United's recent debacle with forcibly removing a passenger from a flight to make room for its staff is a shining example of brand suicide.
The juxtaposition between United's extensive advertising being "The Friendly Skies" and the image of a beaten, bloodied passenger being dragged down the aisle off the plane couldn't be more stark. People will always see your brand not as what you say, but what you do.
Brands are the collection of experiences a customer has and hears about a company and its products or services. No amount of advertising can effectively overcome a bad or disconnected experience. At it's worst, United lost nearly a billion dollars of its market capitalization after the incident, and rightfully so. If the airline recovers from this -- and it likely will due to the stranglehold the airline holds on gates and flight routes -- it will cost the company dearly in marketing dollars, frantic internal efforts, forced discounting of fares, and lost customers and partnerships.
Don't let this happen to you. If you want your brand to be perceived a certain way, you must make sure that the values you espouse through advertising and communications is what your customers, partners, and employees live every day:
Evaluate your brand's manners, and make all your leaders do the same
If a brand is a collection of customer experiences, then the most important thing you can do is put yourself in your customer's shoes. In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos used to shop on the site every day, and used his experience to drive constant improvement at the company. Take his cue by being your own most loyal customer (and make your leadership all do it to); go buy your own products or services, call into your customer service, look for opportunities to see your customer's experience firsthand when things go wrong. If your brand's manners don't match your values and company positioning, it's time to drive change!
Change your culture to reflect your brand values.
If your brand and company behaviors are at odds with each other (usually seen quickly if your brand's manners don't align), you need to change your culture. This cannot be done through marketing platitudes and carefully crafted "mission statements" plastered on workplace walls. This is done via compensation, promotion and recognition. Reward the behaviors that create the right customer experience, and ruthlessly hold back promotions and salary increases to those who create the wrong experience. And, just as importantly, as leadership you need to follow the golden rule, too; treat your employees the way you want them to treat your customers. Companies that treat their employees with respect will end up with employees who treat customers with respect. It's that simple.
Say what you mean and mean what you say
Marketing departments can be quick to release messages that don't reflect what their brand really stands for. Crafting marketing messages that are aspirational or reflect who you are most days is good. But if your employees or customers chuckle or roll their eyes when they see your ad campaign -- as anyone who has flown United thought when they see the "Friendly Skies" campaign -- you are just teaching your company that they can do whatever they like and marketing will try to cover it up. Internal and external communications should be nearly identical because you actually mean what you say--inside and outside the company and even when others are not looking.
If things do go wrong, and a customer has an experience that doesn't reflect the values you want to be known for, own it and put out a thoughtful, heartfelt apology. Everybody makes mistakes, and every company will, too. In this case, United didn't issue a real apology for 2 days, and then only after being forced to after an internal communication made the company look heartless.
"I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight, and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard," United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz finally said in a statement.
"Publicity stunt." "Fake apology," blasted the reader comments below the story. By the time this unconditional apology came, everybody already knew that United had lost a bundle in market value. A heartfelt apology made immediately could have limited the harm to their brand and position in the market, but United missed that opportunity.
With Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and countless more social media outlets, consumers--and anyone witnessing their distress with an iPhone camera--has incredible power. Your brand is under constant scrutiny by empowered customers, and they have incredibly loud megaphones if you get something wrong. Protect your brand through the experience you create and your marketing will be focused on amplifying a strong brand as opposed to trying to recover a damaged one. That creates value for everyone.