Thursday, September 30, 2010

Protect Your Brand Before You Have One

The following post originally appeared in the April edition of Innovate Arkansas

For whatever reason, we love to follow big name brands as they spiral down in their latest public relations tail spin. Whether it’s Southwest Airlines and their recent and very public encounter with director Kevin Smith, or Tiger Wood’s travails, or BP, this year's poster boy for image mismanagement, we tend to be captivated by their problems.

We’re so fixated we overlook those brands that get it right. Most of us have to go back to Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol crisis to find a role model.

Is brand and reputation management relevant to a start up? “Hey, we just started, so we don’t have an establish brand.” Actually, brand management is even more important to a start up than to an established company. Here’s why.

I teach a marketing management class at the local university. According to the textbook, released in 2009, the average dissatisfied customer gripes to 11 others. Now that Facebook and Twitter have gone mainstream, that number is probably 1,100 or more. Plus, smart-phones allow you to complain to the world in real time, while you argue with the ticket agent, while the server defends the well done steak when you most certainly said medium rare, or while the conference key note speaker is slogging through slide 12 of a 55 slide presentation. An established company has a reservoir of brand equity it can draw on. Start ups don’t. One crisis could sink a new firm.

So how does a start up protect its brand when a crisis happens? Here are three imperatives.
1. Be human –Companies are made up of humans but often appear faceless. Remember that brands are emotional connections with customers. Connect with your customers by saying:
• “I’m sorry
• “I was wrong”
• “Please forgive me”

This is risky and especially hard for technology-based firms, but it will start you on the way to repairing the relationship.

2. Be transparent – Now is not the time to hide behind lawyers or techno-speak.
• “Here’s what we found”
• “Here’s what we’re doing to fix the problem”
• “Here’s what we’re doing to keep it from happening again”

Common sense (and your attorneys) will guide you about how much to say, but the point is your customers want to know you’re doing something about the issue.

3. Be quick – Finally, do what you said you were going to do and then tell your customers when you finished it. Quick, pretty-good results trump long drawn out excellent actions every time.

The beauty of managing your start up’s brand is that your cycle time is usually a fraction of that of the larger firm. You’re closer to the problem (heck, you probably caused it) and you can fix it faster.

How you respond to problems speaks volumes about your company and your brand and could turn complainers into advocates.

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