The myth of the brand facade

Flying back from the Midwest this holiday season, we had some customer service issues with American Airlines.  Snarky flight attendants, a ridiculously understaffed gate (one poor soul checking in 3 flights – and re-routing passengers from a cancelled flight – but, wow, she was quite a trooper) Yes, they are going through Chapter 11, yes, the  industry in general is taking a beating, and yes, 98% of their competitors are not much better.

Makes it so easy for someone like Virgin America to come along and differentiate. When the bar is set so low by so many, it’s not hard to raise it even an inch.

I find it interesting to note that nowhere on American’s site can you find a statement of their philsopphy or what they stand for – not even in their About Us section. They just list a bunch of things they do. What the heck do the employees have to rally around? But it’s easy to find purpose and mission on Virgin America’s site….hmmmmm.

I started thinking about all the brand messages we see from airlines -and financial services institutions. These companies spend millions telling us they care about customers, they care about you as a person, their employees are committed, caring and sharp dressers.

Why do they bother?

We all know when we pull back the brand facade, we’ll experience delays, poor service, long telephone hold times and endless bureaucracy. Wells Fargo is our bank with whom we had our previous mortgage. When they declined to refiannce us (with excellent credit history, mind you) after a botched and complicated application process where the left hand did not know what the right was doing, we went elsewhere. Then we started getting marketing letters in the mail offering us a great – and easy – refinance process with them. WTF?!

When American Airlines shows TV commercials of smiling, calm people breezing on to the plane as if they were entering a spa, we know the reality is poor communication, delays, crowded gates and crying babies.

I’ve often called this ‘putting a coat of brand paint” on top of a flawed product/service/company. Do they really think we’re going to believe? Does the CEO really understand what it’s like to a be a frustrated customer? I don’t think so, or they would never spend million-dollar plus line items on something everyone knows is not reality. The emperor has no clothes, so why are you spending so much to tell us otherwise? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on actually delivering that level of service to begin with?

In your industry, such shenanigans offer a prime opportunity to step up and make a promise you can actually keep – that alone will differentiate you. Southwest Airlines does it by promising low prices and no bag fees (and a downhome, even funny, customer service persona) – and they deliver. Virgin America promises to make flying fun again – and everything from their calm and friendly staff to the  personalized in-flight entertainment system to funny safety video delivers.

Ally Bank has tried to make you think they are the quirky bank that is on your side. Their TV commercials are pretty funny. Now, I have no direct customer experience with them, so I’m not sure if they deliver. But did you know that Ally is simply GMAC, rebranded?

Some of my most interesting clients have been in what could be seen as unglamourous but as I said, when the bar is set so low to begin with, the opportunity to raise it up is huge. Wish these airline and bank CEO’s could open their eyes and see that. Maybe then they wouldn’t be filing for Chapter 11 but actually delivering on what they promise in their TV commercials.

Wow. What a concept.

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