I’m out on vacation this week. The keys to TheKmiecs.com have been turned over to a few, select, awesome guest writers. The following has not been edited by me and is the work and effort of the original author. I appreciate the time and thinking that went into this post and hope you will too. Enjoy!
In April 1985, the management of Coca-Cola announced a decision to change the flavor of its flagship brand. New Coke came in a new can, with updated red and silver graphics replacing the traditional red and white look. The rest is history: a large public outcry ensued and after 79 days the new was replaced with the old. This was 24 years ago. Now imagine what would happen if Coke would do the same in today’s world: Just like David Neeleman from JetBlue Coke’s management would have to apologize on any radio and TV station that wanted to hear from them. Just like Starbucks, they would have to create a newcokeidea.com. Just like Comcast, Coke would have to create @newcokecares. And just like many brands experienced, the public flogging would have been merciless, constant and extremely painful.
While we always ask brands to experiment and test, we have a schizophrenic relationship to mistakes: Deeply outraged and always ready to forgive. Mistakes happen in the land of endless possibilities all the time; the cultural mix is just too volatile. Everybody has to deal with the limits of political correctness, limits that continue to change and evolve. But, beware: if you cross that line of good behavior, taste and decent business practices, you better be prepared to present yourself as a shameful sinner.
The public expects the spectacle of admission and asking for forgiveness from the sinner. Just like a dog, craning his head away to display submission, it’s a spectacle that doesn’t change anything about the balance of power – but it’s a double dose of Valium for our religion-based psyche, asking for salvation that supposedly lurks around the corner. There’s a reason why self-help books were invented in the United States.
Fossils like Nixon or Rumsfeld didn’t get it when they proclaimed not to be crooks or didn’t admit any mistakes. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, remains one of the most popular Presidents, even though he lied about his affair until he finally asked for forgiveness. When you mess up, book yourself on Larry King and claim to be a changed person. As long as you’re not a heinous racist, people will forgive the poor sinner. Or better, the rich sinner.
Add to that a crumbling infrastructure and an economy constructed out of weak intellectual constructs based upon unproven theories. While advertising continues to showcase a perfect world, people have to deal with imperfect products and service. Europeans or Japanese wouldn’t put up with this for long. But we do. Piecemealing needs a lot of patience:
In my almost 30 years in Europe, I never experienced one blackout. Living in Los Angeles, we had at least 30 since I moved here. Phone companies that don’t show up for hours. Contractors that leave ruins behind. Customer Service agents barely able to speak English. Electronics that need to be returned to the store, just to malfunction again. And, at the end, agents ask you “Did we serve you well today?” Even though the answer is “Hell, no.”, the ritual remains the same.
The throwaway culture is so deeply ingrained that we don’t mind if a $300 camera stops working after 3 months. We just get a new one.
Just have a close look at contractors: There are no real standards, no training, no real foundation to be proud of your work. You can visit super-expensive homes and see shoddy craftsmanship when it comes to details. Such a tolerance for poor work standards allow for immense creativity when everything works out well. When it doesn’t, we always have this new tool of Web 2.0. Every time I go to Best Buy, I have a bad, bad, bad experience. But the Twitter existence of @bestbuycmo and my few exchanges with him lulls me into this idea that they really care. And they want to change. Or is it just enough to show the public that you’re reacting to criticism and we use this reaction as a Xanax to calm our anger? Sure, it’s nice that @richardbranson is on Twitter but he never answered any of my tweets when I asked him about the poor website experience that lead to a missed sale for Virgin Atlantic. And don’t get me started on Virgin’s Customer Avoidance program.
The advent of the Internet and especially Social Marketing tools have fundamentally changed the way brands deal with mistakes (Or issues, as the PR person loves to say.) But, in some ways, we have retreated to life in the Middle Ages: Public pillorying continues to thrive in the new marketing reality. Just ask Motrin. Or better, ask @scottmonty. He was one of the latest victims in a discussion about the usage of his private brand to shill ( I mean, work the Social Marketing angle) for Ford. @chrisbrogan had to deal with a lot of backlash for his Kmart promotion (And, yes,, I was one of many who thought he might have gone too far.) And, @keyinfluencer was treated as the second coming of Hitler when he made a stupid remark upon his arrival in Memphis. Everything brands and people do is inspected, dissected and torn apart. Everything is public now: your location on Google Latitude, your deepest secrets on @secrettweet and your beer pong pictures on Facebook that will cost you a job offer in the near future.
We are stumbling through this new reality, enabled by technology and embracing David Armano’s brilliant statement of “Always in beta.” It’s a mindset based in Silicone Valley where you start a company yesterday, go bankrupt today and start something new tomorrow.
Just look at startups: slap a ‘Beta’ on your site and when you have a bad user experience, point back to the beta sign and explain that it’s half-baked now but will be perfect at some unknown time. (Translated: never)And crowdsource the user to eliminate those bad experiences because the user knows better than anyone in the company anyway.
This mindset might have worked in the good times, it sure doesn’t work in recessionary times. Trust me, real life doesn’t have any beta. Failure is not an option when you have a family to feed. A mortgage to pay. This ideal of ‘Always in beta’ is the perfect mindset for Silicon Valley. But it’s a mindset that doesn’t connect with the majority of America.
However, this experimentation thing we work through every day has a huge effect on our lives: People are getting used to trying out things that are not ready for public consumption yet, things that don’t claim to be perfect. The idea of making mistakes because it is part of the process starts to become very common and a typical mindset in executive suites.
Just look at our economy: Nobody really knows what to do during the current crisis but, besides the dopes on CNBC, we’re okay as a country when Obama’s economic team tries out things nobody has ever done before. And, while we’re at it, let’s throw up www.recovery.org and make sure Obama joins the conversation soon to get a Twitter ovation that the government is right there with us. Hey, if it doesn’t work, somebody will come up with a new theory and we’ll try that again. Will real people are suffering, losing their houses and hope.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big believer in the power of Social Marketing. I believe that traditional, one-way advertising is destined to fail in this new technology reality. But I want to see real change, not Twitter band-aids, I’m not interested to live in a Doritos world where amateurs are crowdsourced to be the advertising monkeys of big brands. Or Starbucks claiming to allow their customers to be part of the solution. And offer Folgers-style coffee 2 months later. All these crowdsourcing efforts push the responsibility for finding and mitigating mistakes to consumers. While, at the same time, decisions continue to be made top-down.
Let’s continue experimentation and testing, we desperately need it. But, at the same time, let’s build something solid and durable. Something that will stand the test of time and not crumble under pressure. That’s my biggest concern with the Kmart and SeaWorld experiments: They are just stopgaps. Nothing more. They don’t move us along to a new marketing reality where people are real participants and brands really listen and take people seriously.
Brands and fellow government, we do believe in the audacity of hope. We do think there’s change possible we can believe in. But, don’t use these tools to fool us again. To make us believe into this new world where we have a say and are part of the process. Just to be left out again.
We won’t be fooled again.
Uwe Hook is a Social Marketing non-expert who blogs at conversationagency.wordpress.com and twitters at @convagency