The Opposite Of A Brand Advocate

I conducted a piece of brand research a couple of years ago, which dared to raise a question few people in marketing ever ask; “are there any brands out there that you would refuse to buy, at any price?”

The answer, at the time, was an unqualified ‘yes’! It was remarkable how many markets and brands were deemed toxic by consumers, many of them in the services sector. These were spontaneous outpourings of rage – we just gave them time to get it out of their system. There were many numerous examples of poor, almost non-existent customer service, especially at those times when customers are most in need; when the technology goes wrong.

There are several brands already banished from the Brennan household, mainly due to the above complaint, but my recent Escher-esque dealings with Microsoft have resulted in an addition to the toxic brand gang. I won’t bore you with the details, but it consists of many failed attempts to re-access a closed hotmail account (bloody hackers!) leading to a constant loop around the message boards for a solution. At least I knew I was not alone; endless exhortations to the God of Inaccessible Alternate Email Accounts came from around the globe, with not a single answer to pacify them. It has been more trouble than it has been worth, so I’ve just opened a Google account instead.

But it’s refocused my attention on the problem of toxic brands because, sure as eggs is eggs, if I asked that same question today, there would be even more candidates across even more markets. In fact, I would bet good money that the number of brands spontaneously placed in the toxic category would outweigh those in the ‘buy at any price’ equivalent.

Which is odd, really, because the industry spends so much money on the latter. One of the myths of social marketing is that brand advocates will lead the way, spreading the good word in a way that paid-for media could never achieve. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that people with a grievance outshout the satisfied every time. Try it the next time you’re at a dinner party and the conversation has dried up. Ask the question “are there any brands out there that you would refuse to buy, at any price?” and listen to the grievances pour out. There will be no more awkward silences, I can promise you.

So why isn’t more invested into the opposite-of-advocates (see, they haven’t even got a recognised name)?  I believe their existence is a failure of marketing and a challenge for media planning – after all, why try to reach them? But it is largely due to the increasingly digital mindset of technology-led services. I explore this whole issue of digital vs. analogue mindsets in my new book (shameless plug[i]), focussing on the enduring ‘analogue’ strengths of TV, but the digital vs. analogue paradigm extends across the marketing spectrum.

For many digital-mindset brands, it is virtually impossible to speak to or even email a real human being representing the company. As a consumer, your key interaction with the brand – when you most need them – will all too often result in an online infinity loop or, at best, a highly scripted, often surreal interaction with what may or may not be a real human voice. There is little room in either ‘brand experience’ for analogue qualities such as ‘common sense’, empathy or lateral thinking. As such, the services industry often struggles to match branding promises against the reality of faceless, commoditised, unresponsive CRM based on algorithms, efficiency and ‘hands-off’ customer servicing.

There are technology-based brands that get it, and these are often what I would call analogue-mindset businesses. Companies like Apple and Sky are far more customer-focussed, responsive and…well, just a bit more human in how they interact with their customers. All of the latest insights emerging from neuroscience, cognitive psychology and behavioural economics have opened our eyes to what those analogue qualities are worth in business terms, and I’m surprised that so many technology brands have failed to grasp that fact.

It’s interesting that I’ve just mentioned two brands with more than their fair share of brand advocates, but they are also two brands that rarely get mentioned when the ‘toxic brand’ question is asked. But then the question itself rarely gets asked in the rush for Facebook ‘likes’ and brand champions.

In the meantime, I’d suggest a bit more focus on the ‘opposite-of-advocates’ would yield a great deal more in the way of business performance. If you want to find out who they are, or how strongly they feel, just ask that question at your next dinner party. Then lean back and listen to the roar. You might not get invited back, but you’ll be much better informed.

 


[i] CONNECTED TELEVISION – How TV’s Analogue Strengths Have Created a Digital Supermedium’