From Hero To Zero
When brands f*ck over consumers, ending the relationship is the just start of their problems
Originally published by Marketing Week, April 2023
There are some brands that are perceived so highly in public consciousness so as to appear untouchable. It’s like they’re not in the same league as other marques - they’re on such an aspirational plateau of admiration, integrity and trust that they feel irreproachable.
Rolls Royce, Nike, Apple, Perrier Jouet, Breitling, Selfridges, Domino’s and Coca-Cola. These belong in the Champions League of brands. And like their footballing counterparts, they’ve had to invest significantly, often over several decades, in order to build and maintain their authority and, as such, their value. All of these attributes manifest as the trust they’ve gained and maintained from long term and highly profitable customers. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship in the truest sense.
There are several tiers below these superstars. At Premiership level you’d probably play Tesla, adidas, Intel, Veuve Clicquot, Rolex, Liberty, McDonald’s and Red Bull, amongst others.
Beyond them, ever less aspirational planes exist until you get down to the real dross in the Conference division. Think fast fashion ethics-killer Shein, or JD Sports (Ryanair was relegated to a park kickabout long ago). Nobody ever actually trusts brands at this level - relationships are entirely based on price, and as such are extremely disposable.
Earning your way into the upper echelons of the brand hierarchy is not only costly, but also a time consuming endeavour. Very few entities outside the Chat GPTs of this world achieve global fame without patience and significantly deep pockets. Equally, most of us long-term marketers know (all too well) that brand spends are one of the first things on the CEO’s chopping block when times get tough. The fact that this continues to happen when there’s so much readily available evidence to suggest that this is always a monumental mistake defies all logic and reason.
“Who are they?” I sense you asking.
Equally, pools of infinite cash won’t buy you credibility and long-term success. Consider Dubai, Virgin Orbit, Google Glass or Yahoo. A mix of hubris, distasteful socio-cultural practices, a foggy crystal ball or sheer stupidity sunk or derailed these and many more like them, despite an infinite cheque book.
Which brings me, in a long winded way, to the point of this article. To share three recent instances in which supposedly rock solid, wholemeal, premium and high profile brands let me down, to the extent that it’s unlikely I’ll ever deal with them again and worse - I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen (including you) that they shouldn’t touch them with a proverbial bargepole.
First up, Disney. Or rather their on-demand offshoot, Disney+. Any parent with kids under ten will know the emotional entrapment with which this cartoon behemoth has ensnared their monthly direct debit payment. You just have to have it if you want any semblance of peace at home or on long car journeys.
“So be it” I thought. Until our account was hacked by someone in Mexico who changed all the permissions and started building profiles of their own. I spoke to Disney’s clueless customer service department at length who told me to log out of every device and change all passwords. Or become painfully well-acquainted with the life’s work of Guillermo del Toro.
A month later, we were hacked again by somebody in Hungary who at least had the good grace to watch cartoons, one imagines with their kids. Then last week it happened once more, this time by a militant Spaniard who, on realising they’d been rumbled (we deleted their profile) created another, using the name to send a message:-
“Me cago en tus muertos pisoteaos”
Quite how they expected me to ‘...shit on my trampled dead’ I’ve no idea, but what I am clear on is that my four year old knows more about cyber security than the $183 Billion market cap monster that is Disney.
Next on the shit list is a posh London estate agency, which must remain nameless for legal reasons. No, I can’t tell you. Not even a hint. I mustn’t. (It’s not SnotFox).
We’d rented our London place through them, assuming we’d get a high calibre tenant off our high calibre agent.
