The Soul of a Company: Best Defense Against Being the Next United
What are the non-negotiables when things go wrong? In a fast-paced world where associates face difficult choices, conflicting priorities, and an unforgiving customer, only a company’s soul, its values, its fundamental long-practiced orientation to the customer, can provide sound real-time guidance.
It’s been a rough month for corporate reputation. In fact, it’s been a rough 2017. The recent Pepsi Jenner ad debacle and the United “passenger re-accommodation” mess followed on the heels of negative publicity and consumer indignation surrounding Uber, Under Armour, Budweiser, Starbucks and many other brands.
Some of the noise has been driven by missteps, and some by consumer interpretation that may or may not match the organization’s actual intent. But there’s no question that the landscape is filled with more landmines that explode quicker and louder than ever before. And while there is much debate and analysis around whether these will episodes result in long-term damage to stock price, market share and brand equity, it’s fair to assume that organizations would rather avoid these reputation crises.
Proliferating risks make it more important than ever that leaders understand fully what lies within the soul of their organizations and communicate these core values clearly to their stakeholders. A well-defined and shared set of values — especially with respect to customers — is the best defense against stumbling into blistering headlines. There are many new dynamics that make today’s environment more treacherous than ever for stewards of brand and reputation.
The Energized, Politicized Consumer
The highly-charged and polarized political environment has left many consumers from both ends of the political spectrum feeling frustrated, frightened and voiceless. Brands are being weighed, judged and punished for actual or presumed positions on a wide range of social issues, quickly becoming poster children of activism. Under Armour took heat from its sponsored athletes for comments made by Founder/CEO Kevin Plank. Budweiser saw boycotts for its Superbowl ad that, even though written long before the Trump travel ban was declared, was perceived as critical of it.
Accelerated News Cycle
The proverbial “word of mouth” power, especially when negative, is well known. The scale of social media has exponentially increased this power; the anxious social climate has further turbo-charged it. As a result, issues rapidly become crises and organizations no longer have the needed time to ponder alternatives and craft a thoughtful response. Success is now measured in hours, not days, and a response that doesn’t fully and quickly address the issue simply prolongs the pain. Pepsi’s 24-hour withdrawal of the Kendall Jenner ad reflected this new nimbleness; United’s 3-step apology showed the perils of moving slower.
New Power Through Data, Technology
A slightly subtler but no less meaningful risk is presented by the rapidly-increasing power and availability of data, analytics and technology. Marketers have access to capabilities that enable deep insights and targeting to drive relevant and timely messages. The dark side goes beyond that annoying re-targeting of a brand of shoes you already bought—the challenge becomes walking that fine line of being relevant but not creepy and intrusive. With the loosening of regulations around data use, the choices marketers make become even more critical. Add to this mix the growing Internet of Things, and everything becomes more complicated: the recent instance of Burger King triggering a response from Google Home devices illustrates the grey area marketers must navigate in a world where we know intimate details about an individual and can access the devices they live with.
How then does an organization operate effectively, build its brand, navigate new risks, and effectively respond to issues with the necessary speed? The truth is that no manual, set of policies, or job description will save a brand from the fates of the smart, well-run companies that end up in painful headlines. It’s just as true that no instructional documentation can enable a batter hit a big-league fastball: only unthinking, instinctual, long-practiced muscle memory can do the job. This is why clearly defining and expressing the company’s soul is the only solution. In a fast-paced world, where associates face difficult choices, conflicting priorities, and an unforgiving customer, only a company’s soul, its values and fundamental, long-practiced orientation to the customer, can provide sound real-time guidance.
Defining the Soul of a Company
I recall talking to a friend who was a mid-level marketer at Charles Schwab many years ago. He described how you could walk the halls and feel the unambiguous, universal conviction in the idea of “Do right by the customer and revenue will follow.” There was no doubt about the fundamental belief at the core of the organization’s DNA, which could then act as North Star to any in-the-moment decisions made by thousands of associates.
Thinking about the distressing United Airlines episode, one can imagine the myriad pressures on the agents confronted with that high-pressure challenge: operational time-tables, crew shifts, air traffic control, voucher expense rules, and many other concerns. But it seems unlikely that those associates were steeped in a culture that prized customer care and respect above all else. By contrast, after JetBlue had its mortifying day in the headlines it adopted a Passenger Bill of Rights and committed more than ever to “bring humanity back to flying.” With that kind of top-down declaration and curation of an enduring customer-centric culture, it’s hard to imagine a JetBlue gate agent summoning armed police to wrestle a customer out of a seat.
While achieving this kind of crystal clarity and visceral commitment is not easy , it is within reach:
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Define Your Values and Customer Orientation
Yes, most every organization has a document somewhere that describes a mission and values. But few organizations have taken the time and energy to wrestle deeply with the sense of purpose they’re truly prepared to devote themselves to, often at the expense of other critical concerns. When Capital One declared its mission to “Change Banking for Good” along with its supporting values, it brought sharper clarity and focus on how to operationalize the sense of purpose in it soul.
Boldly Declare Your Values
Having determined your organization’s drivers, shout them from every rooftop, plaster them everywhere, and demonstrate to your associates — and to the entire world — your unambiguous commitment. There’s no room for “ifs,” “ands,” and “buts.” Stating, “Treat customers with respect (except when margins suffer)” shows that you don’t really mean it. By walking the talk, you’ll put preventative good will in the bank in the event of a breakdown, as your consistent track record will be testimony to your positive intent.
Conduct a Values Audit
The worst thing is to declare a noble belief that you don’t consistently demonstrate in your actions. Audi learned this after running a Superbowl ad championing equal pay for women, despite a poor record of placing women in positions of power. Review policies, products, call center scripts, training, and all other customer experience drivers, and root out everything that is not consistent with your stated values. Empower associates to sound the alarm when they see value conflicts in the course of their work.
Conduct Scenario Planning
It’s impossible to predict every potential scandal, breakdown or mishap, but with some dedicated brainstorming, many can be identified. Task cross-functional teams with envisioning scenarios that put the company’s values and beliefs to the test. How far would you go in leveraging data in a less regulated environment? How will you resolve conflicts of customer care vs. profits? What are the non-negotiables when things go wrong? This process might force a revision of the cultural tenets, but the end result should be a clarified commitment to how the most challenging situations will be addressed on brand and within culture.
These are certainly challenging times for brand owners. Opportunities abound to unintentionally trip over an issue and become the target of a boycott, social storm or unwanted attention from legislators and regulators. But by digging deep and declaring the soul of their organization, and, even more importantly, by living up to those words every day, leaders can create an energized, purpose-driven culture that will enhance their resilience and agility while successfully navigating a turbulent new reality.
Originally posted on TARGET MARKETING.
Peter Horst is chairing FUSION Financial Services, a free, all-inclusive event that brings together select financial services marketing executives who oversee technology strategy. To see more or apply to attend, click here.
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