Is Your Brand A Ticking Time Bomb?

If you’re not sure what you should wish for your brand in 2007, I have a suggestion.

Last week, “Time” revealed you and I are “Person of the year.” The Internet and its viral power has turned everyone into a broadcaster. How will this affect brands?

The answer is simple: brands can no longer afford to upset the consumer. Chances are, however, you’re likely upsetting your customers more than ever. If you don’t believe me, read on.

Ten years ago, I wrote the first book on how to build brands online. In the back of Brand Building on the Internet. I listed 10 essential rules for brands to follow online. Rule number one was to reply to customers. Very simple, yes, and essential for anyone with a serious online presence. I decided to test the rule by sending a simple consumer inquiry to the 100 largest brands. Using the ‘contact us’ feature on the corporate Web site of each brand, I asked each company a simple question about their brand. Questions you’d be able to answer in seconds.

What do you think the response rate was?

First, the good news. Thirty percent of the brands replied within the first 24 hours. Great, thought I, merrily assuming a similar response rate on day two. But the reality was I had to wait a very long time to get replies back from all the companies I’d written to. In fact, I’m still waiting. More than half the companies never replied at all. I’m not talking about mom-and-pop brands, but brands which are valued by billions; companies that also talk about customer satisfaction and in most cases even include their professed commitment to consumers in their vision statements.

This lack of care for the individuals that make your business a success and secure a living for all your employees wouldn’t apply to you, would it? Or does it?

Ask five friends to send your company a simple customer inquiry. Be prepared for disappointment. Your brand may fail the test. You have to know. If you’re in doubt, you’d better act quickly because tomorrow’s brands simply can’t afford to fail on such simple customer-care test.

The good news is that, by entering this simple experiment, you can keep the bad news (if it turns out to be bad) in camera. But don’t forget. You won’t simply be testing speed of replies, but quality of replies.

Some years ago, a Jonah Peretti turned Nike and its marketing machine upside down by submitting a rather unusual naming request via its Nike ID feature. If you’re not familiar with Nike ID, check it out. It enables customers to submit a name request and have it printed on the shoes of your choice. Peretti asked Nike to print “Sweatshop” one his shoes. His request was rejected.

Ten years ago, this may not have been a big deal. But today, when the consumer is the “Person of the year,” Peretti’s one-man offensive and Nike’s response would damage the Nike marketing machine and the brand it’s responsible for. Over 80,000 sites cover Peretti’s story online, retracing the rather naïve dialog that ensued between Nike’s legal team and one lone fighter. The problem was not only Nike’s rejection, but also the way they rejected the request. They threw a giant legal department into action and employed legal jargon as a weapon to silence Peretti. The weapon was ineffective, of course, and the opposite happened. The fact that you’re reading about him right now is evidence to this.

Meaningful and genuine dialog, i.e., just a friendly phone call from the company, could have turned the situation around. Yet most companies forget the power today’s consumer has through that most potent of all communication channels: word-of-mouth.

If you dare, send a nasty request or complaint to your own company. Ask one of those irritating questions which address a true weakness of your product or service, just as “sweatshop” pierced the heart of Nike’s reputation.

First, you’d better hope you receive a reply. Assuming you do, hope that reply is a thoughtful, respectful and salient one. Will you receive a call from a friendly and intelligent person, or an anonymous impersonal form e-mail, or a defensive response from the legal department?

If, like me, you’re convinced “Time” is right, that you and I are “person of the year” and the world’s most powerful marketing machine, you’d better move quickly. The good news is I didn’t mention your company in this column. The bad news is that someone might to do so soon.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.