. You exaggerated your capacity and the value of the experience; no gap.

A regular assessment of the gap is a helpful brand management tool; it’s important to take a brutally honest look at the experience you are delivering against the promises you make.

Defining the gap, though, is not a stage of brand development to work through. It’s a failure of your brand strategy and any sign of a gap is a serious wake up call. If there is a disconnect between the brand you want to have—the promise you believe is compelling—and the brand experience you offer, you must change one of them fast.

“David” fails at the core brand promise.

Three emails. One mistake. Zero chance.

One of the rules of brand strategy is that you must excel at the core promise. Cafes must serve good coffee; cameras must take good photos; hotels must have a comfortable bed; airlines must get you and your luggage from A to B. There are lots of optional touch points that add to the mix and elevate an experience, but when a company fails to deliver on their basic offer it calls into question everything about the brand. It’s not rocket science (unless your brand is NASA).

Like most people, I get plenty of unsolicited emails. Not spam, but the professional generic mailing list kind with offers for legitimate services. Since most of them are misguided, such as offering to support my IT department, the emails are impersonal and I ignore them. In fact, I don’t even respond to 90% of the mailing list emails—even a simple “no thank you” for all of them would end up taking too many minutes out of my day. Delete.

A few do get my attention, though. I will read at least the first few lines of emails addressed to me by name and offer a service I might consider.

That’s what I did when I received the following email:

SAG_CC Email Blunder_01“Hi David,
 
My name is C____ C____ and I am a V_____ Chair here in Atlanta. V_____ is a worldwide CEO Organization with over 15,000 CEOs internationally (blah, blah, blah)….”

The rest of the email is irrelevant. It’s for a peer coaching group, and I am not interested. So I ignore the email. Two weeks later I get a brief follow-up, which we all know is an important and smart sales move.

“Hi David,
 
Do you have time to speak next Tuesday or Wednesday after 2pm to discuss if our group would be a good fit for you? Alternatively, I can have my assistant contact you to set-up an appointment at your convenient time. – C____ C_____”

I’ll give points to him for a good, direct follow-up, but I’m still not interested. I am about to hit delete for a second time and I realize something. (And this is where it hurts.)

My name is not David.

My name is Stephen. The name of my company is Stephen Abbott Group. Both are in the email address he used. This blog, stephenabbott.com, is mine, and I am pretty sure Stephen, not David, is in every bio about me on the web, everywhere. To quote the cool kids, this simple mistake is a true #fail.

Using a wrong name is a silly error, but one that we’ve probably all made at some point. I’ve even been called David in person (Kevin, Jim, Sean and Mike, too) by people who should know better. Usually we just laugh it off and move on.

But C_____ is pitching executive excellence. He’s promising me ”access-to-the-best-of-the-best” kind of stuff, yet the second word in both of his emails was wrong. I don’t know how the mistake was made—database, cut-and-paste, dyslexia—but it’s sloppy, and a perfect example of not paying attention to details. Not exactly in the authentic spirit of executive excellence.

So this time I decided to respond.

“Hi C____,

I appreciate the offer, but I am not seeking executive coaching or peer mentoring at the moment. I already connect with a strong local group.

You should also know that my name is Stephen, not David, as clearly indicated in every aspect of my contact details, website, blog and social media. While it’s just a simple error, it does call into question the calibre of excellence your group prescribes.

I am not being mean about this, but perhaps take it as feedback to always stop and take a moment to make sure the little details are accurate. It’s not the reason I am not interested today, but it’s likely the reason you’ll have to work much harder for me to consider it in the future.

Respectfully,

Stephen”

To add insult to injury, it’s many weeks later, and I haven’t heard a response. It annoys me that C____ didn’t even take the time to say, “Thanks. My bad.” I could respect that. Ignoring me is not exactly in the authentic spirit of peer group mentoring.

Mistakes are human, forgivable, and can be overcome. Apologies are acceptable. But you have to try. Especially if you want my business.

Why does this matter for your brand? Well, any of the 14,999 other CEOs who brag about being part of this network have just lost any credibility the association affords them—with me, and possibly, with anyone who reads this post and can connect the censored blurs. They can offer all the bells and whistles they want to support their program, but at its core promise, the brand didn’t deliver.

The core promise for your brand is everything, perhaps even the only thing. Great brands always deliver on the core promise. No exceptions.

The Curse of Exceeding Expectations

The concept of Exceeding Expectations is charming wisdom that hijacks good strategy.

If your brand sets up the expectation that you will exceed my expectations, then you must consistently jump over a bar that you’ve set impossibly high, and keeps getting higher. It’s a vague promise with no true meaning—the ultimate failure of brand strategy. Good luck with that.

