This article discusses
- The social contract between a business and a customer;
- Why the Internet, cost cutting, consultants, outsourcing, and CRM systems have destroyed “the Brand”;
- The challenge of creating brand value in a digital media environment that operates to commoditize and genericize the customer experience;
- The role of data-driven strategies in understanding the customer and delivering a valuable brand experience.
Brand is the social contract of business, the implicit agreement between the parties in a transaction about the nature of their long-term relationship. One is tempted to quote Hobbs to the effect that economic life devoid of brands tends to be “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short,” a description eerily evocative of today’s commercial environment. As with political theory, when discussing brand it is easy to slip into morality tales. The recent collapse of the Tiger Woods and Toyota brands calls up images from Greek tragedy with choruses of talking heads lamenting their fall from greatness.
Parallel to this public clucking of tongues, the obsession with “Branding” has continued to proliferate. The management of the brand image, which is intended to embody the brand, has in most businesses replaced any and all attention to traditional brand management with its long-term focus on the brand relationship itself. As a result, the maintenance of the brand image has been gradually delegated to low-cost underlings, allowing executives to check the brand box as taken care of.
The Decline and Fall of the Brand
In one weekend, we are told, Accenture mobilized its army of consultants to strip every image and reference to playing like a Tiger from its ubiquitous, multi-media global “branding” and thereby minimize any ancillary brand damage. See Figure 1. For businesses like Accenture, brand has entered the realm of magic with its incantations, talisman and amulets being messaging, trademarks and slogans: the colored dot at the end of a company’s name intended to mystically protect its reputation and miraculously preserve employee morale despite all of the company’s actual ongoing activities in the market place.
…advertising budgets, once the engine of brand building, have been relegated, via the Internet, to the demeaning task of lead generation, where they reinforce the message that ‘our good or service is a commodity, which we will sell at a bargain price to you.’
At the same time, advertising budgets, once the engine of brand building, have been relegated, via the Internet, to the demeaning task of lead generation, where they reinforce the message that “our good or service is a commodity, which we will sell at a bargain price to you.” No one has ever sold anyone anything with an advertisement. Salespeople sell things. Advertising informs potential customers of what the brand is promising. The job of the business is then to deliver on that brand promise. That delivery is executed at every point and every time there is contact with the customer. If that contact is cheap, cheesy and in-your-face rude, then so becomes the brand.
The Digital Transition and Lots of Confusion
The traditional craft of brand building has yet to make the transition to digital media, where many websites are still no more than pixilated brochures, while others are tangled rat mazes of dated product and service misinformation leaving interested, troubled or simply confused customers and clients with no choice but to attempt a phone call, where the problems only increase.
Few companies have grasped the idea that the voice of their brand, that the most vivid image of who and what they are, that the clearest statement of their relationship with and attitude toward their clients and customers are all established by the voice or the ‘on hold’ message of their call center. Too many companies spend a fortune on advertising and image building only to totally trash each and every opportunity to deliver on their brand’s promise with an underfunded, poorly conceived call center.
The Race to the Bottom
Such underfunding is due to the fact that, for the last twenty years, the primary function of executives and consultants has been the taking of costs out of the system, until today virtually every element in the value chain can be outsourced to the lowest bidder. Since all of the competition have used the same low-cost generic systems to drive the same costs to zero, while providing no additional value to the buyer, they have created a world dominated by generic products and services competing solely on price.
In this environment, CRM (Customer Relations Management) systems are used to manage the process of pushing more and more generic products onto each and every customer. The strategy everywhere is to be one jump ahead of the competition in catching the eyes of the next prospective customers and shoving a proposition in their faces before they have had a chance to think. The ubiquitous marketing message has become, “Here, you want this; it’s cheap.”
How does one add value to a zero-cost supply chain? The answer lies in a rebirth of rigorous brand management… What is required is a total transformation of the prevalent digital media strategies of most companies… The goal of lead generation for poorly conceived products that fail to sell themselves must be replaced by a data-driven effort to enhance understanding of the total customer experience.
After this long, exhausting race to bottom, we have reached the point where the entire outsource-driven, generic business model needs to be rethought. How – we need to know – does one add value to a zero-cost supply chain? The answer lies in a rebirth of rigorous brand management. In a world awash with cheap generics of dubious origin, the act of establishing and maintaining the customer confidence, which resides at the core of every successful brand, is a difficult but highly profitable challenge. Since brand, like value, is in the eye of the customer, the client, the business partner, building and maintaining a brand means adding value in their eyes. Every touch point is an opportunity to add or subtract value and to learn how to do the former and avoid the latter.
Brand Revival by Total Quality Management
What is required is a total transformation of the prevalent digital media strategies of most companies. Both internet sites and call centers have to be transformed from little more than forums for scoping out leads and pushing information, products and services onto potential buyers, and bulwarks to fend off dissatisfied customers, to being a means of collecting information about value creation and value destruction. The goal of lead generation for poorly conceived products that fail to sell themselves must be replaced by a data-driven effort to enhance understanding of the total customer experience.
The objective is not simply to ask the traditional marketing questions, which the company believes it needs to have answered. Rather the objective is to stimulate creative thought by understanding the value proposition from the buyer’s point of view. To do this, the buyer’s total experience with the good, the service, the total product must be understood within a conceptualized context and not as so many tabulated statistics. Thus, this effort must go well beyond traditional survey research. It will require new, yet-to-be-developed data analysis and information presentational tools that enable the discovery of the unexpected.
Value is a concept that is understood through insight, not by accounting conventions that immediately drop to the bottom line. The insights gained from this customer contact information must be used to inform product innovators, developers, marketers, advertisers, web designers and call centers in order to rework the entire zero-cost value chain.
This is TQM (Total Quality Management) applied to brand building with the objective of continuous improvement. In the process, products must come to be seen not as goods to be shipped but as vectors for delivering valued experiences. This does not mean that everything about the life cycle experience must be perfect in some abstract sense, only that it should be consistent and such that investments in one area should not be depreciated by thoughtless cost cutting elsewhere. It is by understanding and enhancing the total value of the experiences associated with a product that a rebirth of brand management will be built.