Editor's note: This article is part of a series exploring the characteristics of brand admiration, including why it matters and how B2B and B2C businesses can benefit from investing it. To find out more about what brand admiration is, read the first article.
In early 2015, Comcast made a big announcement: The much-maligned company planned to finally right its many years of wrongs by investing $300 million into improving its notoriously awful customer service. The company's press release, as is often the case with press releases, made big promises, and it sounded surprisingly penitent.
As Comcast Cable President and CEO Neil Smit put it, the goal of the transformation was to shift the company's mindset to be completely focused on the customer.
"It's about respecting their time, being more proactive, doing what's right, and never being satisfied with good enough," Smit was quoted as having said. "We're on a mission and everyone is committed to making this happen."
The reaction to the announcement was about what you'd expect: eyerolls, sarcastic chuckles, and lots of "I'll believe it when I see it" responses.
And then there were reactions like this:
@EPB_Chattanooga I wouldn't go back to Comcast for $300 mil. https://t.co/8ijFX1XqZW— Lucas McNeeley (@linux_colonel) October 27, 2015
If you've ever been a Comcast customer, you can relate.
Frankly, the company's sudden commitment to being "completely focused on the customer" felt a little bit like a school bully taking a break from punching you in the face, just so he could ask you to be his best friend: Even if the sentiment is genuine, the chances of actual reconciliation are slim.
What if Comcast Had Invested in Brand Admiration Earlier?
Now, here's a question Comcast may want to consider: How would its mistakes and missteps be viewed if the business had invested in becoming an admired brand long ago?
New research from marketing scholars C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, and Andreas B. Eisingerich in their forthcoming book, Brand Admiration: Building a Business People Love, suggests the company's reputation would look very different.
Specifically, the book argues that businesses that proactively invest in fostering high brand admiration benefit from...
- Greater customer willingness to forgive mistakes, product failures, and customer service screw-ups
- Higher (and more organic) interest in new products and brand extensions
- Stronger employee morale and engagement, and better access to the best talent
- Fewer strong competitors due to widespread preference for one particular brand
Therein lies the challenge for Comcast and other businesses that prioritize rapid growth over fostering feelings of love, trust, and respect. Although those businesses might still achieve their goal of market domination, it often comes at a cost. Namely, instead of building a brand that people admire (and reaping the aforementioned benefits of that admiration), they build brands that people—including their own employees—despise.
In the long-term, that can be costly.
More than one-third (36%) of adults have chosen to not to support a business because of something questionable they learned about its conduct, according to Harris Poll. Meanwhile, a 2016 Gallup report concluded that "B2B companies across all industries are at serious risk of being replaced—not because of their products or prices, but because they're failing their customers."
Saved by Admiration: Two Brands, Two Success Stories
Now, let's examine the other side of brand admiration.
Here are two brands that have made their fair share of mistakes over the last decade but have managed to survive and thrive when many other businesses would have crumbled.
At the beginning of 2015, Fortune had ranked Starbucks the fifth most admired brand in the world.
When the global coffee chain launched its "Race Together" campaign in March 2015, the goal was to encourage difficult discussions around race relations. Instead, the campaign was widely criticized for, at worst, being a marketing ploy gone wrong and, at best, being a well-intentioned but poorly executed attempt at discourse around a tough social issue.
In the short term, Starbucks took its lumps. But the company and its leadership didn't hide from the criticism. In fact, CEO Howard Schultz was surprisingly transparent about the brand's motivations behind its efforts, and that openness went a long way toward calming the storm.
More than a year later, Starbucks continues to push for deeper conversation around race-related issues, and the brand is as healthy as ever (it's sixth on Fortune's list).
Despite facing class-action lawsuits in recent years, the San Antonio-based banking and insurance company accomplished something notable in 2016: It earned the top spot in Temkin's 6th Annual Forgiveness and Trust Rankings, both of which are based on a study of 10,000 US consumers.
Then again, those results shouldn't be particularly surprising. From 2007 to 2010 the company ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the JD Power and Bloomberg Customer Service Champs poll (which included companies from every industry). And USAA has also consistently outpaced its competition in both Net Promoter Score and customer retention.
So, what's the company's secret? As a longtime USAA customer, I can speak directly to its steadfast commitment to doing right by the customer. Yes, the company's made mistakes over the years; but, in my experience, those issues have been resolved quickly and transparently (and always by a friendly human on the other end of the phone).
That kind of extra effort, and the empathy it conveys, matters—particularly in a competitive industry that isn't exactly known for its integrity and values.
The Simple Secret to Building a Forgivable Brand
Ultimately, the key lesson here is this: Customers, employees, partners, and other stakeholders care less about whether issues get resolved and more about how they're handled.
They also care about the frequency of those errors, the brand's propensity to acknowledge them, and the speed at which they work to make things right. When handled properly, all of those things build integrity, convey empathy, and drive engagement over time.
And when those ingredients are in place, they go a long way toward earning people's love, trust, and respect—the core tenets of brand admiration.
Articles in this series:
- Brand Admiration: Why Some Brands Are Loved Unconditionally (and What You Can Learn From Them)
- Brand Admiration and the Power of Love: Build a Brand That People Adore
- Is Your Brand Trusted? Here's What Happens When It Is—and Isn't
- Brand Admiration and the Value of Respect: How to Build a Revered Brand
- Brand Admiration: Three Powerful Bottom-Line Benefits of Being Admired
- The Saving Grace of Brand Admiration: 3 Companies, 3 Mistakes, 3 Different Outcomes
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