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Brand Story + Matching Brand Experience = Trust

This topic is an oldie but a goodie, but is always worth repeating. What do companies need to do when something goes wrong? I’m not talking about a crisis, but rather a day-to-day error that is inevitable in any business regardless of size and scale, a simple error in customer satisfaction that leaves people feeling unsettled about the brand and business. I’m talking about a basic withdrawal from the bank account that PR Industry pioneer, Al Golin, called the Trust Bank. If you’re in the industry, you know the concept. I was fortunate to learn it during my days working at McDonald’s Corporation since Al and his team provided counsel to us. Generally, as you work to build and maintain your brand, you wisely put deposits into your account. These might include community relations activities, community-building events, or a customer relations move that goes the extra mile. If your account is strong, you can better weather the storms that will come your way, like a bad customer experience or a mismanaged issue. Think about it on a personal level. If you have had a series of great experiences with a friend, and one day that friend lets you down, you’re probably more likely to forgive and move on. But your guard is up, and you don’t want to let that bad experience happen again. Now if that same friend has had repeated mishaps and your trust in that person is low, even a small error can be a final blow in the relationship. The same is true for companies.

Let’s focus on one trust-builder in particular: When an organization has a very well-defined brand story and knows how to deliver the experience to match. This is the pinnacle of good customer and community relations. And the flip of it is when organizations say one thing about their brand, then deliver an experience that’s out-of-synch. This is an old example, but one that makes the point. Several years ago, Lululemon recalled about 17% of women’s pants sold in their stores after customers complained that the pants were overly sheer. The company made the matter worse when its founder blamed women’s bodies for the pant problem in an interview on Bloomberg TV’s “Street Smart.” The debacle impacted both the company’s stock and consumer trust. The founder’s remarks were obviously inappropriate and a bad move. But the larger issue, in my opinion, was that the company’s selling of sub-quality $100 pants created a brand experience that was out-of-synch with their brand story. I’m summarizing, but their brand story speaks of quality, expertise, and healthy living rooted in serving elite athletes. I think their story implies that customers might pay more for access to this brand because of the lifestyle they know and deliver. So sheer pants are really out-of-synch with the story, and a brand experience that doesn’t match the brand story is a big withdrawal in any company.

Just like any bank account, withdrawals are inevitable. So the point is, plan for the withdrawals. Maintain a high balance. Invest in community relations, and practice good customer relations. Give customers access to your brand so you can hear feedback and act on it. Don’t let the little things pile up and become big things because issues left unaddressed have multiplying effect. In the Lululemon situation, they issued a recall for the pants. They should have also immediately apologized for letting down their community of brand-loyal customers, and explained the steps taken to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again. They needed to take ownership in a mistake and work to earn back some trust by asking for it. It’s really that simple. And it’s that simple for any business and organization. Here are three basic steps to keep in mind:

  1. Treat your customers like you do your friends. Acknowledge and be grateful for the relationship and their investment in you.
  2. Put the protocols in place so that you can consistently deliver an experience that matches your brand story.
  3. If something goes wrong, begin with the simple truth. Apologize, fix the problem, and explain what steps you’ve taken to help ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again. Apologize again.

And finally, make yourself or someone else available for dialogue — live, by phone, social media, it doesn’t matter the venue. Be accessible. In an environment where people are accustomed to participating on social media 24/7, you need to provide access to your brand. That’s also an important part of the brand experience.

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