I have written numerous posts about the relationship between marketing and customer service. Plainly speaking, the former means zip without the latter. It’s at the front lines – at the point at which a customer is making a purchase decision – that a consumer will make his or her long-term choice (and, as a result, determine whether a company’s advertising is believable or laughable).

This is a story about JCrew.

I’m an active customer. I don’t often respond to emails, but I pore over the catalogs and either buy from there or go to a nearby store to check out the merchandise.  I do, however, keep an eye out for the end-of-season sale emails.

And so it was a couple evenings ago. I bit on a 30% off plus free shipping sale.  While watching TV, I invested maybe 30-45 minutes combing JCrew’s web pages, determining my confidence levels under the  final sale, no returns circumstances.  I finally initiated an online transaction which – before the discount totaled $149.98 – 2¢ below the $150 hurdle for free shipping. 

Surely for 2¢, JCrew would see the sense in helping a loyal customer, if I were to just call and ask… 

Not so much.  The phone rep seemed confused by the question (um, uh, $149.98 is not $150 and that. is. the. rule), but this did not surprise me and I just asked to speak to a supervisor.  Unfortunately – after waiting for maybe 90 seconds, expecting to be rewarded by the supervisor I’d asked for – the same rep came back and suggested I buy a pair of socks to push me over the $150 limit. 

So now I’m mad.  I almost laugh after I catch myself shifting into Perry Mason mode: “So let me just be clear, because I’m going to tweet and maybe blog about this – the company is not going to waive a 2 cent difference for a frequent customer – is that what you’re saying?!” (Is that your testimony, M’aam!?).  Geez – you’d think that those ballet slippers meant life or death, but you know how these things go.  I insisted on speaking to a supervisor one more time because this just seemed so dumb to me.

And then the clouds parted and a supervisor named Nicole R. came on the line. She could not have been more pleasant or professional.  She ignored the 2 cent gap and gave me free shipping with no hesitation.  She offered to complete the online transaction over the phone, so we did.  All done.

So why is this blog-worthy?  It’s a great example of service recovery.  The concept of service recovery is that people and companies screw up.  Everyone knows it.  It’s how something broken gets fixed that can show how customer-centric a company really is. 

Nicole R.’s service recovery skills probably made me feel more positive about JCrew than I had when I started the transaction in the first place.

And then Nicole R. really took it way past the goal line.

Only after she had completed the entire transaction did Nicole mention (nicely) that – for future reference – free shipping offers apply to the purchase price after all discounts are applied.

My $149.98 was before the extra 30% off.   After the discount, I was $45 away (not 2¢) from the $150 hurdle.  Nicole R. had immediately honored my request, saved me $14.50 and made sure I was happy.  Only then did she point out this small fact.

Now we’re into “delight” territory.  For me, $14.50 (or $45, depending on how you see it) was a big deal.  Nicole at JCrew understood that this was a tiny investment in a long-term customer relationship.

Wonderful. Sensible. Amazing. Bravo!!!

It’s a shame that consumer expectations regarding customer service are so low, but it also gives companies an outsized opportunity to stand out.  And more often than not,  “standing out” actually happens in the everyday interactions you have with a consumer.  A lot of whiz-bang is great, but these small moments are what build lifetime relationships… and help marketing efforts look believable in the process.

Mojo readers know that I follow two wise marketing/business cartoonists and like to share their work once in awhile. On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland. Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp.

Both offer observations that – in a very tiny space – say volumes about just how goofy this business can be. 

As you might expect, this is not the first time I’ve posted one of Tom’s cartoons about social media.  Enjoy!

‘Seen the new Pringles campaign yet? Check out the new post on my second blog, Stephanie Fierman: Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

There’s a real reputation-meets-revenue battle happening online.

Today, any advertiser with a Google AdWords account can buy virtually any keyword to advertise its own goods, regardless of whether said advertiser has the rights to use the word.  This is particularly troublesome for companies that have spent decades burnishing brand franchises and consider the associated names and words to be reputational assets of great value. 

If you go to Google right now and type in “LVMH” (the owner of numerous brands including Louis Vuitton and Hennessy), one of the sponsored ads shouts “Designer Handbags 70% off,” with a URL that includes the Louis Vuitton name. That has LVMH steamed and the company sued Google in Europe for trademark infringement.

