Posted by: kwbrand | August 18, 2008

Give the Gift of Attention


There is an amusing story that has made its way into our Wilson family lore. It goes like this: In the early 1980s, my dad used my mom’s upcoming birthday as an opportunity to make a very special purchase. He bought a cordless phone the size of a sleek shoebox and, when he presented it to her, was dismayed and a little offended when she laughed and told him she would buy him a sewing machine for his next birthday. Although it was the latest, greatest technology at the time, she was happy with her current phone. She wasn’t at all impressed with the “flexibility” of the early model cordless phone whose weak signal and poor reception required, as she described it,  its user to stand in a specific spot in the house, on one leg with the head leaning to the side like some sort of human television aerial. My dad—a man known to exalt in the fun of new technology—was happy to accommodate its fussy demands and soon became its one and only user.

The story has become a parable laughingly told to remind family gift givers to put the gift receiver’s interests over their own and is a lesson that has direct application to the process of brand promise development and delivery. 

In the story, the gift went wrong before it was even purchased. Cordless phones weren’t sold in stores my mom liked to frequent; they were sold in stores where my dad liked to shop (e.g. Radio Shack). He was looking for “the right thing” in the wrong place. How many times do organizations come up with the next best thing entirely within the confines of their company walls? Rather than watching customers to see what they might need or want, how many times are businesses led by their own intuition or navel-gazing research that collects data about what they do, what they like, what works for them as a company? How often do they communicate in the words and ways they understand? I do a lot of brand strategy work with colleges and universities and I’ve seen many a tagline or marketing approach that wins high marks from the faculty and sails right over the heads of the average prospective student.

Herein is the lesson of good customer research. Go to where they go; find out what they need; find out what they like; find out how they think and speak; find out what influences them and who and why.

Then, of course, the gift itself was wrong. The cordless phone did, as my dad proudly pointed out, represent the best of cutting edge communications technology at the time, and being different or unique is a valuable goal. In gift giving or in business, one should never aspire to be just like all the others. The problem with the gift—unique as it was—was that it was not something that mattered to my mom. So, although it was different (she was the only cordless phone owner in the neighborhood), it wasn’t important. And herein is the rich complexity of brand promises: the brand experience an organization promises to deliver must not only differentiate its offerings from those of competitors, it must be something that simultaneously matters to its primary constituents.

The U.S. Post Office gave us a great example of this mistake in a customer experience context. For a while there were little signs at every postal service person’s post that promised that “Every customer gets a receipt every time.” Well that’s great. But were receipts really the driving concern? How many postal clients would’ve preferred that lines were shorter or that there were policies to deal with the people who, once their number is called and they get to the postal clerk, hold up the line by addressing and taping their packages while the postal clerk and the rest of the free world waits for them? Providing customers with receipts every time might have been a promise the U.S. Postal office could make and keep, and one that UPS and FedEx Kinkos were not making to their customers, but did it matter to the customers? Not to me. Herein is the lesson of good qualitative customer research. Approach market and customer service research with more than just a multiple choice survey such as: “Do you want the receipt a) sometimes or, b) every time?” Ask customers what they really want and listen to what they say, how they say it and what they leave unarticulated but present on the margins of their thought.

When you make a promise to your market, make sure you’re not just talking to yourself and when you give, make sure you’re not just giving to yourself.

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