Posted by: kwbrand | June 15, 2010

Brands as Customer Service


In a recent issue of Cooking Light (yes, I’m a foodie and cooking nerd), I discovered something perfect and just in time. It was a week before Mother’s Day and there on the glossy page was a spread of a really cool, oddly shaped vase available at Chive.com.

My mother is queen of the beautiful and creative table arrangement and I had no other good gift ideas so I immediately dragged my magazine up to my desk to order the vase. I was all set to happily check “Mother’s Day gift” off of my to-do list.

What I soon discovered was that the website was not set up for web orders. (In 2010!? What?!) I was stunned. This was one of the rare times when I actually followed up on a promotional piece in a major magazine and their information had been bad. I did, however, find an email address and since this was the perfect gift idea for the perfect price, I persisted; I actually made a call (in 2010?! It’s madness!)

I got a call back, from a lovely Canadian woman named Kristina. She cheerfully explained that the Cooking Light spread had run several months before they had expected it too and that their website wasn’t quite ready but that in the meantime, she could take my order by hand. She also added me to their mailing list so that I would be apprised of the website’s launch as soon as it was ready.

I should stop for a moment to say that I do much, if not most, of my shopping on-line. But this experience with Kristina was different. She wasn’t all customer-servicey and scripted; she was completely human. She was up-beat, fun, and imminently approachable. After the brief conversation on the phone I was not only not annoyed anymore, I was excited for Kristina and hopeful for their small company’s success.

When the vase arrived, it included a letter in which more of Kristina’s personality shone through. It also included two free plastic travel vases that fold flat (coolest damn things ever and perfect for my mom who in addition to being queen of table décor is moving to Rwanda in November).  I was delighted.

Several weeks after that, I received an email announcing the launch of the “newly spiffed up” Chive website. The missive laughingly confessed that the Chive staff had expected 6 or 7 orders from the Cooking Light spread and instead had responded to 1000 emails in three weeks.

What strikes me about Chive is that their brand is that they have not limited the thrust of their communications to their graphic design or typical marketing tools; they don’t have a logo, a tagline, and aren’t—near as I can tell—running  a slick “campaign.” Yet, they come across as hip, young, fun, approachable, just like the vases they are selling. Their brand is exactly what good brands should be: first and foremost a human interaction between people who connect through business as individuals.

There are examples of larger, more complicated companies than Chive that have also done a good job living their brands through their customer service. Whenever you see the green and black Starbucks logo, you know you can reliably expect to be greeted by clean-cut, up-beat yuppie types who are only too happy to customize your drink in one of 10,000 ways.

The big take-away here is this: When it comes to building a solid brand reputation, the most compelling way to cut through the crap is still with old fashioned relationships. Branding is more a function of customer service than graphic design or media buys. The trappings of a brand identity (logos, colors, taglines etc.) should be the visual cue that the relational interaction customers have come to value is reassuringly imminent.

There are examples of exceptional power brands that have been built on values like inventory and value but sans customer service (Wal-Mart). But, my conviction is that unless you’re the category leader in something like pricing, leaders will have to find and defend their market niche by finding people who can literally embody the values of the organization.

So let’s talk: Have you experienced good customer service recently? Bad service? How did it influence the relative power of the service-giver’s (or refuser’s) brand equity with you?

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation

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