Well the ruling is in… and it’s a split decision, advantage: Google. Upon Google’s appeal of earlier rulings (that didn’t go its way) the highest court in the EU has determined that – on its face – the mere fact that an LVMH-protected word is available for sale by Google does not mean that Google is in violation of LVMH’s trademark rights.  stephanie-fierman-louis-vuitton.jpg

Specifically, the court has said that the search company is not violating trademarks if (a) its automatic ad system is judged to be “merely technical, automatic and passive” in its operation, and if (b) the company is not aware and cannot be expected to fully police all the words that advertisers purchase.

Since computers are programmed by humans, I would argue that the first point is debatable, but there it is.  It was not a flat-out win for Google, however, as the court also ruled that Google must remove said ads if the brand owner formally complains about an advertiser infringing on its marks.  If Google fails to do this, the court says it won’t be so helpful in protecting Google’s revenue stream the next time around.

The court also reinforced that Google could be held liable for selling keywords that openly encourage or facilitate counterfeiting, which is a win (or at least a booster shot) for brand owners.  And lastly, the court also clarified the responsibilities of advertisers who mustn’t, by “using such keywords, arrange for Google to display ads which do not allow Internet users to easily establish from which undertaking the goods or services covered by the ad in question originate.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m an advertiser that gets into hot water for legally buying a word that Google sold to me – and I’m not trying to sell knock-offs – I’m naming Google in my legal response.

stephanie-fierman-brand.jpgLVMH has been on the attack re. this issue for a long time all around the world, and must fight infringement in all possible sales channels. It has sued (and has won), for example against eBay in the past.  And  LVMH was front and center in the effective elimination of a thriving Louis Vuitton counterfeit trade on Canal Street in New York City.  After this ruling, the company will flood Google “Don’t Be Evil” Inc. with complaints until the search company will at least have to question what (and how much) it is defending by taking on massive legal expense (and bad PR) in order to make money from advertisers leeching off others’ trademarks.

And speaking of buying Louis Vuitton knock-offs on the street, a LVMH board member asks what may be the most probative observation yet: “Under trademark law anywhere in the world, brand owners have the right to stop third parties from using their names. “Why make an exception for the digital world?”

 As the division between online and offline “worlds” continue to disappear, why indeed?

Let’s talk about Audi and the choices it seems to have made regarding its newest advertising work.

Audi USA’s new campaign is based on the “Green Police,” a band of roving law enforcers who try to protect the environment.  “You picked the wrong day to mess with the ecosystem, plastic boy,” says a Green Police enforcer to a clueless grocery shopper in Audi’s Super Bowl ad. “A man has just been arrested… for possession of an incandescent light bulb,” says a reporter.  Here’s the ad:

There are even educational YouTube videos, like this one that tells you how many napkins to take per sandwich.

Hoo-HOO! Hilarious.


But if your brand had a history that was, you know, linked to the largest human massacre of all time, how funny would an ad have to be for you to go ahead anyway?


Audi’s problem is that there’s already one Green Police in history – a Nazi organization associated with the forced labor andphoto-original-green-police1.jpg extermination of millions of innocent people.  Audi is one of the companies that converted its factories to make automobiles and heavy artillery for the Nazis.  Both Audi and Volkswagen have been named in multiple lawsuits filed by Holocaust survivors and their families over the years.

So the social media campaign and the TV ad comes out… and some people are upset.  Others race to defend Audi’s advertising process, e.g. Audi did lots of research prior to launching the campaign, and it showed the ad to Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors who were not offended.


These comments just reinforce Audi’s deafness.  Did Audi know in advance or not?  Which would be worse?  And as for the defense that the company showed the ad to some Jewish people… there were thousands of people of multiple faiths caught up in what happened during WWII, and there are human beings of all faiths who could be offended by such a reminder.  We are all citizens of the world – and we are all consumers with money to spend on new cars.  And if I’m not in the market for a car, I can assure you that I talk to someone on Facebook or Twitter or at work who is – someone who values my opinion.

