Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Communication is essential to a brand, it is the representation of a product and relationship formed with the consumer ...

A brand is the representation of a company's product(s) and the relationship formed between a consumer and everything exposed from the organization behind the brand.  In many cases, it is that which a loyal consumer has established a relationship with. It is amazing to me how many companies don’t seem to look at it this way.  Just like any personal relationship, there needs to be support for communication.  Even in today’s internet age, it is not uncommon to find a company website with just a mailing address or an email form on their contact page; no phone number if you want to speak to someone directly.   In effect, their message is clear, they want you to contact them on their terms instead of your own.  Perhaps they arent prepared for phone calls related to their products or this is a casualty of the global world we do business in today, but I wonder why it seemed different in the days before the web.  Product support, priced into the product on purchase or based on a contract thereafter, regardless of the type of good or service, is the product.  Support; this communication between a company and the customer, which may be anything from a question to a complaint is {correctly} percieved as part of the brand.

Today is the first of a series of examples of how this by design or not, can break down.  I am not looking to pick on the companies or the products.  In fact, in today’s case I love their products, but I will use our exchange as a learning about how communication is a critical part of the brand.

I recently bought a box of crackers.  It had been a couple of months since the last time I bought that kind of crackers and the taste and texture seemed a little different then I remembered; not bad, just different.  So I wanted to contact the company about the product.  I searched for them on Google and found their website to see if there was anything suggested about a change or ‘New’ taste, ‘New’ texture, etc.  I didn’t see anything like this on their site, so I figured I would contact them and ask if this was by design or a problem with the product.  I went to the ”Contact Us” page on their site, found no number and no address , just an email form.  I filled out the form providing my comments.  There was no feedback, no reply email, nothing at all telling me that they received my message.  Time passed, perhaps 4-6 weeks, still no reply from the company, not even an acknowledgement of my message to them.  A few days ago, I got this envelope in the mail with an unfamiliar logo in the return address area.  I had no idea what it was or where it was from.  I opened it up and there were two manufacturer’s coupons for the product I emailed about; no letter addressed to me, nothing relating to my inquiry, not even a standard form letter, nothing else.  That said, I still figured it must be related to my inquiry.  I Google the brand on the envelope.  Interestingly enough, their website is blocked by Malwarebytes Anti-Malware software which I run on my system.  I disabled this to see the site.  The company appears to own or distribute this brand of cracker in the US.  Their site links to the sub-branded sites.  The sub-branded sites make no mention of the parent company or any relationship to them.  I guess they sent me two coupons related to my inquiry.

There are all kinds of brand issues here.
1)    A customer has made the effort to communicate with a company about their product and there is no timely response.  This comes across as lofty or detached; a brand disconnect.  The customer feels they are not valued by the company or that the product they have purchased is more important to them than it is to the company.
2)    An envelope from a Corporate office with no reference to the product or brand of inquiry may be considered lucky to be opened; it’s junk mail.
a.       While perhaps a hand written envelope could be considered a more personalized touch in a day of mechanical, automated communications, I am not sure it is appropriate for a product inquiry such as this.  Different people fall on different sides of this argument.
b.      Just putting the coupons inside… Uggh.  Forgetting the lack of professionalism, again, no communication linking the company to the brand or product, no addressing of the issue of the original inquiry.  The person handling this knows nothing about customer  support.  Ties back to (1) above
3)    While the site being blocked by the Malware software is not something they could have foreseen unless of course they are doing something they shouldn’t on that site.  Companies should be be policing their own sites and perhaps either internally or externally have their sites checked to be sure there are no issues unforeseen from the outside.  It’s not worth not knowing.
a.       Also, why would a customer bother to communicate with them about this based on the {lack} of results of my first communication with them; there is a relationship breakdown between us at this point.

It is crowded out there.  There are so many similar products available and you can shop at so many places, Bricks and Mortar or Web based if and when you want.  Differentiation comes from the complete product; the brand, one vs another.  This is at every level:
a.      Where you choose to shop
                                                               i.      What is the experience at the location (ie: cleanliness. Organization, ease of checkout, return policies, customer support, etc.)   This goes for Bricks and Mortar as well as Web Sites.
b.       Product Packaging and documentation
c.      Other brand or cross brand relationships / promotions
d.      Product support - pre and post sales from your purchase point
e.        Product support - from the manufacturer

Without focus on the full brand experience, a consumer looking for more then a purchase based just on price, won't engage.  If the purchase is going to be all be about price, I am not sure every company wants to or should compete on this.  Consumers who buy based on brand have the expectation of much more.

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