3 Steps for Building Brand Authenticity When Consumer Trust Is at Rock Bottom

Creating brand authenticity is a huge challenge. This is not only because it requires major coordination from all company functions, but it also takes highly focused discipline from strategy and planning to execution. Generating authenticity has three major components.

In my last post, I discussed how brand trust in the U.S. may have hit rock bottom and that marketers need to build brand authenticity. In this article, I would like to discuss a bit about how companies can address this challenge.

Creating brand authenticity is a huge challenge. This is not only because it requires major coordination from all company functions, but it also takes highly focused discipline from strategy and planning to execution. Generating authenticity has three major components: setting expectations, consistently meeting those expectations and actively managing failure. While these components seem simple, executing them well should not be easy. If it is, you are probably doing it wrong.

Step 1: Setting Expectations

When setting expectations, companies should remember that customers do not need you to solve all of their needs, just the needs that you can solve well. We have seen countless examples of companies entering spaces where they are out of their element, in search of new growth streams.

Many times, this ends in a poor customer experience and a huge financial hit. This is where the brand team should lead the conversation around what brand promises the company should make to its target markets. In this statement, “should” is an operative word; but it is often replaced by “want to” or “could,” in practice.

This happens because the market research identifies an unmet need or underserved segment. Then, the brand aspires to fill that gap without properly addressing its corresponding operational capabilities.

One example of how a company did it right is Domino’s pizza. Its well-documented campaign — apologizing for historically bad pizzas and promising a better experience — was bold and brilliant. However, it would have been a humiliating and epic fail if it wasn’t backed by a concerted and highly organized operational transformation.

Step 2: Meeting Those Expectations

Executing well is the next critical component, which has two managerial subcomponents:

  • measuring the customer experience; and
  • listening to the customer.

Companies primarily fail here, because they don’t know what to measure or where to focus. CX can be immensely detailed and complex. That can lead to overwhelming or underwhelming measurement strategies.

Assume you are managing a burger chain. You can measure how often you run out of key menu items or measure customer satisfaction with condiment packaging. Knowing where your priorities lie is important, but is often not as obvious as the previous example would illustrate. This leads to the second subcomponent, listening. Effective listening isn’t just about regular surveys or feedback. Customers of your burger chain may state they are frustrated by hard to open, messy ketchup packets. When looking at behavioral data, how often does that actually lead them to forsake the brand? How about when the menu item they want has run out?

Most market research, by its exploratory nature, is often exhaustive and can present many pain points which need addressing. While some methods, such as conjoint analysis, may help mitigate this issue, there is no substitute for analyzing real behavioral data.

Real listening lies at the intersection of what customers say and what they do.

Step 3: Managing Failure

Finally, brand authenticity requires that you have a prevention and mitigation plan in place, because mistakes happen.

Yes, it is important to “make it right,” and that should be done as soon as possible.

However, it also means knowing the difference between a mistake and a broad violation of the brand essence, or the brand’s core values.

Examples range from knowingly compromising on customer safety to highly public displays of brand hypocrisy. To avoid trust-destroying events, companies should conduct a brand trust audit and examine every compromise it makes that is counter to the core principals of the brand.

Some compromises need to happen, but when they do, they need extra oversight. For example, look at the college admissions scandal I mentioned in my previous post. Many believe that the elite colleges involved were victims. I disagree. Their primary proposition in the market is intellectual heft; yet there are clear avenues where they knowingly compromise on this proposition, such as athletic departments. The colleges should have been much more careful about monitoring that comprise and making sure it was not abused.

Compromises need to be made; however, once brands lose control over the quantity and quality of those compromises, the brand loses control over the values it claims to project.

Conclusion

I ended my last post by writing “Authenticity means saying what you will do, doing what you say and showing that you mean it.”

In retrospect, the statement seems to be focused too much on honest intentions (also sounds like a politician trying to sound folksy and humble.) I will not take back those words, because I also believe them to be true.

In this post, however, I acknowledge that much more goes into this than genuinely honest and good intentions.

Is It Time for a True Goodbye?

As I reflected on a client interaction I had this week, I thought about how helpful it is for organizations to learn from the past and then also to let go. I had facilitated a meeting where we tried to embrace failure not as life-over, but simply as feedback—to have a more positive outlook on the unplanned learning lessons that failure brings a brand. It was a tough sell. These young, smart, good-hearted brand builders were perfectionists. They only ever saw A+ on their report cards. Red Fs would have been scarring.

This morning we woke up to our first snow in the foothills of the Rockies. Even though it was only a light sprinkling—like powdered sugar on our lawn—it seemed entirely way too soon. We were not ready to say a goodbye to summer. We assumed we had a couple more weeks to enjoy patio dinners, the window boxes in full bloom and the hummingbirds on the feeders. We had to readjust.