This isn’t about religion, it’s about brand.  It’s about judgment.  It’s about customers.

What was the judgment that Audi made here? As PR flak Melanie Lockhart says on her blog, “Lockstep on PR, “Even if you don’t personally think so, from a PR strategy perspective, it doesn’t matter.  As soon as someone takes reasonable exception to anything an organization does (and especially if that someone has an audience), you’ve got a potential issue on your hands.  Can you reasonably predict that a campaign with resonances of the Holocaust will offend people? I think so.”

green-police-logo-design11.pngOthers on the Web haven’t been so charitable.

Audi volunteered for a big kick in the gut. Why – for a social media campaign? To spend $3 million on a single :30 Super Bowl ad insertion, when said ad drags so much negative baggage with it?  If I were CMO, I’d like to think that I never would have seen the concept in the first place, because my agency would have considered and rejected it. But if it had gotten to my desk and I’d reflexively typed “[Fill in the Blank] Nazis” into Google, it’d have been lights out.  No chance to debate whether or not an ad may or may not offend anyone.  Why take the chance? 

In this case, there simply isn’t enough funny in the world to balance the scale. It’s not as if there’s “another side” to the Holocaust.  This isn’t the same as being “offended” by a bunch of guys farting in a TV ad.  Even if you are one of these folks – in the words of Help A Reporter Out Founder Peter Shankman on Twitter, “Nothing good can EVER come from a PR campaign involving Nazis.”  

In a world where trust is a brand’s greatest asset, one’s very first filter has to be good taste.  Audi had no reason to take this kind of risk.  It makes cars that people love – one guy calls  his Audi TT “lovable and charismatic.” The company doesn’t have any controversial point to prove, and the brand doesn’t need shock value. Why take this road?

And in case you think I’m being overly sensitive, or perhaps that killing the campaign would have been tantamount to censorship, you may have a tin ear.  It’s not about us.  It’s about the audience and the message you want them to receive.

Be tough.  Put ideas to the test.  If one person can “reasonably predict” a problem, don’t hogtie the work and your reputation by asking for a punch in the face. There are plenty of great ideas out there that won’t generate over 100,000* negative mentions on Google.  Go find one.

* On February 14, 2010 a Google search on “Audi Nazis Super Bowl” yielded 107,000 results.

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, efficient manufacturing, distribution and customer service support…), but you get the idea.

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

Recently, I have noticed a trend: I often write about things that help people cheat.

OK not cheat, exactly – it’s more like I often share information on services that allow you to address some sticky or uncomfortable situation that needs fixing but for which there is no obvious solution.  So, really, I like to think that I’m just making a small, humble contribution to the concepts of justice and fairness in this cold world.

Yes, marketers can talk themselves into anything.

goggle-stephanie-fierman.jpgAnyway, it really does look like I have a propensity for this kind of thing. First, I wrote about Google’s Goggle feature. Once activated, Goggle (here at the Gmail Lab) forces you to solve a series of math problems before it allows you to send email. The default settings turn the feature on only on weekend nights – the most likely times, I guess, for drunk emailing – but you can adjust the settings if you find yourself sending imprudent notes to your ex on Wednesday nights.

And there was Slydial – possibly the most brilliant invention since voicemail was created.  So you know all those people you’re supposed to call, but you’d rather stick a hot poker in your eye? Yeah – those. Or maybe you just need to make some calls so you can check them off your list… if only you didn’t actually have to speak to anyone. Enter Slydial (www.slydial.com). Instead of calling the actual person in question, you dial 267-SlyDial and enter the subject’s cell phone number. Slydial then connects you directly to the person’s voicemail so you can leave a message without ever having to speak to the person you’re “calling” (“Oh hey! It’s Stephanie. SO sorry to have missed you…“).

SlyDial is just beautiful. The ultimate antidote for those painful, anti-social moments.

office-kid-stephanie-fierman.jpgThen I wrote about The Office Kid (www.TheOfficeKid.com), a new product for the childfree among us. Anyone who doesn’t have a kid has found herself picking up the slack for a parent who leaves early for a soccer game/recital/school play/whatever tiny people do. So unfair! The Office Kid kit includes fake kid art for your office and your very own kid photo so you too can say that the school called and you must fetch your barfing kid immediately.  The Office Kid: $20. Midday shopping at Saks: priceless.

