The Best Branding Pales Beside Bad Behavior

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Ever hear of Regis McKenna? Hope so, because he deserves all our attention. For openers, many technology pundits credit McKenna, the marketing guru, with setting the tone for Silicon Valley marketing back in the ’80s. For believers in CRM, he has two more points of significance: McKenna was the first marketing “guru” to go on record in favor of what’s now fashionably and generically called “one-to-one” marketing; and on the flip side, he despised brand marketing. The latter is enough to endear him to me.

Much to my dismay—and my dyspepsia—every couple of years, a new spate of articles appears trying to marry CRM and brand marketing. Whenever I see one of them, I want to upchuck. Or, as the upscale folks say, “hurl.” They make me sick. They also make me wonder what the hell the people writing these articles are experiencing—because it can’t be the real world.

I’d like to take some of these brand-promoting writers by the hand and lead them into my world—particularly, the airports, airlines, car rental agencies and hotels that play an unfortunately large role in my life.

Take the airlines, please

For example, let’s take Northwest Airlines (actually, would you take them for me?). If your only contact with the company is with its promotionally-driven brand, the very name oozes care for customers and happy employees thrilled to fly you wherever you want to go whenever you want to go.

But try standing with a planeload of passengers at Northwest Gate A-4 in Albany, N.Y., at 5:15 p.m., nervously watching the “on time” on the sign-board and waiting for a gate agent or plane to show for a 5:25 p.m. flight. Try standing there at 5:50, when gate agents—they came in a group, probably for protection from the angry mob—finally showed up to tell us the flight would be 90 minutes late, something they knew hours before the scheduled departure because the very aircraft we were waiting for left Minneapolis for Albany two hours late (they couldn’t find a flight attendant). NWA had time to permit passengers with connections to rebook on other airlines and didn’t.

Now who in hell would do this? To customers? Northwest, for one. And if you think I’m assuming too much about what happened, go talk to the ground crew members, who handed me the business card of their manager, who, they claimed, told them not to inform the customers. Did I report him? Nope. Sorely tempted. But I realized I didn’t know whom NWA would punish. NWA’s labor relations have been so terrible for so long—with their long-suffering customers caught between the airline and the employees—it’s hard to guess whether or not they’d kill the messengers.

And oh, by the way, when I called the special number they give out to Gold and Platinum members to complain, I got the cold shoulder. I was told I “might” get a call back. I didn’t.

I don’t have much choice, living in Minneapolis, but to fly Northwest. But I can and do fly Continental to Europe. And over the years I and others have cost Northwest untold customers, who do have choice in airlines. And the passengers of this flight will cost them more.

Now I ask you, how much brand-building would it take to undo the damage done to my relationship with “Northworst”? And to the relationship with all the other passengers of this flight? You and I aren’t going to live that long.

To put the shoe on the other foot, Continental has bailed me out of travel trouble more than once with truly exemplary customer service. Like the time right after knee surgery, when I was on a late-arriving flight from Madrid to Newark and had only minutes to get to the domestic terminal to catch a flight back home to the Twin Cities.

The flight crew, who had been monitoring my agony across the Atlantic, called ahead to ground ops, which had a gate agent with a wheelchair waiting. The agent whisked me through customs and immigration and then did an Olympic sprint to the domestic terminal

I don’t care if Continental’s advertising is insipid and its brand image indistinct. I’d much rather be treated as an important person than as “load factor.”

Oh boy, does it hurt

Not to carry on, but take Hertz (or you can take Hertz; I switched). How many rental cars without ice scrapers in ice storms; without windshield washer fluid in heavy snow; and especially with windshields so dirty that it would take a combination of ice scrapers and washer fluid to clean them (which is why they probably didn’t) does it take to drive off an elite customer? I did call Hertz corporate to respectfully complain. No problems the next time, right? Nope. No reservation.

Now take your choice. Try to keep me in your garage with brand marketing—or, when your computer notices I abruptly stopped renting, call me and assuage me with a couple of free rentals and many apologies and, most importantly, a real commitment to see that my car is right the next time. If you pick brand marketing, do us all a favor and go out behind the barn and do you-know-what.

Let’s not forget hotels. Although I would like to forget the Radisson Hotel in Utica, N.Y. (I’m not picking on New York; I have equally bad stories from California, New Jersey and other venues.) Radisson is a powerful brand. But not nearly as powerful as my disgust over construction noise in my wing that continued evening after evening while I was trying to work.

Now, for an object lesson in CRM, my days at this hotel were at the beginning of what will wind up being a 30-month engagement. I would have spent, say, $40,000 just for staying there (never mind my food bill—and my bar bill recovering from the food). I complained at the hotel and got nowhere. I complained to corporate and was offered a free night’s stay—but no indication that the noise would stop. So I moved my quarters two blocks down the street to the locally-owned Hotel Utica, a restored old hotel without a conscious brand strategy other than being a restored old hotel.

But the Hotel Utica has something going for it more powerful than brand. Service. Smiles all around. Attention to detail and quality. Forget “bonus points” and airline miles and other gimmicks. The Utica goes one better. The staff remembers who I am. They greet me by name. They know all my preferences. And in the best traditions of CRM, they treat me right. And that overpowers all the brand stuff you can muster. It’s the true spirit of CRM (and without CRM software).

So can we please knock off the garbage about branding and brand marketing being inextricably linked to CRM? It’s bunk. You betcha, it is.

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