In one way or another, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about brand lately, and I’ve come to a horrible conclusion: businesses are killing their brands. They do it in the worst way possible, by making it impossible to see why Brand A is better than Brand B.
A while ago, my insurance company, 21st Century was swallowed by AIG. When I was told this, my first reaction was “Oh no” because 21st Century, during the lengthy period of time I was a customer, was very good to me. Dealing with them in times of crisis (like when I was the number two car in a four-car pile-up) was a pleasure. They were easy to reach, easy to deal with, and, most importantly, seemed to care about solving my problem.
AIG? Here’s what I know about them: so poorly managed that I, via government agencies, am now an owner. I’m still a bit fuzzy on the details, but somehow I’m paying for insurance from a company that I, like other taxpayers, essentially own. Shouldn’t I get a refund or something?
AIG didn’t do much to make me feel like a valued customer. My reaction to the AIG brand is fairly negative. To me, they’re just another big company that swallows little companies, thereby leading to “efficiencies” that are really just code for “cutting jobs” meaning executives won’t have their bonuses cut while customer service decreases in importance.
In the entertainment business, brand is something that is very, very important to the entertainment companies. Consumers, by and large, don’t care about brand, mostly because consumers, by and large, can’t distinguish one brand from another. While there are certainly notable exceptions to the rule, pretty much every company plays within its niche, releasing the same mix of product as the competition. Brand is the artist, the director, the actor.
If you’re a major motion picture studio, most of your product could have been released by any other studio. If you’re more art house focused, you’ve got a mix of quirky American independent and artsy foreign stuff. Your brand doesn’t tell me anything about you. What differentiates Warner Brothers from Fox?
If you’re a major publisher, you likewise release a slate that’s largely indistinguishable from other major publishers. You have a mix of fiction and non-fiction, hitting all genres and styles. If you’re an independent, you generally follow a more literary course. Specialized publishers, sure, exist and they do present brand, but the overall mix is books, books, books. The only real brand at play is the author, if the author has managed to establish enough name recognition to be called a brand.
Music? There remain some well-branded independents out there, but like the other major entertainment businesses, there’s no distinguishing of brands. Again, it’s artists, not labels.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the impact of this lack of effective branding. Snippets from Late Night with David Letterman, a brand in and of himself, have been viewed more often via YouTube than the CBS website. Likewise, Saturday Night Live clips fare better on YouTube than the NBC site.
Last night, I heard, via Twitter, that the SNL debate sketch was great, so I performed a little experiment. I checked the NBC site. It was not the featured clip there. Checked YouTube. Bingo!
YouTube has established itself as the brand you can trust to get the information you want in the way you want it. It’s legitimate to ask the people who run CBS, NBC, ABC, other channels why consumers should go to their sites instead of YouTube. What do those brands offer, do better, more effectively than YouTube?
Oh, yes, there are a few: video quality, full-length episodes, uh, uh, something. But when it comes to a brand you trust to bring you that short clip, where do you go? The networks simply haven’t made the case for themselves, and I think it’s probably because in doing so, they’d have to make the case for their affiliates.
The lack of true branding is pervasive in our society. Why shop at this store over that? What makes Von’s better than Ralph’s? Why buy this product or that product or that product? We have endless choice, yet those choices feel false. One bottle of laundry detergent is as good as another.
Some businesses will never be able to achieve real brand recognition because they’ve crossed so far beyond that, there’s no way to really recapture the glory (hello, motion picture studios!). Many other businesses will realize that competition isn’t just another word for selling the same stuff, store after store.
But the ones who succeed will do so because they’ll realize why YouTube gets the viewers that CBS and NBC don’t. It’s all about customer service. Your brand will only survive and thrive if you focus on the customer. Customer service will be the reason I visit your website over another, why I shop in your store instead of the one down the street, why I choose you over the competition.
Your point is well taken regarding how the brand’s external face interacts with customers. I wonder, though, how large a role internal brand evangelism plays in spreading the word about a great (or terrible) company? If your employee’s are supposed to be your greatest asset, shouldn’t a great deal of time be spent on making sure they are your strongest advocates, with a solid foundation of your core brand values?
What makes Vonâ€™s better than Ralphâ€™s? The employee’s, I venture…
What differentiates Vons employees from Ralphs becomes the next question. Before the strike, I would have said that Vons employees really seemed to care. Never felt that way at Ralphs. Now the Vons employees don’t seem all that good either (me: excuse me do you have any lemon juice [common grocery store item], guy [looking at blank space where I’m pointing]: looks like we’re out. maybe in produce, me: where in produce? him: [shrug] I hear it’s over there].
I am very loyal to businesses that make me feel like I matter to them. Case in point: Wahoo’s. Is it the best food ever? No. Pretty good though. However, the employees always seem to go that extra mile. They make eye contact, act like I matter, and, when I leave, say thank you for coming. How often do you get that much acknowledgment in a restaurant, much less a fast food establishment. It’s nice to know they see me.
Customer service comes in many forms and it’s going to be the new black, mark my words.