Marketers trying to convince customers that a company is value-driven and cares about them when the CEO and the corporate culture don’t match that reality have a difficult task. Over time, cracks will appear and the lack of authenticity shines through.
When one of my daughters moved to a new school, she told her fellow third graders that I was raising 8 foster kids in addition to my own three, and that her father was a professional ice hockey player. NOT. At one point, she admitted to me: “it get’s harder and harder to remember the details and keep it all straight.” Indeed.
Back when I was founder and CEO at Zipcar, and establishing the brand, we’d do periodic customer surveys, comprising both quantitative and qualitative elements. My favorite free-form response, that we actually got several times, was: “Everything you say is true.” And it was.
As CEO, I deeply believed in the benefits of the service, in the general goodwill of our members (who we had to trust to treat the cars well), in being transparent about our shortcomings and fixing them quickly, being a learning organization, and recognizing that it took teamwork (customers included) to produce the Zipcar service. A good customer experience was thanks to the efforts of everyone all along the chain: website design and writing, a simple and straightforward application, a reservation system that took seconds, cars that were consistently outfitted and well maintained, helpful and sincere customer service, great marketing and business development. Every employee understood that what they did mattered, was valued, and integral to the whole.
I took Zipcar’s core principles and turned them into one word so that we could all remember them: SCREACH. Zipcar sought to be simple, convenient, reliable, economical and environmental, admirable, customer- and community-focused, and humorous (that is not how you spell “screech”). This pneumonic was an easy way to keep us on track.
Zipcar members were part of this team, an idea that is increasingly accepted today but was totally novel back in 2000. As such, we would genuinely ask members for advice on all sorts of things. Sure, some of the engagement was for fun and to generate participation (what shall we call the next car? Come to our holiday cookie-swap party) but it was also sincere (want a job? do you know of any good parking spaces? where shall we expand to next?).
Story telling in routine emails proved very powerful to communicate our values to members. As a side benefit, employees read them as well. The story telling was an important part of culture creation and branding: here’s what we think is funny, interesting, amazing; here is what we do; here are our challenges; here is how we treat people and talk to our customers; we admit mistakes. And I always tried to tell a story that someone would want to repeat. Zipcar grew virally because at every touch point, the customer was surprised and delighted and went on to tell someone else about it. Customers couldn’t help but talk about us.
Our corporate culture of honesty, transparency, and respect, together with a sharp focus on execution shone through all of our work, and ultimately the brand. If you think about lasting brands that you love, most of the time it will be the result of real authenticity driving from the CEO, through the corporate culture, straight out to the end users. When what you say to customers matches what you say internally, marketing is not just a veneer, but integrated into every part of the company, cracks can’t appear. Authenticity rules, and customers feel it.