Bruce Philp has expanded and updated this piece. See Addendum below.
You’d think Josh came straight from central casting. Josh was our first Lyft driver on a recent trip to L.A. By day, we learned, he was a tech entrepreneur and surfed whenever he could (naturally). Josh was somehow exactly who we’d expected: the American ride-sharing brand’s laid-back, cloyingly friendly personality incarnate. The same was true for Brad, whose apartment we rented on Airbnb. Brad’s winsome smile beamed out at us from the company’s cheerful website like a long-lost friend. Although we never actually met Brad, his earnest story and keen use of exclamation marks convinced us we weren’t going to be murdered in our sleep. Lately, it seems, everybody with something to sell adopts a variation on this same chipper persona. Welcome to the age of the micro-brand.
It was both inevitable and amazing how naturally people in the peer-to-peer economy mastered the tools of branding to make themselves seem more trustworthy and interesting, but the strategy is not confined to the “sharing economy.” Think about how reassured you were by the avuncular handyman who helped you find toilet parts at Home Depot or the emo-haired barista who conspiratorially called you “man” when handing you your skinny latte at Starbucks, and it becomes clear that there is something more fundamental at work here. For marketers, the role of service people is evolving way past being cogs in a business model. Now, like it or not, they’re affirmations of your brand.
That may seem like a lot to ask of a surfing tech entrepreneur or a grizzled Mr. Fixit, but for many marketers this dependency is becoming unavoidable. To understand why, consider just how fragile brands have become in recent years. For one thing, consumers are now more likely to have figured out a brand by piecing together scraps of evidence they gathered on their own than to have learned about it from advertising. That means they’ve only surmised what you stand for and are warily seeking confirmation. For another, meaningful product differences have become tiny and fleeting in a lot of categories. In many cases, brands aren’t promises of performance anymore—they’re consensual fantasies. And they’re most delicate in that all-important moment just before the money changes hands.
For any business in which a human is the final point of contact before a transaction, this means marketing and HR need to be very close friends. Much has been written about the connection between corporate culture and branding, and it should be thunderingly obvious by now that hiring people who don’t share a company’s values is, in the long run, a recipe for disaster. It’s hard to imagine a more brand-damaging moment than glimpsing behind the bouncy, happy mask of marketing to find a surly wage slave counting the minutes until his next smoke break (I’m looking at you, airlines).
But the time may have come to let front-line people be more than that. We used to think all we needed from those on the parapets was to be efficient and not screw up our brilliant marketing; now their own personalities might very well be significant marketing assets. Consumers are becoming sophisticated enough to understand that hiring interesting people says good things about a company. And letting those people be themselves only enriches and authenticates the experience of the brand—provided the company hired the right sort of people in the first place. I’m mostly unmoved by the “we appreciate your business” bromides droning from the cockpit. But it made my day when the Genius who replaced my iPhone battery said, “Whoa, dude, this phone is in sweet shape. Is all your stuff this nice?”
That’s because I wasn’t just there to solve a problem. Whether either of us realized it, I also wanted to be right. I wanted to not feel like a fool now that they had my money. That’s all anybody wants from a brand, in the end. And sometimes no amount of corporate rhetoric can come close to the comfort of being called “dude,” especially if it’s unscripted.
A couple of weeks after I filed this piece, one marketer found the limits of making front line people part of the brand experience, and the results were instructive.
I like Starbucks as a company. Whatever its flaws may be—and every company has them—few category-dominant consumer brands have been so willing to take a stand on social issues, and shoulder the risks that come with it. #RaceTogether was well intended. Confronting one of the most painful and complicated issues of our time, they set out to get people talking about race by having baristas write the hashtag on their cups, and then, when asked by customers what it meant, offer an essentially prescribed three-point response To put it mildly, it was not a success. Instead of talking about race, the Internet buzzed about a corporation that had turned its staff into mouthpieces and provoked customers on a subject that seemed too serious for that place and time.
The Internet can be cruel. But in this case, at least some opprobrium was warranted. I think Starbucks’ mistake was not so much in raising the subject of race, but in being too presumptuous about its moral authority and too controlling about how these conversations would go. I have to wonder if #RaceTogether would have made its point better by trusting the front line people in whom they’ve invested so much. If participation was voluntary, and the interaction allowed to be more personal. If it had all been less of a managed event, and more of a glimpse of the company’s values through the kinds of people it hires.
That was surely the experience of passengers on a Germanwings flight from Hamburg to Cologne the day after the airline’s tragedy in the Alps. Reportedly, the pilot greeted each passenger personally, and then, before taking off, made an impromptu speech standing before a hushed cabin. He told them that the crew had volunteered to fly this day, that they had families, too, and that he would do everything to make sure everyone on the plane would be with their families that night. “He understood what everybody was thinking,” wrote a passenger who posted the incident on Facebook. You can’t script good people. But when it really counts, you don’t have to.
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