Trump Hotel Toronto expected to exceed my expectations. Since it was also their promise to me, I expected to have my expectations exceeded. So when they exceeded my regular hotel expectations, they actually only met my expectations for their experience. They didn’t exceed my expectations because I expected them to exceed my expectations.

Confused? Here’s another way to look at it. They bought into the mantra without respecting our relationship.

How do I know they know the mantra but lack the understanding? They are so desperate to have me say they “exceed my expectations”, that anything less than exceeding my exceeded expectations—I gave them a 7 out of 10 on a couple of comment points—was deemed an operational disappointment.  Promising and delivering world-class luxury service isn’t enough. They took the time (three times, actually) to apologize for merely meeting my exceeded expectations.

SAG_Trump Hotel Truffle_01Here’s the run down of the issues: 1) One staff member, whom I assume was a manager, wasn’t smiling at one time and was more concerned with the buffet he set up than taking a moment to say hi. 2) One morning I ordered breakfast to my room, and the omelette was slightly less cooked than I prefer. 3) I asked a staff member for directions within the hotel, and she didn’t know—it was her first day on the job. She asked a colleague and I was promptly on my way.

None of these were serious, but on a post-experience guest survey—and because of the specific questions they ask in the survey—it drops the my perspective from flawless to a more human excellent.

On the comment card, anything less than a 9 gets the attention of the GM. That’s right, a 9. Practically flawless execution of an exceeded expectation—an ill defined benchmark if there ever was one—is the only pass. I’ve struggled with my thoughts and comments.

Perhaps it comes back to my preference for a more casual experience; I don’t appreciate all the pomp and ceremony within Five Diamonds. But that’s not it, because one of the things I loved about my experience was how easily staff respected and responded to my casual style within the delivery of their elegance. Perhaps it comes back to my simple requests; I didn’t really put them to the Five Diamond test. But that’s not it either, because they handled even the simplest requests with genuine grace and skill.

So I suggest it’s because excellence is arbitrary. The only promise was to exceed, but what they were exceeding was left to my imagination (which I assure you can run wild, especially around customer experiences). The questions and standards by which they asked me to judge them didn’t reflect their clear promise. And that is what I expect from a brand—a clear promise. Excellence needs a benchmark by which it’s judged, and as a customer, I expect the brand to lead the way.

Brand Strategy—and the experience you commit to deliver—should define the expectations you promise. And then it’s okay to exceed those.

The phrase “exceeding expectations” is wonderful little tidbit of wisdom to encourage good staff who could use a reason to try a little harder. It’s the goal of empowerment—a great way to offer your team permission to use common sense in uncommon situations and put the customer first. It’s a great way to think about adding value to moments.

Putting the phrase into your strategy and messaging is reckless. It’s a vague promise that says I can expect nothing specific, and yet anything is possible. And putting the onus on your customers to assess random expectations as exceeded shows you’re not in control. A brand strategy of Exceeding Expectations demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how a brand strategy supports your vision and values, and how it should drive your culture. It shows that you are desperate to please—to give in at any cost—rather than honouring the relationship and promising an experience. It’s terribly vague while pretending to make a promise or set a standard.

Exceeding expectations isn’t the benchmark you strive to reach; it’s the passion that drives your culture of service and your innovation behind the experience you’ve promised.

The Authenticity Myths

Authenticity is a pretty big buzz word in brand strategy today. If you’ve read any of my posts, you know I am a huge proponent of ensuring that Authenticity is at the root of your strategy—it’s at the very heart of transparency and accountability. Buzz-worthiness aside, everyone agrees; when you act authentically, you set up your brand for success. It’s hard to argue with the logic.

The concept of Authenticity gets pushed into almost every conversation on brand strategy, and I won’t deny it’s important. But it’s also misunderstood.

Myth #1
Authenticity isn’t walking your talk. It’s talking your walk.
Semantics? Maybe. But know this; it’s far easier to speak to your natural, instinctual actions than it is to act with integrity upon the things you’ve said.

Talk is easy. Talk is cheap. Talk is emotional. It’s much more difficult to figure out how to model the expectations in your messages than it is to understand and promote your culture and true capacity in the work you do.

Actions are all that matter. Actions are the only things people have to judge you on, because actions are the only thing that have value. Words—the promises you make—are worthless until you act.

Your strategy shouldn’t be about walking your talk; it can only be about talking your walk.

Myth #2
Self discovery—an assessment of your skills, capacity and natural instincts—is important. In the Authenticity push, there are people who declare that is important to reflect your true, full self in your actions and your messages. Your entire brand promise must capture your authentic self. If you are clear on who you are and what you do, you (or your organization) will be a success.

However, authenticity is not it’s own reward.  Authenticity is only one factor in brand success, and it does not create brand equity by itself.

Yes, your authentic self matters. But just because you’re authentic doesn’t mean other people want what you offer. Your authentic self—as a model for your organization—must also be compelling to enough people to make it valuable. People must desire what you promise. It can be a few people, or whole bunch of people, or practically all people, but it must be enough people to reward your effort.

