Branding is for Bubble Brains

Beware of "brandcuffs" and other bad ideas when trying to improve customer service.

There’s a new term of art in branding: "Brandcuffs."

It sounds like some sort of adult toy. I had to look this up. Turns out that "brandcuffs" are a restrictive style guide, so strict they don't allow any wiggle room when it comes to conveying the brand.

The point of course is to make sure that the communicators you pay to convey said brand don't f- it up. The implication is that your communicators are stupid.

I have long been annoyed and frustrated by the tendency of organizations to think about their most important function -- communication -- as a lowest-common-denominator thing.

It's almost as if they literally think that typing is the same thing as writing. That knowing how Twitter works is the same thing as knowing what to tweet. Or, worse, that talking to the customer -- by email, on the telephone or on instant chat -- is the same thing as getting them engaged. 

It's not. (We all know this, right?)

The business genius Peter Drucker was 100 percent on target when he said that “a business exists to create a customer." But as most of us already know, but maybe don't think about so much (because new ads are sexier than loyalty campaigns) -- it's a hell of a lot cheaper, smarter and more efficient to invest in the customers you have than to constantly ignore them in favor of strangers.

And of course, the way you keep your customers delighted, and coming back for more is through consistent, personalized, structured (and yes, sometimes boring and irritating) customer service. Particularly for those who buy the most things for the highest price tag.

Think about it:

  • The entirety of your business is your brand. Not the widgets you think you sell.
  • The entirety of your brand is lodged, living and breathing, in the relationships you have with each and every customer. Dispersed among them. Not in your brochures, or your "brandcuff."
  • The relationships you have with each and every customer are unique, they develop over time, and they are real. Relationships cannot be programmed or scripted.

I am confident that we are looking at a robotized future, where most of the work is done by automated creatures we have dreamed up in a lab. But the thinking work cannot be delegated.

Do you know what makes terrorist propaganda over social media channels so successful, while efforts to counter them have miserably failed? It is that counter-terrorists refuse to un-handcuff their communicators. For in a system run by terrorists, the only qualification is fanatical loyalty to a simple shared cause that all understand. There is no other litmus test for a Tweet.

New recruits buy into the messages broadcast over social media. Soon, they establish relationships with actual people. They join a shadowy world where they can shed their previous bland identities and immerse themselves in purpose.

How do you fight that? That's the ultimate one-on-one brand-building campaign, and the person standing on the other side of that wall is braying insults with both hands tied behind their back.

The simple fact about branding is that the relationships upon which it depends must be built by intelligent people who are just as fanatically dedicated to their cause as their competitors.

The people you hire to take your brand to the top -- whether in service of national security or simply trying to elbow the corner Starbucks out of business -- absolutely must be empowered to win over each customer, one at a time.

Ideally you will have some sort of database supplementing their efforts as well, so that interactions with customers begin to be tracked and over time, you have a picture of each individual that is part of your unique business orbit.

Also ideally, you want to combine the customer relationship management system with a data mining system that tells you which of your customers is spending on what and how much, so you can isolate the highest value interactions and focus most of your time on those. 

When that customer comes in, any person who is part of your team can tap into the program and then address them in the most unique, friendly and personalized terms, instead of numbly repeating the same nonsense words, over and over again, like a robot. Which only serves to infuriate customers, not to endear them to your brand.

Here's another example: Have you heard of the Jack Welch MBA Program? They advertised on LinkedIn and I inquired once. That was probably three months ago, and I have never followed up. But the person assigned to my original inquiry is still reaching out to me. And these aren't your standard-issue cookie-cutter emails, either. They're actually interesting, personalized letters that seem like they are specifically tailored to me, asking when I can talk, get assessed for my career goals, and develop an action plan that will move me, in my specific, particular snowflake career, forward.

I may never get an MBA in this lifetime. But you can bet your bottom dollar I'll always think of the Jack Welch program if and when I do decide to pursue one.

Now you may be thinking such personal attention is unrealistic. After all, brands can get very big, massively so. How can they actually converse as human beings with each individual customer? I am here to tell you that they absolutely can, and technology makes it more possible than ever, and that they have to.

The only thing getting in the way is attitude. If you as a business owner have the attitude that communication is your least important function versus "real things" like new product development and enhancement, you're screwed. If you favor "hard skills" because they're seemingly difficult to learn and require a lifetime of commitment by so-called "smart people," you're biased.

Emotional intelligence is hard to come by these days. The heart and soul of your brand always comes down to the person who interacts with the customer. Even if you operate an e-commerce business.

You say you value your customer service staff? Think about how little you are probably paying this person, how rarely or perfunctorily you are training them, how excessive the restriction you're placing on their interactions with the customer.

Do you make them say, before anything else: "I'm Jennifer, ID#5344, this conversation is recorded to ensure the highest possible level of customer service?" 

That, my friend, is a "brandcuff!"

Do you really think a person suffocating under the weight of your condescending mistrust is going to provide a return on investment? Or maybe you think the only person who can build your brand is you -- and possibly your highly paid, empowered and pampered senior management team.

Maybe it's time to rethink.

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.