When Companies Start Lying to their Customers

(Shortlink to this post: http://wp.me/pbfMz-deLTw)

Imagine one of those great startups of the past. With a charismatic founder; a purpose; lots of passion; and a culture energized by being different from the old, big established incumbents. The company struck a nerve and grew. Its customers weren’t just consumers but followers. And then comes the day, maybe not necessarily but highly likely at least: it sells out to one of those giants who used to be the enemy. While everybody is still dumbstruck by the founder’s confession that he wants to “pursue other things in life”, they now have to quickly convince everybody – employees, customers, retailers – that everything will be the same, only better.
There are many ways to weave a story around such a rupture in a brand’s biography. But we would probably all agree that there’s no denying it.
So when I recently met the marketing team of a brand with one of these broken bios, I was baffled to hear that they try everything to hide from their customers the fact that they belong to a giant multi-brand conglomerate. You’re lying to your customers, I said. Which they vigorously denied, understandably, pointing out that they just don’t want to stick it into everyone’s face; that it’s irrelevant for their customers because it doesn’t affect their products; and that the facts are out there on the web for anyone to verify – just not on their website.
I found that they are undermining the basis of trust for their customers and jeopardizing their organization’s mental health, driving everyone into a reality denial mode and catatonic nostalghia. But I didn’t want to push them into the defense even more. So I suggested, constructively I thought, to use social media to get closer in touch with their customer base and learn how religious they really are about the ‘old’ heritage and values of their brand. No, they said, we just don’t want to discuss this matter in public. –
Every human being does and experiences things in her life that don’t fit in a linear biography. The same applies to brands. Like scars, they’re often what makes us interesting in the end. But we have to accept them. And often we later have to admit that they’re the best that happened in our life …

UPDATE: No, I can’t let it end that way …

I want to be constructive now:

When executives start lying to their customers it’s usually out of fear. Long time buyers might not understand or dislike what happens and switch to a different brand next time. But this risk is largely overestimated:

  1. Your truly loyal customers will not switch so easily. Their loyalty has a reason, after all. Usually it is that for their needs your product delivers superior satisfaction. So they won’t switch but put you on probation. If you prove that you can continue to deliver good product, they’re able to make their peace with a lot of change.
  2. Less than truly loyal customers fluctuate in and out of your brand for many reasons. But they simply don’t care enough to justify bending the truth for their sake.
  3. No, it will never be like before. The emotional attachment will cool down a bit. But you have an opportunity to win them anew – and others. If you can find a positive view on the future under the new circumstances, you’re likely to convince your customers, too. If you can’t, you have to work harder to get yourself out of the spiral of negativity; or quit.
  4. Your professional self may tell you that it’s ok and, “well, only professional” to put your company and brand  in the best possible light and leave less popular facts in the shade. But your heart knows very well when you cross the line between truth and dishonesty. And now, more than ever, you shouldn’t do it. Because what can be dragged into light will be.
  5. Even euphemism is corrosive. For your moral and mental health, but for your brand as well. For today’s media literate consumers, there’s nothing more suspicious than looking at constant flow of good news. A mix of good and bad news is much more likely in reality and therefore more credible. Bad news are the proof of honesty. And without honesty, there’s no trust. So, pull down the boring Caribbean sunset wallpaper and try the dirty, incosistent, human living truth.

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