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What are the non-negotiables when things go wrong? In a fast-paced world where associates face difficult choices, conflicting priorities, and an unforgiving customer, only a company’s soul, its values, its fundamental long-practiced orientation to the customer, can provide sound real-time guidance.
It’s been a rough month for corporate reputation. In fact, it’s been a rough 2017. The recent Pepsi Jenner ad debacle and the United “passenger re-accommodation” mess followed on the heels of negative publicity and consumer indignation surrounding Uber, Under Armour, Budweiser, Starbucks and many other brands.
Some of the noise has been driven by missteps, and some by consumer interpretation that may or may not match the organization’s actual intent. But there’s no question that the landscape is filled with more landmines that explode quicker and louder than ever before. And while there is much debate and analysis around whether these will episodes result in long-term damage to stock price, market share and brand equity, it’s fair to assume that organizations would rather avoid these reputation crises.
Proliferating risks make it more important than ever that leaders understand fully what lies within the soul of their organizations and communicate these core values clearly to their stakeholders. A well-defined and shared set of values — especially with respect to customers — is the best defense against stumbling into blistering headlines. There are many new dynamics that make today’s environment more treacherous than ever for stewards of brand and reputation.
The Energized, Politicized Consumer
The highly-charged and polarized political environment has left many consumers from both ends of the political spectrum feeling frustrated, frightened and voiceless. Brands are being weighed, judged and punished for actual or presumed positions on a wide range of social issues, quickly becoming poster children of activism. Under Armour took heat from its sponsored athletes for comments made by Founder/CEO Kevin Plank. Budweiser saw boycotts for its Superbowl ad that, even though written long before the Trump travel ban was declared, was perceived as critical of it.
Accelerated News Cycle
The proverbial “word of mouth” power, especially when negative, is well known. The scale of social media has exponentially increased this power; the anxious social climate has further turbo-charged it. As a result, issues rapidly become crises and organizations no longer have the needed time to ponder alternatives and craft a thoughtful response. Success is now measured in hours, not days, and a response that doesn’t fully and quickly address the issue simply prolongs the pain. Pepsi’s 24-hour withdrawal of the Kendall Jenner ad reflected this new nimbleness; United’s 3-step apology showed the perils of moving slower.
New Power Through Data, Technology
A slightly subtler but no less meaningful risk is presented by the rapidly-increasing power and availability of data, analytics and technology. Marketers have access to capabilities that enable deep insights and targeting to drive relevant and timely messages. The dark side goes beyond that annoying re-targeting of a brand of shoes you already bought—the challenge becomes walking that fine line of being relevant but not creepy and intrusive. With the loosening of regulations around data use, the choices marketers make become even more critical. Add to this mix the growing Internet of Things, and everything becomes more complicated: the recent instance of Burger King triggering a response from Google Home devices illustrates the grey area marketers must navigate in a world where we know intimate details about an individual and can access the devices they live with.
How then does an organization operate effectively, build its brand, navigate new risks, and effectively respond to issues with the necessary speed? The truth is that no manual, set of policies, or job description will save a brand from the fates of the smart, well-run companies that end up in painful headlines. It’s just as true that no instructional documentation can enable a batter hit a big-league fastball: only unthinking, instinctual, long-practiced muscle memory can do the job. This is why clearly defining and expressing the company’s soul is the only solution. In a fast-paced world, where associates face difficult choices, conflicting priorities, and an unforgiving customer, only a company’s soul, its values and fundamental, long-practiced orientation to the customer, can provide sound real-time guidance.
Defining the Soul of a Company
I recall talking to a friend who was a mid-level marketer at Charles Schwab many years ago. He described how you could walk the halls and feel the unambiguous, universal conviction in the idea of “Do right by the customer and revenue will follow.” There was no doubt about the fundamental belief at the core of the organization’s DNA, which could then act as North Star to any in-the-moment decisions made by thousands of associates.