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An Introspective on Branding

Imagine you are now hired as a consultant to a company who engages in selling digital ad space, the only customer touch point besides their website (which is highly praised for it's ease of use and clean design) is their call center where customers can speak to a customer service operator 24/7. However, recently - and the reason you are hired is because there is mounting customer complaints about the overall service quality and experience by customers.

The brand message that the company, called XYZ Telecommunications touts is that "THE FUTURE IS FRIENDLY". Executives are concerned because they are fairly new and cannot risk having this continue on for much longer.

What would be the elements you would evaluate for this business?

Take 10 to 15 minutes and make a list of what you would evaluate.



My assumption is that your list will comprise a variation of the below elements, that typically revolve around the call center associate, wait times, consistency of service and some systematic problem with the call center.

Typical responses include:

  • Know customer name
  • Be cheery happy, and polite
  • Have the relevant information
  • Ask the customer how they are?
  • Quickness of answer call (no call waiting) *waiting times*
  • Answering machine system, human touch and engagement
  • Ease of use to call (where is customer contact number)
  • Hours of operation / availability
  • Consistency of information (experience should be consistent)

But the truth is that that is not where we start - first we must look more generally at our overall business. Some of the key questions we should be looking at are:

  1. First to understand what the brand is. The truth in delivering our brand experience, how true is this to the real experience. Is FUTURE IS FRIENDLY, really a true thing that we are believing to achieve/ follow and exercise?
  2. What kind of experience would this be - "the future is friendly", we need to choose and select the right people for this job: personality, education, etc. Are they representative of this brand?
  3. Training – what are the standards and procedures that required to create the aura of “the future is friendly”, what is the level of overall customer service that needs to be achieved. What technical experience or preferences need to be in place to compete over competitors?
  4. Organizational practices and imbued elements to give the support that customer service needs, really to give them “authority” that at least 50% of the time they can achieve all issues themselves, and that within 95% time they can get it within 2 degrees of separation for those customers, so they don’t need a 3rd contact person.
  5. Also ensure that the front staff gets the right IT support, right technology, right databases, information and tools. Recognize long term customers. Account weights and values.

The list can easily go on, but you get the idea. Before we even start questioning specific attributes and service wait times, electronic messaging services versus personal operators we need to evaluate what the company is actually doing, the approach must be top down, inside and out.

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supreme: built from the inside out

When Supreme first opened it's doors in downtown Manhattan way back over 20 years ago in 1994, it appealed instantly to a core group of "rebellious young New York skaters who became the store's staff, crew and customers" (supremenewyork.com)

And over the past 20 years, Supreme has evolved to be 9 stores in key markets around the globe, from Japan (6 stores with 3 in Tokyo), New York, Los Angeles and London (UK). What has really taken off with the Supreme brand is it's ability to stay reasonably priced throughout its infancy to aggressive growth (jeans have been steady at about $150 and hoodies at about $200). And considering this growth, it begs the question:

Is it still possible to be an authentic brand staying true to your roots while also being mindful about profits, growth and revenue?

In some ways it reminiscent of Red Bull in the early 2000s - rebellious, dangerous, exclusive - and it's reflective in the people who endorse the product. One of the key differentiators for Supreme is the chosen celebrity endorsements, for example at one point Tyler the Creator from Odd Future was selected (http://youtu.be/XSbZidsgMfw) to most recently and the reason to propagate this article, the legendary Neil Young (below).

Self-prophesied, Supreme states that it has three commitments: style, quality and authenticity. The key word that I think is reflective of what the brand itself represents to its end consumer is authenticity.

Style and quality are for sure critical, but are arguably the table stakes as a niche/specialized clothing retailer. But what does authenticity mean? For a brand like Supreme - absolutely everything.

What enabled Supreme to create such an aura of authenticity is its brand building - and I don't mean branding as external marketing/advertising - I mean through it's internal focus on key stakeholders. The business was created and managed by skaters, who were (and still are) young, stylish, entrepreneurs (aka filmmakers and musicians). These same people who ran the store weren't trained in the arts of urban clothing retail, they were the farthest thing from it. If someone walked in and rummaged through product and didn't talk-the-talk or walk-the-walk like a skater, they were pretty much (indirectly) escorted out of the store.

Point is, the store appealed to the exact same type of guy who worked there.

