Your brand is the promise you keep with your customers, and part of that promise is simplicity. As you give the customer more power to manage the relationship—as you learn more and more about what they want from you—you will make their lives simpler by eliminating choices you know they don’t want.
I often use the example of Hilton Hotels. They have made it their business to know enough about what I want and what I don’t want that they don’t bother me with things of no interest to me, while keeping their promise on things I consider important. For example, they know I want a smoking room near the elevator with a king-sized bed; I don’t have to tell them these details each time. I call the Hilton, “My Hotel.” When your customer calls your brand “My Brand” you have won the branding game.
When you have reached this kind of close relationship, you have built a strong defense of forgivability. There will always be a time when something goes wrong with a product, a service, or your customer communication. The customer who considers your brand “My Brand” will be more forgiving. The folks at the Bridgestone/Firestone retail stores learned this when they had to deal with the manufacturer’s massive, high-profile tire recall in 2001. Jim Stahulak, manager of database/Internet marketing for the retail and commercial operations division, said, “We learned that as long as the relationship between the customer and the store was good, the news wasn’t going to change the customers’ impression of our brand or their loyalty to our products. Customers actually thought we handled the recall very well.”
It’s not just product, service, or communication goofs that can hurt a brand. Sometimes it’s the corporate leader. William Arruda, founder of Reach, a global branding company, writes,
In this day of celebrity brands, it is becoming essential for senior executives to build and communicate their personal brands to expand both individual and corporate success. An executive’s brand is his/ her promise of value. It separates executives from their peers and allows them to expand their personal success while building greater success for their organizations. Executive branding is not about building a special image for the outside world; it is about understanding an executive’s unique combination of rational and emotional attributes—his/her strengths, skills, values and passions—and using these attributes to stand out.
We don’t have to dredge up former Enron Corp. CEO Ken Lay; there are less egregious examples of harmful executive branding. Hewlett-Packard Company, Compaq Computer Corporation, and Cisco Systems, Inc. were the three technology companies that did the worst job of maintaining brand value in 2001, according to the Liquid Agency Inc. “Bruised and Battered Brands” survey. According to this report released in early 2002, HP CEO Carly Fiorina was the technology executive perceived to have harmed her company’s brand most in 2001, followed by Oracle Corporation CEO Larry Ellison and Microsoft Corporation CEO Bill Gates. Fiorina’s aggressive push for a merger with Compaq had a negative impact on the HP brand according to poll respondents, as did Microsoft’s battle with the federal government and the states.
The survey also identified public relations as the most effective way to market and create demand for technology brands in a tight economy, followed by customer relationship management and brand advertising.
How could CMR have helped these executives? Listening to customers—the dialog part of CMR—would have told these executives they were miscommunicating with their constituents. With the kind of sharing friendship Lois Geller describes combined with empowered customers and employees helping to define their strategy, they would have had a better feel of the public pulse. CMR could have helped Carly Fiorina sell her HP/Compaq merger more positively and perhaps gotten even more of the industry on her side. It’s impossible to say whether or not Bill Gates could have turned around the case against Microsoft, but strong CMR initiatives would certainly have brought more folks to his side of the argument.
 “From the Store to the Web and Back Again,” 1to1 Magazine, January/ February 2002, p. 24.
William Arruda, “The Brand Connection—The Link Between Corporations and the Executives That Lead Them,” www.marketingprofs.com, August 2002, pp. 1–2.
Kate Maddox, “Survey Finds HP, Compaq, Cisco Most ‘Bruised and Battered’ Brands,” BtoB, January 2002, p. 2.