What the DMV Taught Me About Brand Trust in the Age of Algorithms

After I shifted my residency from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I put off for way too long the job of going to the DMV to change my driver’s license. When I finally went recently, it was just as awful an experience as I expected. While I did lose years off my life, I also came away with new insights about customer experience and brand trust in the age of the algorithm.

building trustAfter I shifted my residency from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I put off for way too long the job of going to the DMV to change my driver’s license. When I finally went recently, it was just as awful an experience as I expected. While I did lose years off my life, I also came away with new insights about customer experience and brand trust in the age of the algorithm.

Let me set the stage. After explaining my needs (license, registration) to a greeter, I was given a ticket with the the number D72. I then went to sit among 100 or so lost souls watching a ticker go by: A31, T76, F17, H125, B7, A32 C38 … And I watched. And watched. After about an hour it dawned on me that I had not seen one “D” number go by in all that time.

I wandered around seeking an explanation for this strange D-free streak. I saw a poster that said something like, “We have a numbering system that prioritizes the various services with an employee with the right level of experience and training. We find that this is most effective process.”

So in other words, “We have a sort of secret system, and will not really explain it to you, but trust us, it works (for us).”

Rather than provide comfort, this bit of bureaucratic prose only wound me up further: What does my “D” ticket say about me? Where do I stack in the pecking order? What trade-offs are they making that are invisible to me, and that cost me precious time? Should I have gamed the system by doing things one at a time? Can I swipe my neighbor’s faster-moving C ticket? (He’s sleeping on shoulder, so really wouldn’t miss it.)

My conversation with the greeter didn’t help matters. She explained that, yes, D tickets were really slow — harder to deal with. Plus, 11-3 was the lunch hour, and therefore things get really bogged down at that time. I opined that 11-3 was more accurately a lunch four-hours, not a lunch hour, representing nearly half the day. Her silent, reptilian stare chilled my spine and sent me back to my seat.

At four hours and twelve minutes, I gave up and handed the win to the State of Virginia and went home to drink heavily.

This is where the lesson for marketers comes started to dawn on me.

None of us would ever seek to recreate such an experience. But in the age of the algorithm, analytic optimization and the coming era of AI, we run the risk of inadvertently creating similarly mysterious and unsettling experiences — and thereby undermining brand trust.

Mastering Micro Moments: How to Win With a Connected Consumer

We’ve all seen the shocking statistics: consumers check their phones 150 times a day, etc. This reality has given rise to what Google dubbed “Micro Moments” — those little windows of time when a consumer is trying to get something done, and is most open to a brand message. The modern marketer must become a master of understanding and exploiting these little opportunities in order to advance their brand agenda.

Mobile Micro MomentsWe’ve all seen the shocking statistics: consumers check their phones 150 times a day; they look at them first thing upon waking up and lasting thing before sleeping; they see thousands of brand messages in the course of the day; and they multi-task across apps and to-dos like a hamster on crack. And truth be told, we all probably uncomfortably recognize these behaviors in our own daily life. This reality has given rise to what Google dubbed “Micro Moments” — those little windows of time when a consumer is trying to get something done, and is most open to a brand message. The modern marketer must become a master of understanding and exploiting these little opportunities in order to advance their brand agenda.

The good news is that there are only about 5,000 vendors of martech, adtech and other tech who are eager to sell you solutions that will let you insert yourself into these fleeting moments. Indeed, one of the great anxieties of the modern CMO is the challenge of understanding, sorting through and selecting from among the bewildering array of data, analytic and tech offerings. There has also emerged a cottage industry of conferences, consultants and publications whose mission is to further the technical execution of connecting with the distracted, mobile consumer.

The bad news is that all the best technology in the world will not complete the mission without a compelling piece of marketing content — and that comes down to smart, curious humans who deeply understand their target. In the rush to leverage the awesome power of analytics and algorithms, it’s critical that marketers remember that they’re connecting with a human being, not a collection of data points. Here are some principles to keep in mind when creating the human message to ride through the technology medium and win the micro moments:

Focus on the Whole Person

In that fleeting moment, you need to strike a nerve to effectively engage their attention and move their thinking or action. This calls for a level of insight and understanding that goes beyond a thin segmentation or persona with a scant few facts. Try to develop an immersive feel for the human you’re trying to reach, keeping in mind the emotional surround of their life, and that particular moment in the day. Think of the cultural context and the notes that will resonate. The book, Sensemaking, by Christian Madsbjerg, provides a compelling framework for this kind of rich, humanistic appreciation of the non-quant side of the equation.

Deliver Value

In some ways, well d-uh, but it’s all too easy to be so focused on your brand objective that you forget the notion of being of service in that moment. Google calls out four objectives the consumer may have: Know, Go, Do or Buy. Let go of the idea that the consumer journey is a one-way path to your cash register, and focus on what they’re trying to do and how you can be helpful in that moment. Always remember to offer value before you ask for it.

Great Marketing Starts With Powerful Insights: Here Are 5 Rules to Find Them

All inspiring marketing rests on a powerful, catalyzing insight. Most marketing misfires stem from a miscue masquerading as an insight. As the starting point for any innovation, communication or experience effort, nothing is more foundationally critical than a sound insight for staying on-target as work progresses.