Supreme's branding is in it's culture and style, this authenticity transcends not just the colours and fabrics, but the imagery. And the celebrities who endorse Supreme are the personification of the evolution of the brand. When Supreme tapped into Tyler the Creator, that choice is speaking volumes about the brand on where it is and where it's going. By being hungry, different, young and fresh - represents what Supreme wanted to convey, and now today's brand message is more closely connecting with Neil Young, a renowned musician whose music is timeless and classic, and doesn't need any introductions regardless of social circles, just like Supreme.

If we remember in the 90s the success of another brand, Zoo York, the authenticity speaks to us not about delivering on the quality or style -but in delivering on a lifestyle. "I wear it so you know what I'm about" mentality. but the question ultimately arises, in a day where brands become identities,  where does this put Supreme? Like other "skater" oriented retailers like Vans, Huff, Stussy, or Hundreds to name a few that have already opened the flood gates to allow their product into more none traditional consumers. At least as of now, they haven't lost brand identity (and ultimately value). But the question reamains, how far can Supreme go to allow the brand to be diluted before it reaches that tipping point?

Well, I think they've done incredibly well thus far -and CEO and owner James Jebbia doesn't seem willing to jeopardize the brand image for anything. The key to any brand is to know your audience and to keep it authentic. The key to authenticity for Supreme is in people (employees, endorsements and customers), and the channels it sells its clothing, by controlling their retail channels (with some partnerships), and by engaging in limited runs, they can create enough new interest to grow their customer base but also keep their loyal customers loyal.

If you are happy making a product that people love, make good money that supports your life - what else do you want? The lesson by James jebbia is that success isn't defined how much money you can accrue, but how desired, loved and impressive your brand can be.

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CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE DESIGN: WHAT IS IT?

            Psychology, sociology, economics, mathematics and statistics – these are several sciences used in traditional marketing. But today marketing is looked at holistically as an art with an in depth understanding of consumer behavior, usage of information systems and the exploration of one-on-one customer selling. But most interestingly and most underutilized is the emphasis across all types of marketing the importance of emotional design. This emotional design is the foundation for any successful product in today’s world.

           As Donald A. Norman articulated in his book Emotional Design: Why We love (or hate) Everyday Things (2007), there are three levels of design creation. The first level, and arguably the foundational level is the visceral component.

           The visceral is the initial impact of a product; the look, the touch and the feel. This component also creates that initial curiosity in the product, the “pre-consciousness”. Simply put, first impressions matter.

           The second level is the behavioral.  This component can be expanded to include the functionality, usability and performance of a product. Some marketers believe that this is the right of entry, since before you even discuss the third level, the behavioral component has to be well established. This is the experience customers have with using your product, is it positive or negative? Does it leave a lasting warm impression or cold? How easy is it to use? How functional is it? What activities does it support? This is the foundational level where traditionalists believe a product succeeds or fails.

          The third level, and the purpose of this article, is where both thoughts and emotions reside. This third level known as the reflective is highly influenced (or vulnerable) to cultural stimuli, type or level of education, life experiences and personal differences of individual people or groups. This level also can override the other two levels, since what some people find to be aesthetically appealing others will not, these differences are reflective in the way we experience the world. This reflective level can also be extended to the satisfaction of owning, displaying and using the product. This is the level where self-identity is created, through the relationship between oneself and the product. This level can also be viewed as a “mirror-window” brand that is a window to let people glimpse into a bit of who you are, and mirrors lasting emotional self-satisfaction. This is the level that great marketers excel at, and where good marketers fail. Some of the most successful brands (think Apple, Disney, Google, Nike and Rolex) have succinctly reached into our inner dreams and created products that inspire us with aspirations and hopes.

       As the Management Theorist Simon Sinek gleefully articulated, brands that tell you the WHY and not just the WHAT succeed the most. Instead of focusing on just attributes or buzz words, brands like Tesla appeal to our inner most desires by creating stories that deeply resonate with us. As Elon Musk embodies the Iron Man of automobiles, and the Tesla the ever so sought after the lost Ark, it drives us to be part of those stories, although we rationalize it to our close friends and family as being responsible or environmentally friendly, deep down the drive is to be part of something bigger than ourselves. To be both adventurous and daring while also responsible and reliable. 

       It’s also critical to note that the visceral and behavioural levels are about the “now”, they are based on your experience with using that product at any given moment, whereas the reflective level is influenced by a much longer timeline, including your past and your expected future, it includes the hidden unspoken level of unconsciousness that stretch beyond traditional attribute marketing, but speak to the little boy or girl inside each and every one of us.

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