People have very complex relationships with companies and the products and services they offer. Businesses, and those involved in non-profit activities like foundations, the arts, charity and health care, as well as those offering entertainment, including sports teams, spend considerable time, energy and funds on their brands - "the symbolic embodiment of all the information connected to the product [that] serves to create associations and expectations around it."
The relationship between a brand and its customers is a complex one indeed, full of emotional connections and chemistry. And like any relationships involving emotions, associations and expectations, they need to be carefully nurtured. Once established, brand relationships can be extremely helpful to a business - especially if the company runs into serious problems in the marketplace. I am convinced that the close relationship we had established in IBM with our loyal customer base was a key factor that helped us survive the near-death experience we faced in the early 1990s.
Let me illustrate this complex chemistry by discussing some of my personal experiences with brands. Given the time of year, let me start with a subject that some may consider frivolous - baseball.
I became a Chicago Cubs fan as a student in Chicago in the 1960s. The Cubs had some wonderful players in those times - Ernie Banks being the most prominent, but they generally lost. Still, they were a nice team to follow.
After I moved to the New York area in 1970, it took me awhile to switch my allegiances to a New York team, but I finally did when the Yankees signed Reggie Jackson in 1977. The 1977 Yankees were a very exciting team, and Reggie was at the center of that excitement. His biggest feat is the three home runs in three consecutive swings that he hit in the sixth game of the World Series to help the Yankees beat the Dodgers.
Reggie performed at his best under the intense pressure in New York. He also feuded with many in the team, especially principal owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin. Their tumultuous relationship was nicely captured in ESPN's miniseries, The Bronx is Burning, which includes a great performance by John Turturro as Billy Martin.
George Steinbrenner was a very controversial figure, who meddled with the team to an unprecedented degree. His actions angered many fans, including me. The last straw for me was when he did not re-sign Reggie Jackson after the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers. I could no longer be a Yankees fan. My relationship with the brand - that is, the Yankees - was irrevocably broken.
After a few years I discovered the New York Mets. In the mid 1980s they had a great team and went on to win the 1986 World Series against Boston. I have been a Mets fan ever since. They have some wonderful players, my favorite being Pedro Martinez, who I think of as Reggie Jackson's heir in his ability to come to New York, take the town by storm, and thrive despite all the pressure on his shoulders. In Second Life, I have chosen to have my avatar wear a Pedro Martinez Mets baseball shirt.
While the Mets have disappointed me because their play did not match the high expectations we all had - especially in the last weeks of this season - I consider coping with broken baseball hearts to be a natural part of being a fan. It is certainly not a reason to desert your team. After all, - there is always next year.
The interesting thing to me about how one forms an emotional attachment to a sports team is that it can start from something rather ephemeral – such as the personalities of particular players or the chemistry among players in a given year – but then become truly lasting … unless some other emotional issue comes along to disrupt it. This applies to baseball – and also to subjects that are more serious. TV news channels, for example.
I continue to be quite dismayed at the negative, mean-spirited tone that powerful figures in politics and the media sometimes display when discussing immigration. Immigration is a very complex subject. There is no doubt that the US needs a comprehensive immigration solution that properly takes into account various factors, including the security of our borders, the enforcement of workplace rules and labor demand and supply. We also need to find a practical and decent way to deal with the existing population of illegal immigrants in our country.
As we know, Lou Dobbs has emerged as one of the major spokesmen rallying against illegal immigration. He has embraced what I consider to be a polarizing, red meat style in his tirades against immigrants, blaming them for all kinds of societal ills, some perhaps justified, others not. Clearly Lou Dobbs is entitled to his opinions, as I am to mine. In a free country with lots of choices, I simply do not have to listen to his program, Lou Dobbs Tonight, which is prominently shown on CNN seven days a week from 6 - 7 pm.
