Maytag’s Brand Blunder (a focus group of one)
You’d be hard-pressed to find an icon more closely associated with a consumer product than The Lonely Repairman and Maytag (NYSE: WHR) appliances. For 40+ years the character created by Leo Burnett idled away his hours as Maytag washers and dryers operated flawlessly.
This unequivocal assertion of value: Maytag = Dependability, effectively depositioned the competition, helped the brand command a substantial price premium, and drove clear preference at the higher end of the “white goods” market for decades. In fidelity to this brand promise, Maytag even had the town of Newton, Iowa change the name of its headquarters address to “One Dependability Square.”
The simplicity, focus and lasting resonance of Maytag’s brand positioning is a brand-builder’s dream . . . except when the brand experience fails to deliver. And that’s just what happened to BrandCultureTalk on Christmas Eve when a 2.5 year old Maytag Neptune washing machine refused to wash. It refused to tumble. Refused to spin. It did, however fill up with water, transforming dirty clothes into a sad, soggy ball.
We called Maytag’s “Priority One” service on December 26th with high hopes. After all, the name and exclusive customer service line denoted our importance to Maytag. After 20+ minutes on hold (but presumably ahead of all Priority Two callers), we spoke to a very polite and sympathetic representative who reminded us that the washer’s one-year warranty had expired, but A&E Factory Service would surely be able to address the problem.
Alas, the Maytag repairman isn’t quite so lonely these days. He could offer no greater precision than a five hour range of when he would show up (perhaps A&E shares a common ownership with cable TV installers?). Four hours and sixteen minutes into the five hour wait, the repairman arrived. After another twenty minutes he announced that the problem was . . . a stripped bolt! Not just any bolt, but a super-duper special rare bolt that would take 7 – 14 days to arrive, after which time he would provide another five hour arrival window and install it for $188.61, brand new bolt included.
Extrapolating overall brand performance assessment from personal experience is admittedly dangerous. But at each service touchpoint when the product fails – from the paltry Maytag one-year warranty through inconvenient repair scheduling to confiscatory pricing – the Maytag brand promise has diverged from the actual Maytag brand experience. And BrandCultureTalk Blog’s experience is by no means unique. See Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, and Exhibit 3.
Contrast this with BrandCultureTalk’s recent experience with a failed twelve-year-old Grohe faucet. Unlike Maytag, Grohe doesn’t position its brand around reliability, but around functionality and aesthetics. Grohe, however, quietly backs its products with a lifetime warranty. If a Grohe faucet breaks, Grohe will fix it or give you a new faucet. It’s a premium product supported by a premium brand experience above and beyond reasonable expectations. Sure it’s expensive, but Grohe commands a premium for its faucets in the same way Maytag commands a premium for its appliances.
Whirlpool acquired Maytag in 2006, and even before the sale, Maytag was attempting to migrate the Maytag brand away from exclusive associations with reliability.
But given Old Lonely’s significance in the national Zeitgeist, redefining the Maytag brand will be no mean feat. We’ve said before that great brands make tough choices. (Lest we be accused of picking on Whirlpool, recall our encomium last year to the KitchenAid mixer, also owned by Whirlpool). If it wishes Maytag to remain a strong brand, Whirlpool needs to choose to deliver a brand experience consistent with the promise of quality for which it has stood for decades.