“Brand” has lots of definitions. Conveniently and not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between how a marketer defines “brand” and the kind of branding that that particular marketer happens to execute. I shall leave it to you decide if marketers hold to an approach because they believe in it, ferociously defend an approach because it’s the one they’ve been using, or a little of both.
But one important aspect of branding that most gurus tend to agree on is that a solid brand delivers a consistent, end-to-end customer experience. “End-to-end” is key. It means that at any point during a transaction a customer should be witnessing the brand’s standards in action.
Marketers usually focus on the front end. They use the traditional and interactive media to bring in new customers, bring back established ones, and make CEOs, board members and their respective spouses feel cozy about how their company looks.
The problem is that the back end — what happens to customers from the moment they show up in-person or online — usually falls under someone else’s control.
And not just one someone. In most companies, different lords rule over hiring and firing, store layout and maintenance, sign installation and maintenance, policy for handling returns and complaints, janitorial standards, inventory, phone etiquette, correspondence, order fulfillment, commission structures, discrimination and harassment policies, and more. Even worse, all too often such areas are controlled independently on a local, per-franchise or even per-store basis.
All of which can make delivering a consistent brand experience something of a challenge.
No wonder many an ad promises what a product or company in fact fails to deliver. If you have ever laughed aloud upon seeing a brand advertise “our courteous, trained professionals” and “our attractive, state-of-the-art facility” after one of their employees treated you like dirt or you found yourself wishing you’d remembered to wear your biohazard suit to their store, you know what I mean.
There are companies that pull off the end-to-end thing with aplomb. The brand everyone likes to celebrate for that — deservedly so — is Nordstrom. Their unfailing delivery of the brand promise built that reputation for them. Another celebrant is Apple, whose packaging is pure showmanship, and whose products emerge from a box ready to go. Both are per brand promise. Lesser known but amazing in their handling of the back end is Levenger. Products arrive assembled, expertly packaged, and backed by an insanely generous, no-weasel satisfaction guarantee. (Three years after purchasing a $300 attaché, a colleague inquired about replacing the shoulder strap which had a broken buckle. Replying that the strap wasn’t available separately, Levenger offered to replace the attaché or send a refund, sight unseen.)
Great ads and easy-to-navigate websites are important. But if they serve only as gateways to a disappointing experience, the result is a back-end fail.
Which, no matter whose area of responsibility it falls under, is ultimately a marketing fail.
If you’re a marketing director who knows about the holes in the back end but lacks the authority to plug them, I’m not sure what advice I can offer short of printing this post and hoping that the CEO doesn’t figure out that you’re the one who left it on her or his chair. But for those who have hole-plugging authority, consider this a friendly reminder to take a second look at the back end.