Category Archives: Best Practices

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.

Get out of your bubble.

I was once asked by a group of university students for advice on pursuing a career in marketing communications. Beyond studying, embracing creativity and landing a job at an agency, what did I feel was a valuable lesson for success?

“Get out of your bubble.”

The idea is simple. As communicators, it’s important for us to understand the diversity of different markets and audiences—to engage with vibrant communities that are different from our own status-quo. The more experiences we have—the more alternatives we understand—the more valuable we will be as marketers. (I’d argue that we’re more enlightened as humans, too, …but I digress.)

I am going to add to that advice. Don’t just be open to the idea—we need to make a point of breaking out of our bubble on a regular basis. In fact, you should probably schedule it just to be 100% sure you don’t fall into a routine.

I stepped out of my own bubble last month. I spent 21 intense days with 23 smart people who rattled the boundaries of the world I am immersed in daily; a world I thought was already pretty diverse. The ages ranged from 19 to 50, with the majority being below 30. It was a mix of men and women from different social and educational backgrounds.

If I am to believe my current bubble, social media—digital literacy in general—is desired and embraced by everyone, especially young adults.

Pop.

I was the only one who had a blog, knew HTML, or had an active Twitter account. I was the only one who was on Foursquare (I became the campus mayor in a few days). Two people had Instagram accounts, but wanted to switch to SnapChat because it’s “safer and temporary” [sigh…]. Even though we were all advancing our careers, people were more interested in connecting on Facebook than LinkedIn (they didn’t realize there was a difference). In fact, a few in this group were unaware of LinkedIn. Everyone knew YouTube; no one knew Slideshare. I was the only one who had ever knowingly watched a TED talk. No one wanted to do a Google Hangout, even though that would have been very, very helpful during our time together.

No one understood a business plan or marketing strategy, let alone how to define a good plan from a pipe dream. (To be fair, I didn’t expect them to. It wasn’t that kind of work session.) Many had business ideas, though, and it seemed everyone in this group knew what it took to be a billionaire, even though none have reached the first million.

I share this to show that everyone has their bubble, even those of us who are aware of bubbles.

In my bubble of brands, business, communications and customer experiences, it’s easy to imagine the whole world engages on Social Media and understands the basics of business strategy. I was, ultimately, thrilled to have my bubble burst, and to once again remind myself that each of these new friends personified a valid target audience.

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.

Your brand beyond your customer.

If you’re only focusing on customers, you’re missing a huge audience for your brand.

Avid readers of my blog know that I almost always use stakeholder to define your audience. I am pretty sure people read customer in those sentences—and are frustrated that I make it too complicated or buzz-wordy—but there is a good reason to think beyond the transaction when developing your brand strategy.

Your customers are only one of five distinct stakeholder groups that are influenced by your brand. And I am not convinced they are even the most important one in your brand strategy.

1. Customers are indeed important. To paraphrase Drucker, without them you simply would have a reason to exist. As a stakeholder audience, customers include anyone who is willing to trade their money, time or resources to take advantage of what you have to offer. They buy your product, support your cause, volunteer their support or contribute their skills. They are engaged.

Customers use your brand as an expression of their personal choice; you become a badge of honour in their lifestyle. They expect you to reward their loyalty with consistency & integrity of the promise, and trust that you will continue to feed the relationship with innovation and relevance.

Don’t let your brand strategy stop with customers.

2. Employees are next in this list, but when developing your brand strategy, I suggest this is the critical group. As a stakeholder audience, employees are the people so committed to your brand vision they want to create the experience for others. They enthusiastically bring their skills, expertise and passion to move the organization forward.

Employees—and volunteers who show up to help—are personally committed to delivering the brand experience, sharing the cause and their abilities to make the promise possible. This is the group that embodies the phrase  “authentic”, so consider this group first. When everyone else is judging or borrowing from your culture, this is the group who define it.

3. Shareholders are a different bunch. These are people who are intimately connected to the brand (through financial investment or personal relationship) and choose to be associated with the brand, yet they are not responsible for delivering the brand promise. Or perhaps these people are the benefactors of your organization, receiving help and services.

As a stakeholder audience, shareholders have to believe in the tangible and intangible value of the mission and the capacity of the organization to meet its promises. Shareholders support innovation and leadership’s efforts to pursue the vision, holding the operations accountable for decisions and activities along the way.

4. Vendors make it possible. Vendors supply you with the array of goods or services that you will need so that you can deliver your promise. As a stakeholder audience, vendors share in the commitment to deliver the brand experience. Their compromise is your compromise; their ingenuity is your value; they are your best and worst.

Vendors are links in the chain of the brand experience and share in the integrity of your brand promise. They work with you in your innovation, sharing the push to offer an exceptional experience.

5. A community embraces the brand. As a stakeholder group, the community has the choice to integrate the brand into the local culture, and most importantly, holds the brand accountable for the promises it makes.

Communities make it possible for a brand to flourish and prosper.

Most brand strategy focuses on the customer message first & foremost, hoping that other stakeholders will be able to infer their role in the mission; strategy by osmosis. It’s understandable why it matters—every organization needs to attract customers or supporters just to exist—and why it feels most important during the development of the strategy. But this approach runs the risk of being merely a temporary marketing tactic instead of a defined brand strategy.

Strong brands know that they exist well beyond the customer. Great brand strategies focus on all the stakeholder experiences, engaging everyone in a shared vision.

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.