Picture the scene: I’m out to Sunday brunch with my wife at a New York teahouse and eatery called Alice’s Tea Cup. The restaurant has Alice in Wonderland themed decorations, brightly colored walls, and mismatching place settings. Children wear butterfly wings, women throw bridal showers, and couples go on brunch dates.
On this peaceful morning I had my nose deep in a menu, determining whether a pumpkin glaze or buttermilk chocolate chip scone would go better with my tea when I was suddenly distracted by some very loud hip-hop music. No, it wasn’t the souped-up Honda passing by with the windows rolled down; one of the employees at Alice’s merely decided that the next song on the company’s playlist ought to be this one.
My wife gave me a look that said, “Are you kidding me?” and my quick scan around the restaurant found several customers with scrunched foreheads and raised eyebrows. After a couple more songs in the same genre, I finally asked the waiter if he wouldn’t mind changing the music to something more relaxing. He apologized and graciously changed the station.
The collective relief was tangible and I earned a thumbs up from a nearby table.
Now I don’t share this story to bash Alice’s, nor to snub heavy hip-hop music. In fact, I’m a big fan of both. But you can imagine how hard-hitting beats with explicit lyrics might be off-putting for diners at an establishment that offers a lighthearted tea and pastry oasis away from the city hustle and bustle.
So how did this happen? Alice’s Tea Cup clearly cares about its branding — each design choice is purposeful, from the antique sewing machines repurposed as tables to the Cheshire Cat’s smile in the bathroom mirror. How did a string of heavy hip-hop songs find its way onto the company’s song list.
I think it’s pretty simple, actually. Management probably didn’t think to develop strict music guidelines, leaving the decision up to the employees’ discretion. And the employees probably didn’t realize that hip-hop music would clash with the teahouse vibe. It was an honest oversight.
An honest oversight, but an impactful one nonetheless. A company’s brand is far more than a logo and color scheme — it’s created or destroyed by the experience it delivers. One small branding blunder along the way can send customers mixed messages or turn them off entirely. The wrong music, for example, can begin to erode a fantasy tea and pastry experience and encourage loyal customers to try competitors.
If a business as detail-oriented as Alice’s fell victim to this branding error, it begs the question: what other unintentional branding blunders might the average company make? What everyday decisions are your employees making right now that are confusing customers and eroding your brand promise?
That’s undoubtedly a tricky question, because if you knew, you would have tackled them already. To get you thinking like a customer, try to imagine the employee decisions that impact the customer’s experience, especially the ones — like background music — that could change day to day.
Unless your employees wear specific uniforms, clothing is a great example. So, too, are customer conversations. Should your employees refer to customers subserviently? As friends? Advisors? That kind of information will impact how your employees will act when they greet your customers, solve their problems, and close deals.
These kinds of decisions are even more widespread and impactful online, often much more so than business owners initially think.
Take social media channels, for example. An effective social media strategy earns you the attention of industry influencers, develops relationships with your customers, and drives people to content you care about. But poorly managed social media channels irritate customers, damage your brand, and get people talking about you for all the wrong reasons.
Or take review channels like Yelp, Glassdoor, and Google Reviews. Your review profiles are like windows into your company and its operations — so how are your employees responding to queries, complaints, and compliments? It would be bizarre to have an edgy tattoo shop respond in the same way as a luxurious spa hotel. The two businesses offer wildly different brand experiences, and their responses should reflect that.
Live chat applications, contact forms, and email queries — the number of communication platforms are seemingly endless, and so, too, are the possible interactions your employees can have with customers.
No, this doesn’t mean your employees would be better off as robots, serving templated responses and following surgically defined brand guidelines. Nobody can predict every employee decision and potential brand blunder: for every guideline you put in place, another new situation or problem will take its place. Thus is the nature of human-to-human interaction.
Instead of playing whack-a-mole with brand guidelines, consider empowering your employees to make their own branding decisions. Explain why current guidelines exist and when new situations arise, encourage your team to offer solutions that best reflect your brand’s values.
That way, when something new arises — an unfamiliar communication channel or some brand detail you haven’t thought of yet — your employees will already be trained to react in a way that aligns with your messaging and brand promise.
It is only through learning the why of new and existing brand guidelines that your employees will gain confidence to deliver the brand experience you want your customers to receive. (By the way, I don’t mean an intellectual understanding that comes from a quick lecture — I mean a deeply ingrained mastery of the brand’s values that comes only from consistent practice and the empowerment to make those decisions for themselves.)
It might seem obvious in hindsight that heavy hip-hop was a poor choice for an enchanting tearoom. I knew it didn’t fit the vibe, and the other diners knew it, but the mismatch wasn’t evident to the employees working there.
By being explicit about your brand’s values and making decisions collaboratively with your employees, you’ll ensure that they learn to make their own spur-of-the-moment decisions that ladder up to your company values. A thoughtful employee base with a strong understand of your brand’s promise to customers will mean that even the smallest decisions — like background music — will get the same attention you would give them if you were handling them yourself.