It takes more than authenticity. Your brand must be authentic, compelling, and a competitive advantage.

Leverage your Authenticity
Authenticity is a reflection of how your organization behaves—the choices you make that are important and natural. Develop a Brand Strategy anchored by your business model—your model of success—and defined by authentic behaviour.

Challenge yourself and your team. Do some deep soul-searching to discove values that are important, and characteristics that define your culture. Don’t pick popular words and try to make them fit. Reveal authenticity and celebrate it.

More importantly, identify any behaviours or commitments that will contradict your brand strategy. Here you face a tough decision; change the behaviour (hard-to-do) or change the brand story (compromises your competitive advantage). Because if you don’t change your behaviour, there will be a moment—probably not a moment you plan for—when no one will believe your brand story.

A great Brand Strategy will leverage natural, comfortable and defendable behaviours that reinforce the goals of the organization, defining the culture and standards that are celebrated, supported and rewarded.

Note: Read Authenticity is and True values are a choice for more.

The Power of Positive Disruption

Brand value—the intangible equity derived from a desirable and reliable experience—is rooted in moments of Positive Disruption. Within every experience, a brand has opportunities to disrupt our expectations—disrupt what is generic and familiar—and imprint memories.

Strong brands take the time to consider the whole experience for different stakeholders, and rather than just slapping a logo on every surface, the brand immerses each stakeholder with positive, affirming touch points; unique clues in imagery, language, rituals and total sensory impact. Strong brands add value with a well-considered experience.

We are surrounded by brand experiences. Almost everything in our lives is experienced because someone somewhere at some time made a choice in an effort to define the experience. Someone made a choice based on; a) an experience they wanted to create or an idea they wanted us to believe; b) the resources and budget available to them at the time; and c) the values guiding their behaviour. Yet while we are constantly exposed to those brands and those choices (whether it’s a product, service, cause, community and even a country), most of the choices are completely imperceptible. That’s right, most of the brand experience is completely missed.

That chair you’re sitting on; it’s part of a brand experience. The screen you’re reading this on; it’s part of a brand experience. That coffee you just sipped; it’s part of a brand experience. That music playing in the background; the lamp-post in your neighbourhood; the composting bin in the garden; those are all part of brand experiences. The sound of the alarm clock and the bed you woke up in and the clothes you put on this morning and the spoon you ate your cereal with—all part of brand experiences. And I bet you missed most of them.

Positive Disruption—a conscious choice to identify a brand—anchors the experience. It’s in the moments of disruption the brand greets us, reminds us of our relationship, and moves us forward to continue the experience. We, the stakeholder, are reassured while being rewarded.

The challenge, of course, is to disrupt the experience in a way is positive and inclusive to stakeholders; an experience that reinforces the brand strategy—the story we want people to believe about our organization—with respect.

Forcing stakeholders into behaviours that are uncomfortable, unnatural, wasteful or arrogant will backfire. Forcing people to support your brand’s distinction without providing any more value for them—or establishing the boundaries of the relationship—is irresponsible and will fail. Negative disruptions push your agenda without buy-in; positive disruptions enhance the experience and deepen understanding.

Your mission is to deliver a product, service, cause or idea to meet the needs of your stakeholders. A brand strategy maps out the core experiences, exploring from the outside perspective while considering the capacity of the organization to have influence or impact. Along the path, a good strategy recognizes the mindset of your audience at specific moments, identifying unique opportunities to engage individuals with your story and evolve the relationship.

A brand strategy defines the positive disruptions which reinforce and complement the brand. Positive disruptions are brand value.

Where do we find Positive Disruption?

Visual identities are common disruptions. Colours, shapes, imagery and structure are significant reference points and make it easy to connect. But an overwhelmingly unique visual experience isn’t always reasonable or positive, and just repeating your logo everywhere is less productive that you’d think.

Language clues are helpful. Language drives the culture or the organization, and the tone delivers the brand with character. Sharing a familiar language with your stakeholders builds relationships that are hard to break. Language can polarize audiences, though, so make sure to have message strategies that are inclusive across different yet relevant stakeholders.

Patterns and rituals are valuable, creating habits that are the equivalent to a secret handshake— conspicuously absent when expected; comfortably reassuring when shared. A ritual that enhances the experience is rooted in the culture of the brand, celebrating points of distinction and rewarding loyalty.

Have you mapped your core brand experience from start to finish? Have you considered all the senses, beyond just marketing campaigns and whimsical creativity? Have you considered all stakeholder groups, thinking beyond only the customer experience? If you’ve only considered a single moment of interaction—or you’re simply adding your logo to every surface—you are missing plenty of opportunities to engage your stakeholders in the full brand experience.