Mistakes made by a business can actually reinvigorate flagging customer interest and loyalty, particularly where the brand image is seen as 'exciting' rather than 'serious', according to a new study published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Of course, this intriguing study does not suggest that angering customers is a preferred marketing strategy. However, it did find that a brand's 'personality' has a significant impact on the meaning, and potential recovery from, the brand's mistakes.
According to the study, marketers seem to have traditionally thought that the personalities of their brands were just something that would add flavour to their advertising. But the study gives evidence that a brand's personality can affect the very existence and strength of the consumer relationship and, accordingly, the reactions of consumers to the company's transgressions.
The study was conducted by Jennifer Aaker (associate professor of marketing for Stanford Graduate School of Business), Susan Fournier (visiting associate professor of marketing at Dartmouth College), and S. Adam Brasel (a doctoral student in marketing at the Stanford Business School).
"The brand is a powerful tool that is underleveraged and poorly understood," the authors argue. "And, like human personality traits, brand personality traits which were once thought of as one-dimensional and static, are actually multi-dimensional and quite active."
The study, entitled When Good Brands Do Bad, is the result of a two-month field experiment exploring relationships that formed between consumers and an online photographic service brand. Aaker and colleagues studied the effects of transgressions (e.g. lapses in service, and violations of trust) by brands with different personalities: one 'sincere' and the other 'exciting'.
Sincere brands dominate the world of classic brands, such as Hallmark, Ford, and Coca-Cola. Traits of nurturance, family-orientation, and traditionalism - all of which have been positively related to strong customer relationships and satisfaction - are characteristic of sincere personalities. In addition, trustworthiness, which can temper feelings of vulnerability and strengthen a relationship, is a product of sincerity.
Exciting brands, on the other hand, tend to be built around qualities of energy and youthfulness. Good examples include Yahoo!, Virgin, and MTV, all of which try to differentiate themselves through unique and often irreverent advertising, 'cool' brand logos, unusual or surreal brand names, and 'hip' language. Although such brands can be attractive and attention-getting, they may also be seen as less legitimate, and therefore unable to garner as much consumer trust. The truth of that assumption was one of the most significant questions the researchers set out to answer.
Participants for the study were recruited under the guise of involvement in a beta test of a new online company, Captura Photography Services. Two personalities were created for Captura: one was sincere, while the other was exciting. Each had its own web site and e-mail messages, all designed by website professionals and copywriters to reflect each brand's particular personality.
Participants were told that they would interact with the branded service for a period of two months. Initially, each participant was sent disposable cameras that were to be used and returned to Captura for development. The photographs would then be posted in an online photo album. Over time, participants received e-mail messages instructing them to interact with Captura in various ways (e.g. visit the website to read magazine-like articles, or to find out about photography contests), encouraging the customers to get to know all aspects of Captura's website and offerings.
Factors such as colour (soft browns, oranges versus vivid reds and purples), vocabulary, and content determined each website's personality. And, while a message from the sincere brand would start with "Hello", a message from the exciting brand would begin with "Hey!". Similarly, the content contained in postings conveyed each brand's personality (e.g. family picnics versus rock climbing on the Stories page, and web links to Disney and Kodak versus MTV and Spin).
The participants completed questionnaires exploring their reactions to the service three times during the two month test period.
The disaster test
After six weeks of interacting with Captura, half of the participants in each group were told that an employee had accidentally erased their online photographs (although their photographs were actually still intact). The other half were reminded that their NetAlbum was available online. Then, two days later, apologies were sent out to those who had been let down, and participants were told that the online photo album had been restored.
The sincere brand enjoyed stronger relationships than the exciting brand - until the photos were lost. The transgression did remarkable damage to consumers' relationship with the sincere brand. The sincere brand did not show significant signs of recovery despite apologies and attempts to make amends.
When there was no transgression, the relationships between the participants and the exciting brand progressively deteriorated over time. However, after both the transgression and recovery had occurred, the relationship with the exciting brand actually improved. The relationship became more permanent and meaningful in the participants' mind. Apparently those events had allowed trust, accountability, and responsibility to be established for the first time.
In this sense, the transgression operated as a means of reinvigorating the exciting brand relationship and setting it on a path to a stronger customer relationship. Moreover, the study's findings suggest that putting trustworthiness forth as a fundamental imperative warrants reconsideration.
"Trust is much heralded in marketing but it has a downside. When it is violated - as it often is in long-standing relationships - it can have dramatic impact on the relationship," explained Aaker. "This data shows a dark side to the blind pursuit of partner quality and trust. What needs to be understood and managed are the contracts, norms, and rules that underlie the relationship between a consumer and brand, and how a brand's actions either violate or fit with those norms."
The three authors' advice to companies is to be aware of the type of brand partner they are, the type of relationship they are helping to create, and the expectations that are being set in the consumer's mind.
"Also, know that brands will make mistakes," added Aaker. "That is the only relationship 'given' of which we can be sure."