Increasingly, my feelings toward Lou Dobbs Tonight are spilling over toward CNN, which for many years has been my preferred source of news. CNN is a brand I have held in high esteem for a long time. But now I am upset at CNN for giving the angry, strident, divisive views of Lou Dobbs such prominence - although perhaps disappointed may be the more accurate description of my feelings.
Let me give a concrete example of the kind of mean spirited, ideological discussions that, in my opinion, they are so prominently hosting in their midst. One of the causes taken up by Lou Dobbs Tonight and other anti-illegal-immigration extremists is the use of Spanish in schools and government agencies as an accommodation to those who do not speak English. Now, anyone who has traveled abroad knows that English has become the world's lingua franca, especially in international business circles. English is in wide use around the world. Even in France – not known as a bastion of anglophiles, - you can now get along quite well speaking English.
How about the US? Are we so in danger of losing English as not only our primary language, but the language required to get just about any decent job that we must pass a bill declaring English the official language of the US? Should we perhaps punish all those who do not speak English well by making it illegal to have phone answering messages that say “press 1 for English, press 2 for Spanish”?
I was born in Cuba, and Spanish is my native tongue. When I came to the US, I did not need a reminder that English was essential to get any kind of good education and good job. Neither have generations of immigrants that preceded me and followed me – legal or otherwise. Somehow, the invisible hand of the marketplace is a powerful enough reminder that you must learn English to improve your standard of living – or at least that your children need to do so. In fact, one of the main reasons people have been coming to the US from around the world is to give their children an opportunity for a better future, and learning English is a part of that opportunity. Are we worried that Hispanic immigrants do not care as much about their children as the rest of us?
What do you do when you are upset with a company and there are alternative offerings in the marketplace? For years I have watched CNN's morning news program when exercising in the morning. They are very professional. I like them. But once my emotional connection to the CNN brand became somewhat stressed, I started exploring alternatives. And recently, I have started to watch a new morning program - Morning Joe on MSNBC.
I like the host of the program, Joe Scarborough, a smart and articulate former congressman, who served four terms as the Republican representative of what he himself refers to in the program as Florida's Redneck Riviera.
But in my opinion, what makes the program particularly good is its co-host, Mika Brzezinski, a very sharp TV journalist who is every bit Scarborough's intellectual equal. I have read that Joe Scarborough was a reliable conservative when he served in the House from 1994 - 2002, but if so, his political beliefs do not dominate the program at all, perhaps because of the common sense balance provided by Mika Brzezinski. What comes across to me is a very professional, intelligent and witty program, one that reminds me of what I like so much about National Public Radio, where you can have a civilized dialogue even about subjects where there are strong differing opinions.
Perhaps CNN would say that they no longer want me as a customer. The market has changed. The success of Fox News has perhaps shown the importance of appealing to a different audience, an audience for whom the angry, decisive, non-wishy-washy tone of Lou Dobbs Tonight is much more appealing than the more traditional, professional CNN style. Lou Dobbs Tonight is just their market play to attract such an audience and hopefully raise ratings and increase profits. And if in the process they lose people like me - well, we are no longer a large enough audience. Just a little brand extension and re-positioning. Nothing personal.
I want a brand that has won over my allegiance to deal with me as if they really care about having me as a customer. This is often reflected in their customer service. I like to shop at Amazon.com because your order is effectively handled, and their web site is so good at keeping you informed all along the way. I enjoy dealing with Netflix. They offer a huge choice of DVDs, their personal recommendations have introduced me to some great films and directors, and if ever a DVD is lost in the mail, they offer a simple way of handling the problem via their web site. In fact, I find that one way of testing those brands I frequently deal with is to see how well they behave when problems occur. If they do right by me, my allegiance goes way up.
I am convinced that in an increasingly global, commoditized and hypercompetitive world, paying attention to your customers and nurturing your brand may be the key way for a company to differentiate itself and stand out from the competition. This may sound easy to do, but in fact, it may be one of the hardest tasks facing any business.