Can Brands Be Too Honest?

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We certainly agree with the pundits that brands now operate in an environment characterized by relentless transparency.  No longer can brands create Potemkin Villages to conceal their true colors because it is so easy to find out what they are really like via the incessant and instantaneous commentary on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp (20+ million reviews alone), Amazon, EbayEpinions, Foursquare, GlassDoor, Google Places/MapsTrip Advisor, Yellowbot, et al.  Of course not all of the brand experiences detailed in cyberspace are bona fide with some brands endeavoring to conceal advertising as editorial by hyping their own products and services and others slagging off competitors with false negative reviews. Yet with sufficient numbers participating in the hurly-burly of debate, some semblance of the truth frequently emerges in the form of crowdsourced wisdom with outliers being either explicitly voted up or down a la Quora, or simply being relegated to the margins of consideration.

Yet has all of this transparency caused brands to become too revelatory and confessional?  Remember Netflix CEO Reed Hasting’s sincere, but ham-handed missive last fall announcing (since rescinded) that the company was splitting into two brands and introducing Qwikster? Just as we are not always completely forthcoming in our interpersonal interactions (NO! Those skinny jeans absolutely do not make you look fat!) should brands sometimes adopt the declaratory equivalent of soft focus in what they reveal to actually enhance customer experience and satisfaction?

Case in point: the siren song of exceptional client service has led us of late to frequent travel between BrandCulture HQ in Los Angeles and Atlanta.  This has allowed us to spend some quality time in the world’s busiest airport and aboard the planes of Delta Airlines (Delta dominates the LAX-ATL market as its 4th busiest route with over 900,000 passenger trips each year  — a point that has not been lost on Southwest, which is adding service starting in June).  One recent evening our ALT-LAX flight was oversold, but instead of bumping the extra passengers, Delta decided to swap the scheduled Boeing 767 for a larger Airbus A330-300.

                

So far . . . bravo!  After all 298 of us stowed our luggage and took our seats we waited  . . . and waited.  About forty minutes after our scheduled departure time, the captain explained that because the substituted plane was used primarily for overseas routes, they needed some additional time to conform the aircraft to domestic requirements.  Fair enough; we appreciated the update.  But then he continued that they were actually waiting more specifically for “oven inserts” that would allow the crew to prepare the hot dinner choices for the folks traveling up front.

                            

We’re sure this was welcome news for the 34 passengers who were to enjoy this repast, but if the 264 of us traveling in steerage had a vote, we’d suggest offering the high-flyers a sandwich along with canapes and cocktails as an appropriate substitute if it would shave a few hours off of our travel time. Had the captain simply left the explanation at “modifying the aircraft for domestic operation,” we would have never been the wiser as to the actual picayune (and infuriating!) reason for the delay, and traveled in blissful ignorance that Delta was doing all it could to assure all passengers that we would reach our destination safely and swiftly.

The first thing we learned in law school (a story for another day) was that a lawyer should never pose a question to which he or she does not want to know the answer.  Perhaps the brand-building corollary is that sometimes the most effective customer and brand experience involves revealing some, but not all of what goes on behind the curtain.  Just as Chancellor Bismarck noted about making legislation and sausages, the less you know about the process, the more you can enjoy the result. Building brands that rely heavily on customer service is also hard, ongoing work, and sometimes TMI can spoil the experience as well.

But maybe Delta has taken this to heart.  Last week we showed up at LAX to travel back to Atlanta.  We were delayed again, this time on a Boeing 777 that had flown in from Sydney.  The explanation? The crew needed extra time to “remove some international items” that were left aboard the aircraft.  Enough said.

Now It’s Your Turn
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  • Rhianna MacIntosh
    Feb 2, 2012

    All in all well discussed, except I don’t understand the sentence fragment: “After all 298 of us took stowed our luggage” — Also, the skinny jeans comment (as example of “truth” telling) borders on sexism; ya gotta be careful of that these days…

    Could we learn from this that scrupulous honesty is not necessarily the best policy? Oh, I’m so disillusioned.

    • BrandCultureTalk
      Feb 2, 2012

      Thanks for the comment and the editorial catch of our extra “took” in that sentence (since corrected), Rhianna. As for potential sexism, it seems that our universal love of skinny jeans at BrandCultureTalk is gender-neutral, even if all of us can’t pull off this great look quite as dashingly as Justin Bieber.

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