Today’s addition to this directory of shortcuts, gentle readers, is Expense-A-Steak from the New York steakhouse Maloney & Porcelli. This one is a little different from the others (“different” in that it’s the one most likely to get its creator sued for fraud), so I’m not going to recommend it or go into any detail.  From strictly an advertising point of view, however, this little baby currently produces 1.1 million instances in Google (including an editorial by AdAge‘s Bob Garfield and an entire article in The Wall Street Journal) – and that’s a lot of steaks that may have been served up at M&P.  [See my P.S on this one below]

So there you have it: my ongoing ode to tools and tactics that help you, uh, smooth the rough edges of life. Why do I love them? I think I just have a huge amount of respect for their creators – such ingenuity! My brain just does not work like that.  Good thing I’m smart enough to appreciate the fruits of their labors.

P.S. While wandering the Web for this post, I stumbled on a new Google feature, “Got the Wrong Bob?” Have you ever sent an email, only to receive a reply from a stranger saying that you’ve contacted the wrong person? “Got the Wrong Bob?” scans your Gmail files and tries to identify when you’ve accidentally addressed an email to the wrong person… before it’s too late.

I really seem to have a knack for this stuff.  You can thank (or Slydial) me later.

P.S. To the kids watching at home: when creating a tool like Expense A Steak that could conceivably be misused and abused by some goober -thereby exposing YOU to legal risk – it’s best to add a simple statement like “For Entertainment Use Only.” Your checkbook – and conscience – will thank you.

Mojo readers know that I truly enjoy the work of two wonderful marketing/business cartoonists and like to share it now and then.  On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp. 

I have to say that  ever since I found out that tweets carry a number of legal risks  I’ve been waiting for someone to deliver this painfully true characterization of what a meeting between Marketing and Legal just might be like… Enjoy!

stephanie-fierman-tom-fishburne-twitter-legal.jpg

Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today? 

Now more than ever, consumers want to feel good about the things they do and buy.  I’ve written a couple posts about the phenomenon on aspirational purchasing and making something groovy out of pretty much nothing and, recently, I saw the most fascinating example of turning a cruddy experience into something swanky.

Witness:  Cash4Gold.  You have to be living under a rock to not have seen their commercials, but just to be sure… Here’s the company’s weird Super Bowl ad, in which Ed McMahon and MC Hammer talk while a disembodied hand holds money (“Call toll free now!”):

And here is one of Cash4Gold’s standard ads (“Turn your unwanted or broken jewelry into cold hard cash!“)

Do these ads make you feel like a sharp cookie, or like you’re about to lose your house and have already checked the couch for loose change?  Given McMahon’s humiliating mortage disaster and Hammer’s personal woes, Cash4Gold comes across as a last resort for the truly pitiful and desperate.  Hardly something I’d be sharing over dinner with my girlfriends.

Contrast this to OutofYourLife.com.  It’s the exact same concept, but take a look at the company’s television ad:

I can identify with the woman in the ad because, unlike Ed McMahon, she’s “like me” (or like the woman I’d like to be) – attractive, secure and, of course, smart for unloading jewels from her past relationships.  And fyi, all of these ex boyfriends and their golden effluvia don’t mean she’s a loser: it means she dumped them and now has the perfect man, whom she (you), of course, deserve(s). 

Study the ad’s details:  the way the script weaves in the personal “stories” related to each piece, the sexy voiceover, the website’s design – even the box you use to ship off your jewels.  Everything about the ad is intended to reinforce that you are a sexy, beautiful, enticing, clever woman and that this is what such a person does. 

So virtually the same product, but with a message that permits the customer to create a transformational, positive story out of the fact that she’s got to hock her own jewelry to pay the rent. 

This is an unusually overt example of advertising’s ability to shape not only a message, but an entire experience… even the kind of person you are for being a customer.  ‘Love it!

What other self-worth-threatening activities could be transformed in the same manner? How about selling your car, or buying a used car? Ditto for “gently-worn” clothing. Foreclosure auction advertising?