Corporate Messaging & the Growing Loss of Credibility

Or, perhaps I should have titled this blog post – how too many organizations seem to believe their customer’s experience does not have to match their corporate messaging.

(Ed note: Warning: The following is a long post. But, anything dealing with showcasing the truth – or lack thereof – deserves some space.)

There are four enterprises whose messaging I have paid strict attention to recently – a bank, an online general merchant, a satellite TV company, and a major airline. These four organizations are the epitome of where business storytelling and messaging is succeeding – and where it is failing.

They are: Zappos, DirecTV, Wells Fargo, and Delta Airlines.

For more than a decade I have been applying some methodology to the magic of storytelling and messaging for clients. A bit of a formula exists. To be powerful, stories and messages have to be compelling, truthful and differentiating.

For years, I found the hardest part for organizations was trying to differentiate themselves from competitors.  In short, they weren’t very good at making themselves sound unique.

Today, we have another problem. And, it is the worst kind. We are steeped in a business world that is struggling with the truth.

As illustration, let’s pick on the bank. It was my last foray with Wells Fargo that I finally realized too many enterprises today are struggling with the truth in their messaging.

For instance, two days before Thanksgiving, as I was sitting under a Wells Fargo poster at my bank manager’s desk that read “With you when you want a head start on next year’s goals” I couldn’t help but ask why it was going to cost me $35 to get $51 wire transferred to Sweden. Or why it costs $16 every time a client wire transfers a payment to me. After all, they seemed to  have a lot of posters around that carried the “with you” theme. Their answer? “That’s just the way it is and we can’t do
anything about it
.” So much for the “being with me” advertising theme being more than a vacant slogan.

It made me wonder how much money they spent on posters, signs, copy and messaging, especially in light of the recent merger with Wachovia. Then, I noticed another interesting sign Wells Fargo seemed particularly proud of given the sheer size of it:  “We have one very powerful business rule. It is concentrated in one word: courtesy.” Hmmm. The definition of courtesy goes beyond just “being nice.” It means giving respect and consideration.  You know, like “being with me?”

Compare this to Zappos.com, an online retailer that started out as the Amazon.com for shoes. Now you can purchase clothing, jewelry, eyeware, household items and more.

Their tag line is “Powered By Service.” This is no empty slogan, as demonstrated by an order I made one night at 10:30 p.m. They wrote it would take a few days to receive the order. However, it arrived, via UPS, at 10 a.m. the next day. They also included instructions on how to return it – for any reason. Oh, and the shipping was free (both ways), and I had up to a year to return the item if needed. A year!? Unheard of. I would not expect this kind of service if they didn’t promise it. But, they do promise it in their messaging and they deliver.

Then, there was messaging I encountered on my business trip a few weeks ago. I was flying Delta Airlines between Richmond, Virginia, through Atlanta, to Louisville, Kentucky. As anyone who travels a lot, via air, will tell you, it takes all day to get  from point A to point B, even if it is only a state or two away. It also too often includes delays, security harassments, and bewildering rules. During this particular trip, as I found my way down a crowded jetway to get on the flight that was three hours delayed due to aircraft mechanical trouble, I had time to read the Delta posters.

It read, “We’re not just building a bigger airline, we’re building a better one.”  I had seen their commercials with this messaging over the last year. But, it didn’t really hit me until I was truly annoyed. After all, I am hours delayed. But, they were admitting they hadn’t figured it all out yet. And, you know what? It works. Their tag line, “Keep Climbing,” basically says they are trying and have a ways to go.

The next day I found an apology e-mail in my in-box because as they wrote, “someone in this industry still has the passenger’s back.” A day later they sent me a survey. Yes, the emails were both forms. But, they were actions of an enterprise at least trying. Another of their messages states “the next time an airline asks for your business, ask them first what they’ve done to deserve it,” and you know I just might do that.

Delta’s messaging and my experience with them is in stark contrast to my fourth example. Sorry, DirecTV, but you get an “F” in powerful storytelling and messaging. Despite their messaging that states “don’t just watch TV, DirecTV,” and “experience TV like never before,” if you can’t access the signal, get someone to show up, or get answers quickly and succinctly, no one is
directing anything.

