Monday Mornings with Madison

When a Company’s Brand Sends Mixed Signals – Part 1

A Mixed Message Mess

Every company, no matter its size or purpose, has a brand.  Regardless of whether the owners and leadership know what the brand is or what it stands for, the company brand exists.  In theory, a company’s brand speaks about its purpose, voice and values.  The brand reflects what the company does and does not do and how it wants to be viewed by the world.   In practice, it also reflects what others – customers, potential customers, vendors, investors, and the general public — think about it.  A brand reflects how the company is actually perceived by the world.

So a company’s brand is not just its logo or iconography, such as Nike’s swoosh or Apple’s bitten apple.  Nor is a brand just it colors or fonts.  That’s all just window dressing.  A company’s brand is comprised of a multitude of elements that feed into the total picture or image (or in some cases the façade).  Values.  Voice.  Personality.  Corporate integrity.  Product quality.  Service delivery.  Look/style.  Marketing.  Customer engagement.  Approachability.  A company’s brand is a reflection of all of this… combined.  The better a company manages all of the elements that comprise its brand, the more likely it is to thrive long-term.  To succeed, a company should be genuine in what it stands for and authentic and on point in everything it says and does.  All of the messages should align.

But sometimes the messages don’t align.  What happens if a company’s brand – this myriad of messages – sends mixed signals? What happens when there is a ‘disconnect’ between a company’s values and the quality of its products, or between its marketing messages and the actual service it delivers, or between its public voice and its online engagement?  What happens to a brand where there are mixed messages muddying the brand’s image?

The Problem with Mixed Signals

A brand is to a company what a reputation is to an individual.  Just as a personal reputation usually reflects an individual’s overall qualities and flaws, so does a company’s brand image reflect its overall purpose and performance.  A person’s reputation reflects how others perceive him/her overall, and most of the time that reputation was earned and deserved.  Likewise, what a company brand is known for or known as in the world is typically a true (perhaps the truest) reflection of what the company does and what its leadership values (or doesn’t value).

When a company’s brand is well-received, that is great.  When a company’s brand is viewed negatively, that should be addressed and corrected.  However, with some companies, there can be mixed signals about the brand.  Let’s consider Comcast Cable as a case study in mixed brand messages.  Comcast ranked #4 on the 2013 American Consumer Satisfaction Index’ list of the top 15 worst companies for customer service.  According to Consumerist, Comcast was also crowned the worst company in America for 2014, a title it also held in 2010.  Its “bad-service” reputation has a long history…. and arguably a well-deserved one.  When a company ranks in the top 10 of practically every “worst service” list generated by business and media, it’s easy to believe that image is earned.  As the saying goes, where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

This year, however, Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts seemed to imply in an interview that Comcast’s problem isn’t so much a service problem as an image problem.  He argued that the size of Comcast’s customer base makes even a small percentage of complaints seem like a lot.  According to Roberts, “What unfortunately happens is we have about … 350 million interactions with consumers a year, between phone calls and truck calls. It may be over 400 million and that doesn’t count any online interactions which I think is over a billion. You get one-tenth of one-percent bad experience, that’s a lot of people.”

Putting Out Mixed Messages

Comcast is saying that it does care about how it services its customers, but that a small percentage of its customers – the dissatisfied ones – have painted a picture of bad service by Comcast that is either exaggerated, or perhaps once was true but is no longer the case.  Clearly, there are mixed signals related to the Comcast brand that persist.  To counteract this image problem (whether real or perceived), Comcast recently rolled out an advertising campaign to highlight its improved service initiatives.  Comcast said it changed the way the company services customers and is improving its product features.  Comcast says that this time they are making a promise that the company can be held to, implying this is not their first attempt to improve their ‘bad service’ reputation.

Comcast’s 2014-2015 “It’s a Whole New Day” campaign, created by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, features two spots.  In the first story, a comedian and a Comcast technician discuss Comcast’s reputation for questionable service.  The comedian asks why he should believe Comcast has really changed (‘this time’ is implied). The Comcast Tech replies that Comcast now offers two-hour service windows as well as night and weekend appointments to work around the consumer’s busy schedule, and an on-time-all-the-time guarantee.  The comedian quips that he’s going to have to find something new to pick on (implying that Comcast gets picked on often… perhaps more than deserved).  Comcast also rolled out its My Account app, which empowers customers to troubleshoot technical issues, manage appointments and pay bills using a Smartphone. The campaign is supposed to reflect the leadership’s commitment to constantly improving service innovations and transforming the customer experience.  Because Comcast is perceived to have made empty promises in the past, the campaign was aimed at the doubters, dubious and skeptics.  Apparently there must be a lot of those since the spots are now being seen/heard in 23 markets, including Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Boston, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Miami, Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta and Washington, DC.

The problem isn’t that Comcast is trying to fix its service issues (either real or perceived).  Comcast’s brand problem is that while rolling out these new initiatives, it also is taking other actions that will directly hurt its customers such as charging for special services such as DVR but then disabling those very services some of the time, and capping customers’ broadband use to 300 gigs per month so it can charge more for customers that stream more data.  Moreover, Comcast is trying to merge with Time Warner Cable, which is viewed as a way for it to control more market and be free to charge customers more.

Clearly, Comcast itself is putting out mixed signals.  Its leadership and marketing campaign are saying “we care about satisfying our customers” while its customer service and business decisions – past and present — are saying “we don’t care if our business decisions anger our customers”.  Thus, Comcast’s business decisions fly in the face of its customer service makeover.

The point of this article is NOT to join the bandwagon of people picking on Comcast.    The focus is on the mixed messages that Comcast’s brand is sending.  Comcast already had a tarnished brand, and is now spending a lot of money to try to overhaul that brand but is undermining its own efforts.  In doing so, it is sending out even more mixed signals.

The Long-Term Price of Mixed Signals

So what does happen when a company consistently sends out mixed signals and muddies its brand’s image?  Some pundits predict that eventually Comcast’s image problems will be its undoing.  Consider that Comcast reportedly lost over 400,000 subscribers in 2013, twice the amount that Credit Suisse had predicted it would shed.

Every company has an obligation to jealously safeguard its brand.  It must ensure that every message, every ad, every social media page, and every sales pitch conforms with the brand, as defined by the company.  So how does a brand avoid mixed signals?  Stay tuned ‘til next week when we look at preventing mixed brand messages.

Quote of the Week

“Brands, at their best, are, among other things, bundles of meanings, some of them robust, some of them delicate, all of them poised to speak to one or more segments and to deliver an understanding of not just what the product does but what it means – its cultural meaning.” Grant McCracken


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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