It’s hard to know for sure, but I suspect tens of thousands of people suffer brand damage every year. In some cases it’s a lingering condition that persists for years, slowly growing in intensity, and other times there’s a sudden onset of the condition. Symptoms can be mild or severe, but usually consist of changes in perception and deterioration of loyalty, which usually leads to long term changes in behavior, specifically a fundamental change in usage and purchasing behavior.
A brand is the sum of a great many parts. It doesn’t matter whether the brand applies to an automobile (composed of many parts) or a bottle of water (composed of just one ingredient). A brand might be built on image (think Gucci) or it can be based on pure functionality (think Super Glue). But across the board, a brand can be damaged when it disappoints a customer. That’s because customers pay good money for brands, and along with that monetary exchange comes a set of expectations. Those expectations are intertwined with the perception of the brand, and in most cases they form the core reason why that particular brand was chosen above all others.
I’m reminded of these facts by two instances of brand damage that I suffered this year. Neither is life threatening, but yet the damage to my perception is real. The first instance was with Frontier Airlines, an airline I admire and had flown for many years. In February I booked a trip 4 months in advance for a June flight with my wife. Five days before departure, I received an email saying the flight was being rescheduled and would now arrive at our destination 6 hours later than originally scheduled. This minor change caused a thorough disruption to birthday plans we had with our son. Booking an earlier flight was the obvious solution, but it turned out that particular route only flew once a day and only every other day. Other airlines had available schedules, but given the late notice, the ticket cost would be double. Then I found out the schedule change had actually been made around the time I purchased the ticket in February. The FAA requires passengers be informed within 48 hours of a schedule change, but my notification took 4 months.
My emailed complaint to Frontier produced this friendly reply 23 days after I submitted it:
“First please accept our sincere apology for the delay in our response. We are experiencing an unusually high volume of emails. Your concern has been escalated to a Customer Relations Specialist who will respond to you once their research has been completed.”
As of this writing, 5 months after submitting my issue to the airline, I’m still waiting for their response. So in this case, the brand has been damaged by poor communication and lack of follow-through with their customer.
I’ll cite one other example with a well-regarded brand. We began having unexpected shutdown problems with an Apple computer. Despite multiple communications with Apple tech service, it was a friend who finally diagnosed the problem as a bad computer chip that was subject to a product recall by Apple. We (the customer) ended up informing Apple what was causing the problem, and despite us having purchased their extended warranty, they refused to pay for the repair because we experienced the problem shortly after the extended warranty had expired. The cost of the repair wasn’t horrible ($340, and the guy at the Apple store was very nice), but never-the-less the customer felt cheated and the victim of a technicality.
Neither of these examples is earth shattering in terms of damage done, but they illustrate how years of positive brand perceptions can be put into question with a seemingly minor set of circumstances that adversely affect the customer. Small problems can certainly make a customer think twice when planning their next purchase decision. And as a result, the customer might not speak quite as highly about their previously favored brands, and if another brand seems to be offering a similar set of benefits, they’ll give the newcomer greater consideration than previously afforded. Once a user suffers brand damage, the scars can persist for quite some time.
In years past, people who sustained brand damage usually suffered in silence. But those days are gone because consumers now have a megaphone to loudly complain about the harm that was done to them. Whether it’s poor service from your cable company, tainted food products or car air bags that don’t inflate properly, a brand that let’s down its’ customers will be put on trial in the court of public opinion, which has lasting effect. On the other hand, minor improvements in customer service and communication can create positive ripples that grow exponentially toward the brand’s benefit.