Dealing with negative brand images

The scenario: You’re attending a major trade show, riding in an elevator with several people you don’t know, when one of them starts talking about your company, Yurco.

First guy: I ran into Bill Johnson with Yurco this afternoon.

Second guy: Yurco? Bill Johnson is with Yurco? When did that happen?

First guy: He just joined them several months ago. I’m not sure how long it’s going to last, though.

Second guy: How come?

First guy: Well, Yurco is always low-balling contracts. Then they stick it to you with special fees and add-ons. That’s really not Bill’s style.

Second guy: You got that right. I’ve also heard their quality’s not the best.

First guy: Yeah, it’s too bad a classy guy like Bill would get caught up in all that.

As a new product manager for Yurco, your first inclination is to set these guys straight, but unfortunately the problem runs much deeper than that. In this case, Bill Johnson’s brand image is a lot better than the company he now represents.

Your perception is that Yurco pursues an aggressive pricing strategy. Theirs is low-balling.

Your perception is fit-for-purpose product quality. Theirs is shoddy workmanship.

Your perception is that Bill Johnson is proud to work for Yurco. Theirs is that Bill has fallen on hard times.

Brand images create customer expectations and, as we see in this example, expectations are not always positive. Yurco may have a catalog full of useful products, a customer service department second to none and a content-rich Web site with lots of e-business features that make it easy for customers to do business with the company.

Unfortunately, these customers are stuck on a brand image that gives them entirely different expectations. They expect your company to play fast and loose with contract proposals. They expect marginal product quality. They also expect that Bill Johnson won’t stay long with Yurco.

Yurco can launch the most creative and expensive brand-image advertising program in the history of business, and it won’t have much effect in this situation unless the company addresses its pricing and product quality issues. Yurco can boast of the innovative features of its latest products. Executives can talk about services and solutions and problem-solving until they’re blue in the face. None of these appeals will be properly received until they face the harsh reality of the existing negative image.

Many marketing managers live in denial when it comes to brand images. They’ve recited their 25-word “what we do” features and benefits pitch so many times, they believe it must be true. It never occurs to them that customers are totally unable or unwilling to recite a similar pitch when playing back a description of the company.

This is the reason I dislike mission or vision statements so much: The vast majority are totally unrealistic. Not only is it impossible for companies to actually be all the things they claim to be, but more importantly, customers will never give you credit for anything remotely close to that.

And when was the last time you saw a mission statement that addressed a weakness or negative issue? This obviously goes against the code of United Mission Statement Writers International.

In the case of Yurco, customer concerns about deceptive pricing policies and subpar product quality must be placed at the top of their to-do list before the company can move on to more esoteric branding goals.

Several years ago, I was working with a large oil field equipment company that had hired a leading research firm to do a customer satisfaction survey. We were sitting in the spacious, wood-paneled main conference room with all its elegant furnishings and satellite conferencing equipment, listening to the head of the research firm go through the survey findings when he got to a customer concern about how hard the company was to deal with.

“Arrogant” was a word that kept coming up. “Bureaucratic” was another one. “Inaccessible top management” was a third descriptor. Even though customers acknowledged that the company’s products were the highest quality in the industry and its reputation for innovative technology was unsurpassed, the company was losing market share. Several multimillion-dollar orders had recently been lost to competitors.

And here was a respected oil-industry researcher, a man to whom this company had paid many tens of thousands of dollars, telling them about a serious problem and they were dismissing it as insignificant. Their general reaction was, “We’ve heard this before. This is the typical thing people say about market leaders.”

Maybe it’s what they say about ex-market leaders. If you’re aware of negative image issues and your branding program fails to put those concerns at the top of the list of things to worry about, you can expect the situation to only get worse.

When crafting your next brand personality statement, maybe you should consider a “personality makeover” statement instead. It could be the first step to a totally new Yurco.

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