Why negative perceptions arise – In most cases they exist because you have not lived up to your customers’ expectations – the service was poor, the food was bad, the quality is not that good. In some instances, issues arise when brands with a particular image try to do different things and appeal to different audiences. Here the issue is more fundamental as the perceptions can often challenge the original brand itself.
Some examples If we take a look at recent events from the banks, for example, we can see how you can undermine you brand and very quickly turn your customers against you. The Co-operative Bank and RBS demonstrate how quickly perceptions can change for the worse and change very quickly.
On the high street we are currently seeing how brands like Mothercare are struggling as many people feel the brand is old and tired and not relevant to the internet age of Mamas and Papas.
One shining example of turnaround has been demonstrated by Skoda, that 15 years ago had a very negative brand perception. Many people believed the car was poorly made and had quality issues. It almost became the joke of the car market. But today, following its acquisition by the Volkswagen Group in 2000, is a great example of high quality, low prices and well engineered cars.
Another interesting example is SAGA who have traditionally provided services for the older customer, but who have for over 10 years been struggling with how to make their brand relevant and appealing to the younger 50-something. When you have just turned 50 the last thing you want to do is be seen as old
So how do you go about tackling some of these issues?
What do brands need to focus on and how do you change perceptions?
Here are my five rules for brand perception, change and management.
1) Challenge negative perceptions as soon as they arise, defend your brand and manage its reputation, especially in the face of negative feedback on service and quality. If you are a service business this is where you should focus all of your efforts. Customer feedback should be actively sought through questionnaires, feedback forms, mystery shopping and via your social media channels. If you embrace negative feedback and encourage comments then you can do something about them. Don’t bury your head in the sand and expect them to go away. Take a look at Trip Advisor and look at what people are saying about hotels and you will see how important it is to be living and breathing your customers’ experiences. Retailers should also take note. If people are not in your store then they may be in your competitors’ for good reason.
2) Focus on your brand values and positioning, as this is key to demonstrating your true brand value. The one thing that stands out for me when you look at what Skoda has done is focus on communicating the brand values and telling us through advertising what a great product it is producing. This was based on extensive research and listening to its customers. But fundamentally what it did was to position the brand around a clear set of values and a strong promise linked to the Volkswagen Group reputation.
3) Focus on the customer and listen to their issues – research and customer feedback are key. I have already talked about the importance of listening to your customers but again you need to make sure you have a very proactive approach embedded in sound market research. It’s no good you thinking or believing something. It should be spoken by your customers. Focus on what they say and you will not go far wrong.
4) Never get complacent. This in many respects it the first rule of brand. One mistake can end it all. Just ask Gerald Ratner. So don’t expect things to stay the same. Look at Apple now. Post the late, great Steve Jobs the world has been waiting to see if the company can continue to innovate without him. Lying in the wings are Samsung and Google ready to take the coveted mantel. Even with the loyalty of Apple customers, if you fail to live up to your brand promise every day, then people vote with their feet and their pockets.
5) Communicate your message and own your brand perception. If the first rule of brand is never get complacent then the second must be communicate or lose your identity. Mothercare, and to some extent SAGA, fall into this category. I can’t remember the last Mothercare advert or message I have seen. Given I have three children under 5 years old that is quite a surprise. There is not an excuse to simply ignore your customer base and expect them to remember you because you have been around for a long time. For SAGA it’s a different communications issue with two directions you can take. One, invent a sub-brand and target the 50-65 market with something different. This is what M&S has done to get to the younger market with its Per Una range/brand. And what many others have done when the segments are too diverse to talk to with one voice and with one image. Alternatively you have to fundamentally readdress the whole brand. What does it stand for and what do customers think of it? This is the Skoda experience. Here you should challenge the misconceptions head on. Don’t run away from them, turn them into positives. It’s difficult but there are plenty of creative ways you can do it.
It’s always about the brand? So perception is everything and it’s up to you to ensure that you are in control of yours. Focus on your customers and their comments, communicate at all times, research proactively and if you need to challenge and move into new markets fundamentally review your brand perceptions and own them.