Brands today are at a crossroads. All Brands: retailers, fashion, food, medical, technology, automotive. No industry is impervious to the Siren’s call towards two equally compelling and mutually contradictory roads.
- Urbanization takes us to ever more populated, crowded spaces, chock-a-block with waits-in-line for restaurants, movies, theatres, concerts, subway trains, parking spots, and buses. The object of mass desire made more vital by the crowd sourcing of longing.
- Customization sends us down the path of pure narcissism: Make it unique and precisely for me, whether it’s my mocha, latte grande, half caff with soy milk, my Facebook page, or my iTunes playlists.
Thus, we enter an age of Mega vs. Me: Big brands attempting to bridge the divide between the comfort of “mega” status and the human scale of “me-ness.” Retailers and the brands they purvey are going to have to invest in some infrastructural support in order to bridge this looming divide. Rather than speak of it in the abstract, here are three examples of exactly how this bifurcation is playing out in the marketplace.
A small business owner is charmed by the new Citibank advertising in which the company extols both its history of investing in important projects and its dedication to “progress makers.” The small business owner begins to consider, “Perhaps I should move my accounts from Chase.” Then, en route to a meeting across town, she swings by the ATM at a Chase branch. A customer rep comes up to her and says, “Excuse me, but there’s white powder on the back of your suit. Do you want to use our restroom?” The rep escorts her through the branch to an area reserved for private bank customers (and she is not one) and unlocks the door. Soon our small business owner heads to her meeting, all thoughts of switching banks banished.
Voila: A personal, human-scaled interaction serves as an insurmountable barrier to switching.
A mother is enticed by a Verizon offer and its claims of superior service coverage when it is time to buy her daughter’s first Smartphone. The phone arrives, is activated, and soon enough come the seemingly incessant messages and warnings of data use overages. She calls the company to determine what can be done and after 23.5 minutes on hold and a series of repetitive prompts, gets a human being who, 15 minutes into the call, acknowledges that the phone settings can be changed in order to avoid the constant data charges. A simple enough fix, but a tremendous hassle to achieve, coupled with a sense of having been tricked. Why are the settings set for maximum fees?
The mother has a point of comparison: T-Mobile, her carrier. Smart, savvy human beings on the phone handle her requests with an obvious professionalism and commitment to her satisfaction, without the robotic, scripted, “Have I solved your issue today?” “Have I given you outstanding service today?” “Is there something else I can do for you right now?” of the competition. As soon as the Verizon contract is fulfilled, the daughter’s next cell phone is ordered from T-Mobile. The carrier may not have the absolute best coverage, but its customer service is personal, honest, responsive and, therefore, thrilling.
Presto: Personal, human-scaled interactions serve as a reason to switch brands, even when the product performance may be inferior.
At a Detroit hotel, near Ford headquarters, scores of product development, technology and just plain smart staffers work round-the-clock to develop a fresh new concept. No. Not a new concept car. Rather, a new way of engaging with drivers (Ford and other vehicle owners) to help them at key moments of their days. It’s not about the vehicle. It’s about the driver. Titled Ford Pass, it is the culmination of a $100 million investment designed to make Ford the iTunes of car companies. This, the thinking goes, serves to separate Ford from its competitive set and from the vagaries of its dealerships’ customer care through a wild amalgam of benefits that range from the predictable (road side assistance to change a flat) to the amazing (finding and paying in advance for parking). The business theory: Ford drivers stay with Ford and competitive drivers become so enraptured by the Ford Pass that their next car purchase is automatically a Ford.
Ergo: Personal, human-scaled interactions become an identified brand-building strategy worthy of a $100 million investment from a company more typically obsessed with gizmos, e.g. functional performance features.
All told, we have an example of spectacularly personal service trumping marketing claims and brand heritage. We have an illustration of robotic customer service and chicanery negating the power of superior pricing and service delivery. We have an early indicator of one mega brand working and investing to deliver beyond its core promise to the reach the emerging “me.”
The stakes for retailers and the brands they sell could not be higher. Which road to travel?
As the country and the developed world become more chock-a-block with people congregating in urban settings, consumers simultaneously and seemingly contradictorily will…
- Want to shelter in place, avoiding strangers and crowds, ordering everything they need online, and venturing out only when the desire to be in a social setting demands it (hard for retailers to compete here, but ’retail enchantment’ should move up the ’to do’ list) or when personal service makes it worthwhile (hmm).
- Prefer brands which demonstrate customers are valued as a unique individuals by a unique individual.
So, winning retailers, big and small, will work hard at the most difficult task: to identify, hire, train, and reward human beings who come to the task engaged by the category, eager to share their knowledge with customers, and ready to be incentivized for delivering a level of service that is at once personal and pervasive.
As the half-life of brand superiority continues to shorten, consumers will…
- Believe that most products and brands are interchangeable, or soon will be and thus can be ordered online for the lowest price.
- Migrate to the “okay, available, and cheap.”
- Rely on Amazon for nearly everything: A benign, efficient algorithm beats a bored, clueless sales person anywhere, anytime.
We have only to look at the Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday (and Tuesday and Wednesday and…) sales last year to see which way this road winds.
Personalized, authentic customer service will become the most significant brand differentiator of the 21st century. For winning brands and retailers, it will be the boon they seek: Indeed, their reason for being. For those who continue to work to shave another nickel off the price of goods in the hopes that they can ’make it up on volume,’ well, we know where that road leads.
Here’s hoping leading brands and retailers opt to lead and soon: Don’t choose the right road too late. It’s pretty much the same as being wrong.