Later in the day, I read this from Jeffrey McDaniel: “I realize there’s something incredibly honest about trees in winter, how they’re experts at letting things go.” I appreciated this advance lesson about winter … it helped me set my favorite season aside and anticipate the cozy fires in the woodstove, cross-country skiing and holiday family gatherings.

Many of my clients are multichannel retailers who introduce hundreds of new products in a season. Very few of these new rollouts become brand rockstars (as I call their bestsellers); many more end up in the middle of the performance pack and the rest trickle towards the bottom. This is a repeat pattern. I believe there is as much value in the bottom learnings as there are in the top-of-chart learnings. The conversations about the bestsellers are just more fun.

As I reflected on a client interaction I had this week, I thought about how helpful it is for organizations to learn from the past and then also to let go. I had facilitated a meeting where we tried to embrace failure not as life-over, but simply as feedback—to have a more positive outlook on the unplanned learning lessons that failure brings a brand. It was a tough sell. These young, smart, good-hearted brand builders were perfectionists. They only ever saw A+ on their report cards. Red Fs would have been scarring.

But, here’s the thing: Unplanned lessons are the exact opposite of lesson plans … those neat and tidy curriculum plans teachers try to follow until the students show up and things go awry. We often learn more from things that don’t quite go the way we hoped than things that do. If we dare to review our actions.

In a BusinessWeek article entitled “Radio Flyer Learns from a Crash,” Thomas Schlegel, VP for product development at Radio Flyer shared his thoughts on a product launch that was halted. After months of development and lots of production time and dollars, Schlegel scrapped it. “It didn’t live up to Radio Flyer standard,” he said. According to the article, “his boss, Robert Pasin, CEO, told Schlegel failure was OK as long as the company learned from it. Pasin now holds a regular breakfast for new employees at which he impresses upon them the idea that failure is inevitable if you want to innovate and valuable if you can learn from it. And after every project ends—whether the project has been shipped or been killed—Radio Flyer is developing what Schlegel describes as an ‘autopsy without blame,’ in which everyone involved in the development of a product discusses four questions: What went well on the project? What didn’t go well on the project? What did we learn? And, what are we going to do next?”

Author James Joyce gives us a new perspective on unplanned lessons: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Bravo to Radio Flyer. They made discoveries and acted on their volitional errors!

So, I switched gears in my client meeting and described to these Type A risk-averse professionals how another client actually embraces failures—publicly and light-heartedly. This company even had more than 300,000 customers take a tour of its flops: Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard. It’s a real live collection of 31 ice cream mistakes and missteps over the years memorialized for all to see.

Ellen Kresky, Creative Director for Ben & Jerry’s shares this: “One of my favorite things about Ben & Jerry’s is that we’re not afraid to acknowledge our shortcomings or failures to consumers. Take our Flavor Graveyard for example. We use it on our website, and you can actually go visit real tombstones at our Waterbury tour. The Flavor Graveyard features limericks to eulogize our flavor bombs. We even sell Flavor Graveyard t shirts. A few years ago we had a contest to bring consumers’ favorite flavor back from the dead for a limited time in scoop shops. A lot of us were secretly hoping that a flavor with a low gross margin would win so that consumers would benefit in more ways than one. And our wish came true. For me, this is an example of contrarian brand management. Projects like this help continue to build consumer love and trust, and manage to do that in an un-contrived way that stays true to our roots.”

I know it used to be a common practice for many multichannelers to take the time to have strategic post-mortem conversations evaluating a season’s results by sales channels (retail, on-line and catalog) and by customer segments. Product visual boards would be created and the nuances of what worked and what didn’t would be discussed along with promotional strategies and competitive tactics and offerings. In today’s attention deficit business culture where every one is chasing the next new thing, I’m afraid these important cross-departmental meetings have morphed into line item reports read individually and acted upon in silos. The subtle underlying threads of what didn’t work do not get fully analyzed and the real failure of this short cut practice is that similar mistakes get made again (and possibly again).

I am a proponent of serious, slow talk (like the Slow Food, Slow Travel and Slow Christmas movements!) post mortems where true learning and insights can occur. I have both led and participated in these with my clients and they work and are worth it. Stop and think time. Concentrated focus on the previous season’s happenings both for your brand and your customers’ experience with your brand. Free flow of information. Open agenda. Robust conversations. Potential surprise endings.

So, have you dared to slow down and look back with your brand team? Why not take time to better understand and collaboratively converse about your brand faux paus openly and then, and only then, bid them a true goodbye!