Why do brands so offend to make offense a skill?


16th-century imaginary painting of Henry IV, National Portrait Gallery, London

In Ireland, secondary school students take two national exams when we are about 15 and 18 years old. The Junior Certificate helps determine where students will track for their Leaving Certificate, which then determines entry for college programs. They both take place during a three-ish week period in early June, and I don’t think I’ve ever studied more intensely than preparing for those exams.

Maybe that’s why I remember random German phrases, obscure mountain ranges in Eastern Europe, and snippets of poetry as Gaeilge.

This weekend, a famous speech from Henry IV, Part I (which I studied for my Intermediate Certificate, as the Junior Cert used to be known) came to mind in relation to a phenomena Nick and I call the “transference of entitlement.” We use this phrase to describe the effect of experiences we have with one company that set expectations for other companies. We usually think of it as a steady build-up of expectation rather than something triggered by a specific event. The reason Prince Henry’s soliloquy came to mind though was the result of back-to-back experiences that I had with car rental companies that couldn’t have been more different, and “like bright metal on a sullen ground” one of the experiences glittered, while the other offended.

Budget/Avis – the company that used to ‘try harder’ – offended. When picking up a car last Thursday in Boston to go visit our daughter, we stood in line for an hour and a half to get to the counter to pick up the car we had ordered (I know, I could have skipped the line if I joined the loyalty program). When we got to the counter, the agent didn’t apologize, or even reference the time we had spent in line. He was surly and just acted like he didn’t want to be there. Then, when we dropped the car off on Sunday we were about an hour later than we had scheduled. By the time they checked us in, they registered us as an hour and a quarter late (yes, there was a long line again). And, as a result, they charged us an extra $95. I was so incensed, but had the good sense to let my wife discuss it with them. I don’t think I would have been particularly diplomatic. My wife handled it very well, and ultimately they removed the charge. But, we were left with a bitter feeling towards the brand.

We went from the Avis return counter to the Alamo counter to get a new car to drive to New York to visit my wife’s family. The lady checking us in couldn’t have been more pleasant. When I questioned the price she quoted versus what we had been quoted online, she seemed genuinely concerned, and when it turned out she had been right and I was wrong, she remained pleasant and gracious. Returning the car in Manhattan was a smooth process where all of the employees were friendly and responsive. I left with a significantly enhanced impression of the Alamo brand, and it even restored a bit of my faith rental car companies.

Maybe if I hadn’t had the Budget/Avis experience, the Alamo experience would have been unremarkable. But, coming so quickly in succession, the positive Alamo experience seemed to “show more goodly and attract more eyes; Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”

I’ll stop torturing the analogy, but suffice to say that your customers’ perceptions of your brand experience is influenced not only by what you do, and not only what your competitors do, but by what every company does. The transference of entitlement is driven by our experiences with every brand – good and bad. When those experiences come in close proximity, the benefit or harm is only accentuated.


Nobody’s perfect (even Amazon)!

What do Zyrtec allergy medication, Hunts tomato sauce, and Barilla pasta have in common?

The answer? Search for one (Zyrtec) on Amazon, and you’ll get recommendations for the other two. Or, at least, I did. Website recommendations really stand out when they miss the mark. Of course, relevance is relative, but as one of the companies that brought recommendations to the mainstream, we expect Amazon to be better.

In our research, we have asked scores of marketers, experts, and consumers which companies they think are most consumer-first, and almost everyone we’ve ever asked mentions Amazon — often as their immediate and only response. It’s remarkable, therefore, when Amazon is only average.

Amazon returns

And, while it’s possible that its because we live and breath consumer-first marketing that we notice an ineffective product recommendation, but I was really taken aback recently when returning a product to Amazon.

Some quick background: My son is in 7th grade, and beginning to slowly think about the high school applications he’ll need for next year. We bought a few different test prep books from Amazon, and when we realized that two were almost identical, we decided to send one back.

The returns process online was nice and easy, and then I got surprised – and not in a good way. Amazon often offers free return shipping for Prime members (and subsidiary Zappos pretty much pioneered the idea of ‘buy, try, and return’). I think of free returns as a ‘nice-to-have’ not a ‘need-to-have.’ After all, why should the retailer pick up the cost of my decision not to keep a product. I appreciate when a company provide free returns, but I don’t expect it. What shocked me was that it cost the same to return the product via UPS as returning it to an Amazon Locker. Of course, an item still has to be picked up from the locker, but doesn’t Amazon want customers to use the Lockers – to get used to visiting places that have them (such as Whole Foods), and to get used to using them so that outbound shipping costs would be lowered – by delivering in bulk to one location?

Maybe if this was another company I wouldn’t have reacted so negatively. Nick and I often talk about the “transference of entitlement” in which experiences we have with one company set expectations for other companies. In this case though, Amazon helped to set the level of entitlement, and then needlessly failed to live up to it.

From my mailbox – personal touch fail

It’s my wife’s birthday in a couple of weeks and our physical mailbox has been flooded with discounts and coupons masquerading as well wishes. These are pretty smart attempts by brands to stoke or rekindle a relationship with her – using a milestone as an excuse to reach out, and offers to prompt a response. Even without a response though, there’s a chance that a recipient’s impression of the brand would improve based on the gesture.

With that said, when every brand is doing the same thing, it kinda loses some of its meaning. There’s really nothing differentiating about the concept, and it could even create some cynicism when everyone does it, especially if it comes across as simply an attempt to get you to spend. And, did any of these brands think about sending something similar to other members of the household? They might have more success targeting a spouse looking for gift ideas, rather than the birthday girl herself.

