2010 may well go down as the year of the mea culpa. It seems like hardly a week goes by without a celebrity, athlete, politician – or even the Pope – issuing some sort of public apology. It’s become so routine, that one hardly takes notice anymore. But what is truly remarkable, is the number of big-named brands, from Domino’s Pizza to BP, that have appeared hat-in-hand to confess some inadequacy, infraction or down-right disaster. This newfound frankness marks a break from marketing’s tradition of shellacking over issues or distracting from them with PR legerdemain.
So has penitence become the 5th “P” of marketing, and what can brands learn from this? There appear to be 3 key factors at work:
1. – The need for brands to publicly face issues is largely driven by social media’s growing power to publicly expose them in ways that never existed before. An airline that dares leave passengers sitting on the runway for a couple hours, can expect to see it Tweeted and blogged about before passengers even step off the plane.
But, social media not only brings product issues to light, it also keeps discussion about these issues alive for much longer. In the past, companies relied on traditional media to follow a predictable cycle where news peaked and then petered-out over time. This meant that most PR problems, barring a real disaster, could be handled with denial, diffusion and a wait-it-out approach.
That appears to be exactly what Apple did in response to critical blog posts that appeared immediately following the launch of the iPhone 4. But social media doesn’t follow the same pattern as old media – in fact it has a tendency to snowball. Apple’s denial of the signal problem didn’t contain the issue, it ignited it – effectively challenging their own customers to prove them wrong. And in the 4 weeks that passed before Apple issued its begrudging “we’re not perfect” apology, a huge amount of brand trust eroded.
Lesson Learned: a quick admission can be the firebreak you need to keep a product issue flare-up from turning into a PR wildfire
2. – Anyone who’s spent anytime behind a focus group mirror, watching consumers react to ads or concepts, has seen firsthand just how sharp consumers senses are for detecting bluster and B.S. What they crave is honest and authentic interactions.
It may seem counterintuitive for a marketer to ever call attention to your brand’s flaws, yet we only have to look to examples in our own lives to see how powerful that can be. We all know that seemingly perfect person who, at best, engenders mild envy, and at worst triggers suspicions that they could be hiding a fatal flaw. Conversely, there’s something endearing about those that freely admit their flaws. It demonstrates humility, self-awareness, courage and refreshing honesty.
It’s that dynamic that makes Domino’s recent product improvement campaign so compelling. They don’t try and soft-peddle the issue, but instead come right out and highlight that customers think their crust “tastes like cardboard.” Suddenly, they’ve got you on their side. Rather than wanting to tear them down, you root for them, and you may even be willing to reconsider them. If they’re willing to be that honest about the problem, you surmise they must be serious about doing something about it.
Lesson Learned: lowering your guard can actually foster a deeper, more personal connection with consumers
3. – The final factor at work is trust. Even though we talk about growing consumer cynicism, consumers are actually putting greater trust in companies. They’re doing that because today’s products and services are simply too complex for the average consumer to thoroughly evaluate. We don’t have the expertise to assess the healthfulness of the 15-letter ingredients in our cereal, nor the time to investigate whether all the components in our new computer were produced under ethical manufacturing practices.
Lesson Learned: when customers’ personal trust is compromised, it requires a more personal response
No one enjoys eating crow, but when brands deal with issues promptly, with candor, and with respect for consumer trust, they can actually be rewarded with a stronger, more enduring consumer relationship.
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18 Aug 2010