“Customer service is the new branding”

Jay Baer, President of Convince & Convert, Author of Hug Your Haters

Picture the scene: You’re out of town for a conference and find the free coffee they’re providing is, well, nauseating, so between keynotes you rush out to the closest Starbucks because, even though you’re not a huge fan of Starbucks’ coffee, it’s just palatable enough to pass as a half-decent caffeine kick. You storm into the place with that “busy-business-person” walk and order their sad excuse for a “flat white” and although you may not necessarily think the coffee will be great, you definitely expect the service to be good, at least. I mean, hey—it’s Starbucks! And then in a single moment you’re caught completely off guard: The 18-year-old “barista” behind the counter takes your order with as much enthusiasm as a person lying on his death-bed, haphazardly recalls your order to the point where you correct him twice, and while you wait for your drink he’s relentlessly bashing his boss to a fellow employee. You ask yourself “Am I in the right place?”

This is basically what happened to me on one occasion and I found my gaze fixed on this ungrateful punk, a tunnel vision that would shatter any preconceived notions and experiences regarding the Starbucks brand. I immediately awoke to the reality that brand success is not driven or determined by aesthetics (the logo, visual language, and identity) but rather by the interaction between the people that represent the brand on a daily basis and the people experiencing it. The unfortunate exchange between the barista and myself would, for quite some time at least, redefine my buy-in and perspective of the Starbucks brand.

This is not a bash against Starbucks—they’ve done very well and I’m continually impressed by their grasp on the market and still occasionally settle for their coffee (zing). This is simply to illustrate the fact that the true brand expression of a company will always come down to human interaction.

I can spend all the time in the world developing a logo, brand identity, unique value proposition, brand architecture, positioning strategy, social media campaign—the list goes on—for a company, but successful implementation will come through not primarily from the CEO or the powers that be, nor from advertising and marketing materials, but rather from the ones who are on the front lines, fighting to win the hearts of the public. That’s where the rubber meets the road and all the work mentioned above can truly shine and be utilized effectively. The employees of a company represent a group of people who, in theory, have bought into your brand so much that they want to work there! If these “brand ambassadors” represent your company so poorly, why should I speak richly?

The power of your brand lies in the hands of those who will speak of your brand. What will they say? This is a prime example of why it’s critical to consider both form and function. The brand experience involves both intimately. The identity—the form—will only be as powerful as the people who carry it—the function. Who’s carrying yours?