But, then there was a “right idea; wrong execution” issue. Luxury retailer, Henri Bendel, sent a hand-written card. It had the potential to stand out from the pack of printed, almost generic mailings with coupons and “gift” cards (that require a certain spending level to be redeemable). Unfortunately, the execution was awful. They used three different pens to write the card – not in a fancy, ‘let me take time and make this ornate’ kind of way. But, in a ‘my pen ran out and I’ll go over some words with the new one but not all of them’ kind of way. There’s no punctuation – no comma after the “Hello Domenica”; No period or exclamation mark after birthday! It’s inconceivable that the person filling in the card didn’t rip this one up and start again.

When you can charge hundreds of dollars for a handbag, you can afford to use a second card when you mess up the first one. I have no idea how the Henri Bendel team assesses the impact of a gesture like sending a hand-written card, but however they measure it, I would be willing to bet a lot of money that they are getting it wrong – at least in this case. Instead of strengthening a connection or making someone feel special, they showed that they don’t care – they just want to look like they do.

Oh, You Lucky, Lucky Little Consumer

BestOfferEver_2014“Great news.  You have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy the revolutionary new bath towel from Cotton Stuff For Your House Dot Com.  This towel will dry your body after a shower and it’s completely reusable.  What’s more we are offering you a special six for the price of half dozen promotion that includes shipping and handling at our regularly low rates.”

In other words, the housewares company wants to sell me towel.  Fair enough.  That’s what such companies do.  I might even want some new towels.  But it’s not great news. It’s not a special opportunity.  And I feel jobbed every time I read lies like these.

What frustrates me the most is the tone deafness of the approach.  I hate newsletters and communications that are phrased to suggest that I am being done a great favor by being the subject of their marketing.  Lucky me.  You are giving me the chance to spend my money on your products.  Stop the noise.  Unsubscribe.  I hate it.  And worst of all it’s transparent.  That tone is exactly the opposite of the way I feel.  I am doing you the favor of actually engaging with content that is designed to help you sell more.  Treat me with the love, respect and kid gloves that favor givers like me deserve.   Then I might even buy your magical reusable towel or at least not hate you for trying to sell it to me.


First world problems!

milk-and-cookiesAs the U.S. goes gaga for today’s solar eclipse, the self-pity of those that won’t see it is comical. Consider tweets and comments by folks that are so upset that “I won’t be able to see the eclipse today because I’m on vacation in Hawaii” or “My friends and I reserved the rooftop of a 5-star hotel, but the forecast calls for rain”. If you’re unconvinced about the notion of Entitled Consumers, consider how often you hear the expression “first world problems!”

As consumers, we’ve become so entitled that we actually make fun of ourselves! We have subreddits, memes, and hashtags that perfectly illustrate how overinflated our expectations have become – I guess it’s better that we at least acknowledge how ridiculous we can be.

How close is too close?

gervaisWhether it’s on a bus or a subway, at a junior high school dance or after several drinks at the office Christmas party, we’ve all had that sinking feeling when someone we like (but don’t really like) gets too close.  It’s not a grope or something slap-worthy, but it’s still very uncomfortable.  The target of the unwanted intimacy has to put up a stop sign and both parties face a painful moment.  Putting the smiley facade back on the relationship is hard and often just not worth it.

Transpose that to marketing and you have the line between personalized and creepy.  We all love to discuss and learn more about the things that interest us, whether it’s comparing the quality of local elementary schools, the relative merits of various fancy vodkas, or which grocery stores offer the best selection and value.

Imagine that you are looking for a new dress for the upcoming office holiday party and want something stylish but not too sexy (see above).  Messages from clothing companies featuring images of those kind of dresses would be an efficient way to learn more about what’s available and reinforce your relationship with the brands that sent them.  A message from one of those brands highlighting your recent six-pound weight gain and proposing a larger size as a way to compensate for your over-indulgent vacation might be well-intentioned but are going to strike most consumers as creepy.  And a creeped-out consumer, like a creeped-out co-worker at the office party, flees.  But unlike colleagues who are likely to bump into each other at the break room coffee machine the next day, the uncomfortable consumer has no reason to ever engage with the offending brand again.  And that consumer is as likely as not to tell her friends about that brand interaction.

At the moment, I have no better definition of creepy, of the line between perceptive personalization and intrusive stalking, than to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

Consumer attitudes toward data privacy, personalization and convenience are changing rapidly and we will be using this blog to explore those issues more.  One thing seems clear though, too close is still too close.  And the consequences for marketers of leaning in too far remain severe.

Getting it wrong might be worse than not trying!

Sheraton Amsterdam EmailWe’re never going to claim that personalization is easy. But, we do think that there are simple solutions that can have a big impact. And, then there are ideas that might be good ideas but the execution makes it all moot. I genuinely hope that we share much more positive experiences than negative on this blog, but sometimes there’s at least as much to learn from one company’s mistakes as there is from another’s success.*

Last week I was in Brussels for internal meetings and we stayed at a nice hotel downtown for most of the trip. My last night was planned for the slightly-less luxurious Brussels Sheraton – somewhere I stay fairly often as it’s so handy before an early flight.

I have platinum status with Starwood which means I get upgraded to their best available room. So, when I received an email during my trip inviting me to “bid” to potentially get upgraded, it struck me as a wasted “touch”.

But, what struck fear into me was when I read the copy inviting me to bid to upgrade my room at the Amsterdam airport Sheraton. I had one of those mild panics while I flipped over to the SPG app to discover, thankfully, that I was indeed booked at the Brussels airport. So, not only a wasted touch, but one that left a customer in mild sweats and palpitations – thanks for the personalization, guys!

*I also hope I don’t become a brand assassin for the brands that I use most often – just because they’re the brands I hear from most often.