Tag 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.

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.

Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

Customer Service is the great differentiator for your brand. Competitors may offer a similar product or service, but the way you treat people—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—will define the brand. No exceptions.

There are two important mandates for customer service:

The first is the experience you intend to share with your customers—the promise you’ve made. This is rooted in your strategy; fail here and you’re doomed. (But that’s a post for another day)

The second is the experience you provide when things don’t go as planned. The way you treat people in the middle of chaos—chaos you’ve caused or chaos thrust upon you—will have a tremendous impact on the brand story, perhaps even the most impact. Success here is rooted in your culture.

When the shit hits the fan—and it will at some point—we expect the brand to understand and honour the relationship we shared in the good times. We expect the brand to honour our needs BEFORE they worry about their own. We expect the brand to deliver the experience when it matters to us, not only when it’s convenient for them. And we expect the brand to know more about solving our problem that we do; we expect them to be prepared.

Customer Service, for all the tools and techniques and plans and training, is about treating human beings with respect. Respect for the promises you’ve made; respect for moment you’re in; respect for the variables that make each of us unique. It’s an art, not a science. It’s in your culture.

Anyone who has seen my Essential Brand Strategy presentation knows of my admiration for WestJet, a Canadian based airline that focuses on a fun, friendly travel experience.  A few days ago they lost my luggage.

Their customer service culture, not just a problem-recovery strategy, made all the difference.

  • I never felt like Westjet lost my bag because of sloppy staff. It was simply an error, not negligence or apathy.
  • They apologized first. They were genuinely disappointed—not in themselves or their team, but the situation. I never felt like they weren’t 100% positive they would find it, and I always believed they were in control.
  • They compensated me without hesitation, even though they promptly found the bag. The employee recognized their team dropped the ball on the relationship—the flight—and accepted responsibility.

Luggage gets lost. It’s an inconvenient reality of air travel, and like many people, I have lost luggage with other airlines. While the other airlines stopped short of blaming me, there was always the impression that my action somehow broke their system, or that my need to have my bags was now an inconvenience for the airline—a disruption of their normal duties. The report, the solution, the reconnection—all met with just enough contempt to break any promise of friendly skies. Perhaps they loved to fly, but dealing with luggage problems was simply out of scope.

WestJet didn’t just retrieve my luggage; they did it within the experience I expect.

Now, I don’t want to belittle their business model, but good customer service isn’t exactly a secret formula for success. But with WestJet, it’s not really a formula at all.

Their approach to customer service is rooted in a culture that genuinely cares for their customer. It’s in their brand. It’s not a marketing tool; it’s an HR obsession. WestJet doesn’t train nice people to do things right—they hire awesome people and give them permission to do the right things. It shows.

Customer service is never just a strategy. When it is your culture, it is your brand.

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.