Listening, Authenticity Key to Humanizing Your Brand

Thoughts from PR for Better Business panel at SXSW

Thoughts from PR for Better Business panel at SXSW

“We don’t own our brands; we co-own them with our customers.” – Bob Person, Chief Technology & Media Officer, WCG

The way a brand handles the fallout after crisis can make or break its reputation with customers. In many cases, the issue that makes headlines is a result of a poor tactical business decision that communicators likely had no part in making – and a public relations disaster ensues. Yesterday, I sat in on a panel featuring four seasoned communications veterans (Gary Stockman, CEO Porter Novelli, Melissa Waggener-Zorkin, CEO Waggener Edstrom, Mark Stouse, Vice President and Global Marcom Leader at Honeywell Aerospace, and Bob Pearson, Chief Technology and Media Officer, WCG) that sought to narrow in on the conditions which make for successful communications in crisis.

The panel examined five recent events that made headlines: Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding for Planned Parenthood; Lowe’s’ pulling its advertising from TLC’s “All-American Muslim”; American Airlines’ Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing; Netflix raising prices for its services; and Zappo’s’ customer data breach. In examining each event, several key themes rang true:

Don’t get too comfortable in your place in the market. A company is just one bad decision away from falling off the leader-board. Panelists agreed that a humble brand is a successful brand, and in the cases of the Komen Foundation and Netflix, they wondered if perhaps the brands had let their egos get the best of them. Surely, because they’re well-loved by customers and highly regarded in their respective industries, a little disagreement from customers won’t hurt that much, right? Wrong. Take a note from Zappo’s, and don’t ever take your success for granted.

Pay attention to what your community is saying, and embrace them. Each of the brands the panelists discussed have defined, passionate communities of advocates that, had they been engaged correctly, could have helped to remedy the crisis before becoming too drastic. For example, if the Komen Foundation had truly listened to what their community was saying, they could have anticipated the backlash for their decision and taken steps to avoid it.

Melissa Waggener-Zorkin discussed how, regardless of how innovative of an idea a brand has, it’s crucial to listen to customer feedback in order to make it successful:

Be honest, be human. People are naturally drawn to companies that present themselves in a human way and are authentic in their communication. When Zappos suffered a breach in their customers’ credit data, they immediately sprung in to action to share the news, apologize and explain what they were doing to fix it. Rather than get defensive, the company was humble enough to be open and honest and own up to the issue – and customers responded positively to that, ultimately cooling down a situation which could easily have gotten much worse. 

While each situation discussed was very different from the others, one theme rang true: a brand that listens to its customers, remains humble and stays true to its values can successfully bounce back from crisis (or avoid it altogether!) and in some cases, strengthen its customer relationships even further.

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