By default and not by design, I start this column with some examples from the aviation industry and its love-hate relationship with customers.
Recently, a much-lauded airlines CEO made news by reacting to an angry tweet by a senior journalist, who had a bad experience with the airline. He was forthcoming and apologized for the shortfall in service. It was refreshing to see such alacrity in response (within three hours). Some time back, there was the infamous incident when a well-known actor from the Hindi Film Industry was frisked and ‘harassed’ at an airport in the US; or the recent incident when British Airlines asked for Sachin’s Tendulkar’s surname to track his lost baggage. In almost all these cases, the mainstream media broke into frenzy after such reports went viral on social media. The overwhelming response was-- How could this happen to our celebs? How dare they insult our ‘gods’?
The pattern in all these cases is the interaction between an entitled influencer and an affected brand; an influencer who is a key stakeholder not by dint of higher consumption of the brand. The question remains –why would this response be reserved only for a superb influencer or would the CEO of the airline have engaged with any consumer in a similar vein. A cursory look at the CEO’s Twitter timeline did not reveal any other interaction, save quite a few retweets lauding the airline’s service.
Importance of same brand promise
This brings me to the core of the issue. While stakeholder management is carefully crafted on a 2x2 matrix with importance and power on both axis, and has details on crafting a message and reinforcing the same x number of times to build powerful brand communication; the stakeholders that matter the most are both important and have requisite powers. These would be huge consumers of the said brand, regulatory authorities etc., and Influencers do not necessarily fall into this quadrant. I experienced a definite sense of schadenfreude, when I heard about the powers that be, experiencing the same hassles that regular folks go through almost regularly.
There are two elements to consistency as a core of your offering. One is to assuage existing consumers that the brand is ‘home’ –its familiar, the décor, the kind of music, the service etc. The other element is consistency; that has to do with Leadership, is the ability to engage with different stakeholders with the same brand promise. There are some leaders who practise the ancient art of ‘Kiss up and Kick down’, which is eerily similar to what we have seen in the above instances.
Stakeholder management as central brand premise
According to Robert Cialdini’s seminal book on Influence, “People prefer to say ‘yes’ to those they know and like.” People are also more likely to favour those who are physically attractive, similar to themselves, or who give them compliments. Even something as ‘random’ as having the same name as yours, increases the prospect of making a sale.
“One of the things that marketers can do is honestly report on the extent to which the product or service – or the people who are providing the product or service – are similar to the audience and know the audience’s challenges, preferences and so on,” Cialdini wonderfully states in his book.
There are blessedly good-looking people, who not only have swum successfully to the top of the gene pool, but are also perceived to have or possess a slightly higher degree of good qualities like kindness and the ability to inspire trust. This phenomenon is called the “Halo Effect”, but for others, one of the best ways to tilt that balance is to convey the feeling of sameness. This comes from sharing a pool of common experiences, and once anchors are built on these parameters, the bonds become strong. The commonality and consistency of these experiences lull the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the one that does critical thinking and analysis). This synaptic short cut ensures the consumer does not go through the entire decision making cycle all over again.
They ensure experiences that are congruent with their promise and make us experience the same set of emotions in dealing with different aspects of the brand experience –be it at the check in counter, the food that is being served aboard, the attention to detail etc.
The second and more troubling challenge, especially in a market like India, is the idea that -‘all consumers are equal, but some consumers are more equal’. As in the case of all the instances at the beginning of this article, I firmly believe in principles of stakeholder management as a central brand premise, which also implies that a more valuable consumer by dint of consumption is given preferential treatment, no challenges there. The flaw in the brand’s authenticity emerges when ‘celebrity’ influencers are accorded the same pandering attention.
Concept of Power Distance
There is a phenomenon called ‘Power Distance’. Power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. India scores high on this dimension-- 77, indicating an appreciation for hierarchy and a top-down structure in society and organizations. If one were to encapsulate the Indian attitude, one could use the following words and phrases, dependent on the boss or the power holder for direction, acceptance of un-equal rights between the power-privileged and those who are lesser down in the pecking order, immediate superiors accessible but one layer above less so.
The best way around this is to ensure that the delivered brand promise is already in accordance with your best in class practices so that every customer gets a superlative experience. It comes woefully short of a human experience where every consumer is not treated fair and square, just like everyone else.
I think the scene from the movie Ratatouille sums this up best. When a distinguished food critic Anton Ego drops into Auguste Gusteau’s restaurant, the sous chef Collette rallies the panic stricken troops saying--- ‘’Anton is just another customer, Let’s cook’’.