All inspiring marketing rests on a powerful, catalyzing insight. Most marketing misfires stem from a miscue masquerading as an insight. As the starting point for any innovation, communication or experience effort, nothing is more foundationally critical than a sound insight for staying on-target as work progresses.

If an insight is even two degrees off at the start, by the time you’re reviewing work weeks or months down the road, you’ll likely be miles off the mark. So getting the insight right from the outset is essential to developing resonant marketing and avoiding the agony of round after round of unproductive work.

As a recent case in point, we have two examples of brands that tried to take on the issue of the polarized, strident state of our social reality: Pepsi and Heineken.

With its Kendall Jenner ad, Pepsi showed the quasi-celebrity resolving social crisis by opening a can of cola.

https://youtu.be/dA5Yq1DLSmQ

In World’s Apart, Heineken showcased pairs of people with wildly divergent views discovering they could talk calmly and reasonably to each other.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wYXw4K0A3g

The Pepsi work was instantly and universally panned, leading to its embarrassing and equally instant withdrawal. The Heineken work was widely viewed as thought-provoking, moving and appropriate.

While it’s easy to pick on a variety of issues with the Pepsi ad (as so many have done at this point), I believe that the difference in the success of the two efforts comes down to the difference between how well the two brands adhered to what I consider these cardinal rules of good insights.

1. No Room for Wishful Thinking

One of the worst — and most common — sins of insights is allowing wishful thinking to creep into the mix. I shudder to think how many times I’ve sat with a brand manager who showed me a positioning statement containing an insight along the lines of, “I wish there were a breakfast cereal that was healthy AND tasted good.” This is an insight pre-engineered to invite the circular brand promise, “Only Toasty-O’s are healthy AND good tasting!” You’ve got to tune your BS meter to 11, rigorously sniff out any trace of self-delusion, strategy or aspiration, and stick to reality.

Note to Airlines: Don’t Follow the Cable Companies’ Lead

There’s no disputing that 2017 has gotten off to a tough start for the airlines. Consumers were already frustrated with seats that seemed inspired by medieval torture devices, proliferating fees, and yield management algorithms that manage to pack the planes to the gills, forcing tense games of seat-rest elbow chicken. Oh, yes, and there was that thing about dragging a doctor off a flight, bloody and unconscious.

Peter Horst is chair of the Fusion Financial Services event later this year. Click here for more details. The event is free to qualified attendees (including travel and lodging) but seats are limited, so apply today!

There’s no disputing that 2017 has gotten off to a tough start for the airlines. Consumers were already frustrated with seats that seemed inspired by medieval torture devices, proliferating fees, and yield management algorithms that manage to pack the planes to the gills, forcing tense games of seat-rest elbow chicken. Oh, yes, and there was that thing about dragging a doctor off a flight, bloody and unconscious.

If people are comparing your airline to he people on "The Walking Dead," a TV show about a zombie apocalypse where the people are even worse than the zombies, you've made some mistakes.
One example of the reaction United received on social media after the incident.

Helping keep temperatures at a boil, social media made it so seamlessly easy to publicize every instance of crabby crew behavior, ticketing injustice, and righteous passenger indignation. Little wonder that an actual riot broke out in the Spirit Air terminal at Ft. Lauderdale’s airport after pilots expressed their displeasure with management by not showing up for work.

A Tone-Deaf Airline Industry Response

In a recent article, I argued that the soul of a brand is really the best prevention against ending up in such a tough spot — building an explicit promise and strong cultural commitment to a set of customer values. But in response to this gloomy atmosphere in their industry, Airlines for America appears to be taking a different tack.

The trade association seems to have brought back a TV ad campaign from last year. It’s an upbeat, peppy piece that stars one of those iconic, yellow-vested guys with the red flashlights and the emphatic directional gestures. With magical red flares in hand, he guides a surprised office-worker from her drab, gray cubicle to a tropical paradise, complete with the requisite flower girl, mai tai boy, and galloping horse on a beach.

The tagline is, “We connect the world”, and it emphasizes all the flights to all the destinations that airlines provide in order to help people get where they want to be.

While it’s a nice enough spot, I think it misses the mark in a few important ways. The first miss is in tone. The cheery focus on the joy of getting away from it all seems a little tin-eared in the context of the meaningful angst surrounding the topic of airline customer experience. If indeed this re-airing of the spot is an attempt to restore some good feeling, the spot risks reinforcing a perception of clueless ignorance of the present feelings of their customers. We’re emotional creatures, and the airlines’ marketing challenge is a deeply emotional one, so hitting the wrong note at this high-pitched moment seems clumsy. Effective empathy requires that marketers show they appreciate their target’s feelings.

A second miss is in the underlying insight. I passionately believe that all great marketing sits on a rigorously true, powerful insight that reveals some aspect of tension within the target’s life. In this respect, I think Airlines for America picked the wrong perch.

I’d bet my house that a core sample of the average air traveler’s brain would not reveal the most relevant insight to be, “Gosh, I just can’t wait for someone to sweep me away from all this!” A less cheerful, but more relevantly true, insight would likely be, “I’ve really come to dread getting on a plane. They just don’t seem to care about me.”