Business Today

Consistency - The Core of an Authentic Brand!

According to Robert Cialdini's book on influence, one key element stuck out on what brands and people can do to get people to open up and interact with them to begin with.

Jay Kumar Hariharan        Last Updated: January 20, 2016  | 10:44 IST

Jay Kumar Hariharan, CEO and Chief Coach of Blue Fire Coaching Consultants
By default and not by design, I start this column with examples from airlines and their love affairs, or the lack thereof, with their consumers. Recently, a much lauded airline CEO made news by reacting to an angry tweet made by an extremely senior journalist who had a bad experience with the airline. He was forthcoming and apologised for a shortfall in service. It was refreshing to see such alacrity in response (within three hours). Then there was the infamous incident when a 'hero' from the Hindi film industry was frisked and 'harassed' at an airport in the US sometime ago, or when a British airline asked for Sachin Tendulkar's surname to track his lost baggage. Mass media went into a feeding frenzy with the last two incidents after it had gone viral on social media. The overwhelming takeout was "How could this happen to our celebs"? How dare they insult our "gods"?

The pattern in all these cases is the interaction between an entitled influencer and an affected brand, an influencer who is a key stakeholder not by dint of higher consumption of the brand. The question that begs to be asked is: why would this response be reserved only for a superb influencer? Or, would the CEO of the airline have engaged with any consumer in a similar vein? A cursory look at the CEOs Twitter time line did not reveal any other interaction, save quite a few retweets lauding the airline's service.

This brings me to the core of the issue - whilst stakeholder management is carefully crafted on a 2x2 matrix with importance and power on both axes, and has details on crafting a message and reinforcing the same X number of times to build powerful brand communication. The stakeholders that matter the most are both important and have requisite power. These would be huge consumers of the said brand, regulatory authorities, etc. Influencers don't necessarily fall into this quadrant. Why should be as consumers accept and endorse differential brand behaviour? I experienced a definite sense of schadenfreude when I heard about the powers-that-be experiencing the same hassles that regular folk go through almost regularly.

There are two elements to consistency as a core of your offering. One is to assuage existing consumers that the brand is 'home' - it is familiar, the d├ęcor, the kind of music, the service, etc. The other element of consistency that has to do with leadership is the ability to engage with different stakeholders with the same brand promise. There are some leaders who practise the ancient art of "Kiss up and Kick down", which is eerily similar to what we have seen in the above instance.

Let us spend some time on the first element.

According to Robert Cialdini's seminal book on influence, one key element stuck out on what brands and people can do to get people to open up and interact with them to begin with.

There are blessedly good looking people who not only have swum successfully to the top of the gene pool, but also are perceived to have or possess in a slightly higher degree a lot of other good-to-have qualities like kindness and the ability to inspire trust - this phenomenon is called the 'Halo Effect'. But for others, one of the best ways to tilt that balance away from nature is to convey the feeling of sameness. This comes from sharing a pool of common experiences. Once anchors are built on these parameters, the bonds become strong. The commonality and consistency of these experiences lull the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the one that does critical thinking and analysis).

This synaptic short cut ensures the consumer does not go through the entire decision making cycle all over again.

"People prefer to say 'yes' to those they know and like," Cialdini says. People are also more likely to favour those who are physically attractive, similar to themselves, or who give them compliments. Even something as 'random' as having the same name as your prospects can increase your chances of making a sale. According to an experiment conducted in 2005, Randy Garner mailed out surveys to strangers with a request to return them. The request was signed by a person whose name was either similar or dissimilar to the recipient's. For example, Robert James might receive a survey request from the similarly-named Bob Ames. According to a study reported in Yes!, "Those who received the survey from someone with a similar-sounding name were nearly twice as likely to fill out and return the packet as those who received the surveys from dissimilar sounding names (56 per cent compared to 30 per cent)." "One of the things that marketers can do is honestly report on the extent to which the product or service - or the people who are providing the product or service - are similar to the audience and know the audience's challenges, preferences and so on," Cialdini says.

This is the kind of authenticity that ensures leadership in brands. They ensure experiences that are congruent with their promise and make us experience the same set of emotions in dealing with different aspects of the brand experience - be it at the check-in counter, the food that is being served aboard, the attention to detail, etc.

The second and more troubling challenge, especially in a market like India, is the idea that "all consumers are equal, but some consumers are more equal". As in the case of all the instances at the beginning of this article. I firmly believe in principles of stakeholder management as a central brand premise, which also implies that a more valuable consumer by dint of consumption is given preferential treatment, no challenges there. The flaw in the brand's authenticity emerges when 'celebrity influencers' are accorded the same pandering attention.

There is a phenomenon called power distance. Power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. India scores high on this dimension, 77, indicating an appreciation for hierarchy and a top-down structure in society and organisations. If one were to encapsulate the Indian attitude, one could use the following words and phrases, dependent on the boss or the power holder for direction, acceptance of unequal rights between the power-privileged and those who are lesser down in the pecking order, immediate superiors accessible but one layer above less so.

The best way around this is to ensure that the delivered brand promise is already in accordance with your best-in-class practices so that every customer gets a superlative experience. It is woefully short of a human experience where every consumer is not treated fair and square just like everyone else.

I think the line from the movie Ratatouille sums this up best. When a distinguished food critic Anton Ego drops into Auguste Gusteau's restaurant, the sous chef Collette rallies the panic stricken troops saying, "Anton is just another customer. Let's cook."

The author is CEO and Chief Coach of Blue Fire Coaching Consultants.

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