A few weeks back, I was involved in a minor dust up at a local bar. Though it didn’t come to broken chairs or fisticuffs, the whole episode reminded me of how much brand integrity matters in the digital age. First, a little background…
It was Valentine’s Day, and my wife and I decided to duck out of our parenting duties for the evening (don’t worry, we did get a babysitter) and reflect on our love for each other over a few glasses of vino and dinner. Digitally-savvy middle agers that we are, we headed for a pre-dinner cocktail at a local wine bar chain that was offering a buy one get one free drink offer to anyone checking in on Yelp. We strolled in, bellied up to the bar, and ordered our buy one get one free drink offer which, as it turns out, wasn’t on offer after all.
My conversation with the bartender went something like this:
Bartender: “What can I get you?”
Me: We hear you’re offering a buy one get one free drink deal for folks who check in on Yelp. We just checked in, so what are our drink options?
Bartender: “Not sure what you’re talking about.”
Me (fumbling for my smartphone): “See, I just check in to redeem your offer right here” (I show him the offer).
Bartender: “Hmmm, that must be some new offer from our marketing department. We don’t do that here.”
Me: “What do you mean, ‘you don’t do that here’?”
Bartender: “Those guys sometimes come up with promotions and things that don’t apply to individual locations like ours. We don’t do that here.”
Me: “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Bartender (getting heated): “Look, I can get you a couple of drinks, but you’re going to have to pay for both of them like everyone else.”
Me: (getting heated): “Are you actually telling me that you are not willing to honor a promotion that your own marketing department put out?”
Bartender (now really heated): “Yep, that’s what I’m saying.”
Me: (now really heated): “I’d like to speak with your manager.”
Bartender: (apoplectic) “I AM the manager!”
Me: (apoplectic) “OK, SIR, let me make this clear. You’re either going to honor your company’s promise to offer me a complimentary drink with my drink purchase, or we’re outta here. What’s it gonna be?”
There we were, eyeball to eyeball, deadlocked in a desperate battle of wills. Who would break first? I can tell you it wasn’t going to be me; I was too fired up to flinch.
Bartender: “OK, I’ll make an exception – THIS TIME…”
We quaffed down our drinks even as we shared our negative experience on Yelp. The very next day, my wife received a phone call from a regional manager offering many apologies, along with a gift card, to help soften the memory of our negative experience.
Ahhh, the power of the digital consumer.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the first time such a thing happened to me and my wife, although in the past it usually involved our attempt to redeem some kind of Groupon-type offer that wasn’t thoroughly (or even partially) communicated to the company’s customer-facing staff. Admittedly, as a digital marketer and erstwhile small business owner, I suppose my radar is more highly attuned to noticing such operational SNAFUs. Having said that, these occurrences are increasingly unacceptable in today’s consumer-driven business environment, where a company’s reputation can be made or broken by a handful of negative customer experiences.
Keepin’ It Real
In today’s global digital marketplace, the name of the game is brand integrity. When I say integrity, I’m not referring to the sort of moral uprightness and honesty commonly associated with the term; instead, I’m referring to its secondary (though fundamental) meaning, which relates to a state of being whole and undivided, one of unity and cohesion. It is this kind of holistic integration, both internally (operational) and externally (customer facing), that is the number one hallmark of success in the digital age.
Companies with brand integrity operate with utter transparency, projecting an aura of honesty and openness. Being run by humans (for now at least), they expose their intrinsic humanity. As humans themselves (for now at least), today’s digitally savvy consumers have a keen sense for brand integrity, an almost preternatural bulls#@t detector that operates on both a conscious and semi-conscious level. As a result, when marketing promotions aren’t syncing with operational realities it feels like a bait-and-switch. Whether intentional or otherwise, the damage to a company’s reputation is done in an instant, and often takes a lot longer than that to undo in the eyes of the consumer, if indeed it can ever be undone.
In such a daunting business environment, where the consumer is king and the rules are constantly changing, what is the way forward—how exactly are companies supposed to go about operating with brand integrity? Though by no means a comprehensive solution, here are three quick suggestions that at least provide what I suppose could be regarded as a philosophical framework for answering this important question.
1. Be Transparent—Tell It Like It Is.
Transparency is a notion that brands and the executives who run them often pay lip service to but don’t actually internalize. Ironically, from my experience it’s the most important step to establishing brand integrity in the digital age. It goes something like this: take time to clarify your organization’s values, goals, message, and properties, and use these to establish a seamless online presence across web, social, and mobile (i.e. all brand-relevant digital channels). Let’s break this down a bit further.
Clarify Values – Organizational values are those things or beliefs your organization finds important and meaningful. You must clarify your brand’s core values in order to create an authentic and transparent brand message.
Define Goals – Organizational goals are the standard by which you measure organizational performance. It is therefore important to define specific business goals that clearly lay out the future direction of the organization.
Shape Brand Message – Begin shaping your brand message by clarifying who you are trying to build relationships with (e.g. your target audience). Once you determine your audience, you should create detailed buyer personas for all relevant market segments or buyer groups.
Understand Brand Properties – Think of brand properties as having three components: brand essence, brand voice, and brand promises. Brand essence is an articulation of your brand’s unique Identity; brand voice is your brand’s consistent identity or the outward projection of its essence; brand promises are the things your brand guarantees to its consumers.
2. Be Consistent—Don’t Send Mixed Messages.
Once you’ve defined your organization’s values, goals, message, and properties, you need to establish a seamless online presence over web, social, and mobile. As the hub of your organization’s online presence, your brand website is a powerful tool to effectively communicate your brand message, attract prospects, generate leads and sales, and build long-term advocacy. Given the dominance of all things mobile, you’ll want to optimize it for mobile devices with responsive web design (RWD), a mobile website, or a mobile app. Finally, you want to identify the most relevant social channels for your organization (which will likely include members of the “Big Seven” social channels: Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube), and set up profiles on them.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Most importantly, understand that achieving true brand integrity in the digital age is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done destination; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient, and be receptive to change, recognizing it as both an inevitability and an opportunity. Make change actionable by tapping into data from various online assets and consumer interactions on a consistent basis; use theses inputs to refine your product/service offerings and brand message.
Here’s the good news: when you’re operating from a philosophical position of constantly trying to achieve brand integrity, you tend to waste less time on meaningless externalities like trying to divine consumer intent or obsessing over the next social trend. Instead, you can take the long view and focus your energy on refining who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish as a brand, which will help you, over time, better serve your customer base.
And finally, whatever you do, make sure that everyone throughout your organization is honoring your marketing promotions, no matter how ridiculous they may seem…
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