From Brand Hate to Brand Love

I just finished reading an article in FAST COMPANY about Ticketmaster, the World’s Most Hated Brand (July/August, 2011). And while that distinction is debatable, CEO Nathan Hubbard didn’t disagree with it very much. It seems that years of slow service and inflexible systems have generated strong consumer dislike for Ticketmaster.

“If Ticketmaster were a person,” one person tweeted, “I’d kick it in the f**king face.” And other stuff like that.

When you think about it, there are many hated brands out there. Who doesn’t have a horror story about the cable company or your wireless provider?

Banks are a popular subject of hatred these days, thanks to our multi-trillion dollar stimulus program that made them healthy and able to pay themselves huge bonuses again – while they turn their backs on small business owners who desperately need investment funds to expand and create jobs. I’m amused by Ally Bank’s ad campaign parodying abusive bank practices while they pretend to be different. Efforts like that usually only remind viewers how all banks are abhorrent.

Some brand hatred scenarios are temporary or limited to small segments of the population. I was recently surprised how many well-educated, financially successful people in my inner-city neighborhood rose as one to register their hatred for Wal-Mart when the retailing giant announced plans to locate a store not too far away.

And it’s easy for an otherwise respected company to become the subject of passionate, vitriolic loud and ugly protest when it makes an environmental false step. You don’t want to get the tree-huggers riled up.

So what should you do when you find your brand love turning into brand hate? Here are a few suggestions to help steer the ship back into safe harbor.

1. Quantify the problem

Do some basic research to find out how widespread the problems are, and hopefully identify the key issues. Don’t assume from anecdotal information that you know how deeply rooted the consumer issues are. Look for underlying causes and segment your study so you can determine if the problems are widespread or limited to certain groups.

If there are multiple problems, prioritize them and determine which ones need attention first.

2. Develop solutions

In some cases the solutions are obvious. You make a slow process faster. You give the buyer more options before they buy. You provide “insurance” if the buyer decides to back out.

For bigger issues, like those related to the environment, you provide facts that help people understand the whole picture. You make sure they know about things you are doing to minimize the impact or improve the quality of life for those affected.

Wal-Mart is dealing with their urban penetration problem with some creative new strategies involving smaller footprint stores with more attractive facades. From the 195,000 square foot Super Center behemoth, to the 42,000 SF Neighborhood Markets and the newer 15,000 SF “Marketside” concept stores emphasizing fresh foods, Wal-Mart is attempting to serve inner-city customers with smaller stores that stand out less obtrusively.

In other cases where the issues are more complex and solutions less obvious, you invite interested parties to participate in the discussion. You establish forums for open debate and sharing of ideas. You become transparent.

3. Spread the word

Once you’ve identified the problems and started the process of developing solutions, you get the word out that changes are underway. Everyone knew that’s what BP was doing after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but there’s no denying their television commercials helped soften the blow of negative opinion along the Gulf coast.

Social media has given millions of Twitter and Facebook users a platform to vent their unhappiness, but it also offers the opportunity to spread the news about service and facility improvements.

The worst thing a brand owner can do when faced with mounting negative attitudes is ignore the complaints. The old saying, “Their perception is your reality” applies more now than ever. If customers think you have a problem, you do. And the sooner you start fixing it, the better.

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