Over the last three weeks, as my husband and I moved into a new house, we had two DirecTV in-person visits (after much begging and pleading) and six “phone sessions” (some lasting more than an hour) with technical support, yet only about 10 hours of service (at the writing of this blog post). It got to the point we had the local technician’s cell phone number, which we had to call many times because the service would just quit, and sometimes he just didn’t show up when he said he would. (I would tweet our frustration occasionally just to see if anyone from DirecTV was listening. They weren’t.) Add to the fact that we were outright lied to about what channels we would receive and would not, well, you are not even on the truth scale at all. Yet, they advertise that they are “the #1 in customer satisfaction of all satellite and cable providers.” We will see. We will see when we get the bill.

If you are going to advertise a message, be sure you can deliver. No matter how much money you spend on advertising, public relations, social media or clever storytelling techniques, if the customer’s experience does not match you have lost credibility. Nay, you have killed your credibility.

The Business Case for Video Storytelling

It is an increasingly visual world. If video isn’t part of your storytelling strategy, it probably should be. Does video make sense for you? Below are some data points — gathered by writer and PR consultant Christine Hohlbaum. Christine is a master storyteller and uses video often in getting the word out on her blog, The Power of Slow, dedicated to encouraging all of us to slow down and focus. (But one area, where she encourages a little speed, is in the area of adopting video.)

Business case points:

1) Video nation: The average US Internet user watches around 186 videos a month; as of September 2011, 85.3% of online US adults have reported watching an online video, particularly on video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. Sources: Pew Internet and Comscore.

2) Early B2B adoption: Forrester Research says business videos are not (yet) widespread, but check in to see if your competitors are seeing its value and joining the corporate “early adopters”.

3) Video trend: Aside from social media adoption, online video marketing is the fastest growing medium for marketers. According to a Forrester Research report released in November 2009 for the top 50 U.S. Internet Retail websites, the adoption of online video grew by almost 400 percent that year alone. Check out this ReelSEO post on the growth of video, as well.

4) Huge market: 39% of smartphone owners in the US watch video regularly on their device; 58% of iPhone users. As of July 2011, there were 82.2 million smartphone subscribers in the US alone (= 35% of all US adults). In the government sector, 81% of federal managers use a smartphone or tablet.

5) Time spent: according to Forrester principal analyst James L McQuivey, PhD, we spend more time watching video than any other activity except sleeping. TV viewing has decreased while online viewing has increased.

6) Power of pictures: Through its multimedia nature, video can stir buyers’ emotions in the way other media cannot, leading to an increase in sales. Visitors who view product videos are 85% more likely to buy than visitors who do not. (Internet Retailer, April 2010)

7) Google loves video: With proper optimization, video increases the chance of a front-page Google result by 53x. (Forrester, January 2010).

A list of concise best practices for creating corporate videos here. Go forth and record.

P.S. Yes, I understand this post probably should have been delivered via video. Check back soon for this blog’s inauguration video post.

Book Recommendation: MicroStyle: The Art of Writing Little

I literally just put down my iPad, from which I read the book, Microstyle: the Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson. I read many books on communication, and it has been a long time since I read anything really new about how we get our ideas across, what resonates with people overall and how we can ensure our message is not only remembered but shared.

Microstyle is entertaining and enlightening. The opening line to the introduction is intriguing: “This is the age of the Incredible Shrinking Message.” Yes. He goes on to explain how we go to this point of “miniature messages” (and you can’t blame it all on Twitter, though it may have speeded up the process a bit).

I don’t want to spoil the book for you (because I am recommending you read it), but here are some nuggets that caught my eye:

  •  “Micromessages often feature the formal traits of poetry: rhyme, alliteration, assonance, structural parallelism.”
  • “So, how do you pack a lot of meaning into a little message? You don’t. . . A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors.”
  • “Clarity  means finding the right level of detail for the circumstances.”
  • “The main function of a brand name…is to add conceptual and emotional depth to people’s ideas about a product, company, or service.”
  • “Baldly descriptive names are like a trip to the grocery store: they’re short, and you don’t see anything very interesting along the way. Suggestive names, on the other hand, lead you through exciting mental territory…”
  • “We don’t live ideas, we live situations. So, insert your reader into a situation.”
  • “What makes a micromessage successful is often the same thing that makes a comment stand out in a conversation: unusual perspicacity or wit.”
  • “Voice is what the recipient of your message infers about you solely from your communicative choices.”

These statements are taken entirely out of context. This is another reason to pick up the book. But, you get a flavor for what Johnson seems to be saying: Challenge “Big Style” and make your own style. It will determine much about you.