Our supposedly Scandinavian tenants turned out to be a Jordanian and his French girlfriend who repeatedly sublet the property through Airbnb. Worse, this invalidated the buildings insurance, so we started eviction proceedings. Being seasoned pros, the pair were clued up on property rental law, unlike the pointy-shoe wearing, sunbed-bothering twats from the agents who floundered, bluffed and blagged it before giving up entirely. When it came time to pay the piper, they brought out a copy and pasted denial, which is hard to do when our lawyer found that the tenant (having sailed through the agents’ frankly abysmal due diligence process) was listed at Companies House in relation to over nine thousand fraudulent companies. The case continues…
Finally, and most tragically, I give you the formerly vibrant city of San Francisco.
“That’s not a brand!” you might holler. But it absolutely is - all cities looking for tourist Dollars are - which is why you dream of going to Paris for a romantic weekend, and not Basingstoke.
I visited San Fran for a five day games conference a few weeks’ ago. We stayed on Market Street in the Tenderloin district, which was a mistake. Of gargantuan proportions.
The CBD around Market Street had already suffered an influx of drug addicts before Covid, but the exodus of workers during lockdown and the city council’s apparent apathy meant that the place is now a modern day Gomorroh. Hundreds of zombie-like users bristle in every doorway, bent double in unconscious - or sometimes very conscious - ingestion. Excrement littered the pavement and violence was manifest at all hours of the day.
It wasn’t just scary and unpleasant - it was deeply sad and affecting.
The American Dream is commonly known to be unattainable nonsense, with the 1% preaching opportunity whilst keeping their feet firmly on the heads of the 99. Taxes, pharma drugs, a fetishistic interest in automatic weaponry and a healthcare system that makes Medieval London look like a health spa have crushed cities across the USA, and San Fran is a poster child of this sordid decay.
The famous Golden Gate bridge now holds even greater significance as one of the quickest escape routes from this peninsula of abject dejection.
Well-off consumers are happy to pay more for premium brands because their expectations are greater and anticipation of a quality product or service is assumed. Conversely, if they're let down by a trusted brand, the disappointment and ensuing negative sentiment will tend to be more dramatic and absolute, a status quo supported by Chris Christoff, who neatly summarised the predicament: -
“...building trust takes time, but losing trust takes one poor decision”.
Brands that are prepared to sacrifice years of investment and effort for short term gain when letting customers down will find themselves in for a rude awakening. It really doesn’t take much degradation of service for a consumer’s trust to be eroded entirely, and this directly correlates to a loss on the bottom line.
According to a 2022 research report by Salsify, 46% of consumers are willing to pay more to buy from a brand they trust and PWC’s 2021 ‘Trust in US Business Survey’ report went even further:-
“...71% of respondents said they would buy less from a business that lost their trust. Out of that, 73% said they would spend significantly less”.
For premium brands with higher cost per acquisition and significantly higher customer lifetime values, the pain of losing a customer is even more pronounced. For you premium brand marketers out there, I can’t emphasise this enough: -
IF YOU MAKE A BRAND PROMISE, THEN YOU UNEQUIVOCALLY MUST KEEP IT.
Every time you don’t, the ripples from the ensuing tsunami of distrust (and subsequent monetary losses) will flow in underground, unattributable waves, washing over your potential target audience - namely, the peers of those you fucked over. It’s the brand butterfly effect - chaos theory for negative empathy. Your only reassurance will be that you’ll never know how much damage you’ve done which, perhaps, is why some marketers choose to cut such corners in the first place.
For the likes of the posh estate agency (OK, OK - it’s not Knight Frank. And it starts with an ‘S’) and Disney, my negative experiences could well be solitary outliers, but even if (as I suspect) they’re not, their path to redemption would be extremely feasible with focus in the right areas and a behavioural reboot from the top down.
I worry that the San Fran brand is already too deep in the mire and long past saving.
Harry Lang is the VP of Marketing at Kwalee, the UK’s biggest mobile and PC Console games developer and publisher. In 2021 he published ‘Brands, Bandwagons & Bullshit’, a guidebook for young marketers and professionals wanting to understand how marketing, advertising, media and PR works. You can find him at @MrHarryLang and connect with him on LinkedIn.