Walls of Separation

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by: David Armano

Today as I watched a video of Peter Arnell describe the rationale behind Tropicana’s rejected package design, I had a bit of an epiphany. Many companies, brands and organizations are inadvertently building walls between themselves and their customers. It’s unintentional, happened over time—but ultimately in this age of empowerment, customers feel more connected to each other than they do to your business or brand.

Maybe it’s always been this way—but it seems to me that it’s getting worse, not better. How else can you explain things like this? Somehow, some (not all) brands seem to be increasingly "out of touch" with their own customers. Here’s some food for thought around what I think might be some of the walls that are separating customers from your business.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo
Most large organizations have dealt with lawsuits and ugly legal situations, so understandably they’ve put large legal teams in place for their own safety. This is a smart business practice. But it also has a side effect. When legal restrictions prevent you from talking openly and honestly with your customers, there is bound to be a disconnect somewhere. In a recent conversation with Ford’s Scott Monty, he said "somewhere along the way, we forgot how to talk to each other". So while companies have to protect themselves, I’m wondering if there are opportunities to take a second look at this barrier. Can it be better?

Profit At All Cost
As cliche as it sounds, if selling "stuff" to "consumers" is all your business cares about—I have to conclude that it will eventually become a barrier. I believe that this economy is pushing us toward a "post consumer era" (more on that later). Which means that if your business is only in the business of making money and everything else comes second, you’ll be in trouble with consumers who are examining what they really need to be happy. Profit at all cost can become a barrier especially in this down economy because as people look deeper into themselves, it’ll seem odd that all you want to do is sell to them.

Brand Sorcery
I believe in the power of brands. I also believe in "brand sorcerers". These are the folks who invent emotion and meaning around your brand that is completely out of touch with how your customers feel about it. Brand sorcery creates hype and applies purpose to every nuance it touches around your brand or the "re-branding" of it. It’s not based on any good research or instinct. Often times it’s based in personal preference and self preservation. That said, good brand efforts can do the exact opposite and remove barriers. Pick your brand partners carefully—enough missteps here can alienate customers.

ROI Infatuation
In this economy, ROI is king and it’s understandable. I can’t stress that enough. But infatuation with it also kills risk taking which means that you could be in a perpetual cycle of risk aversion to the point of losing the spark that started your business in the first place. Your customers may be passionate—they could be willing to support you. But barriers can rise up if you never take chances with them and only focus on the desire to see a monetary "return" on all of your initiatives.

Ivory Tower Syndrome
This one is a biggie. If your business has become so inward looking as to forget about where your customers spend their time, then you may never be able to relate to them again. Ivory Tower Syndrome means you’ve forgotten how your customers live, what they do with their friends and families and what they value. Or worse, you’ve created artificial representations and don’t send your employees out to experience it first hand. This can become the ultimate barrier often formed as a result of others.

Tone Deafness
If you’ve lost the ability to connect and empathize with your customers, then you’ve become tone deaf. This means you can look at the data, the demographics and the numbers but never really understand, relate or "get" them in any meaningful way. So it’s natural that your preference of communication will be one way vs. a dialogue. It’s easier to maintain. Tone deafness becomes a barrier when you can see your customers, but can’t figure out how to touch them anymore.

Corporate Disconnect
Your customers have a culture, your company has a corporate culture. Sometimes they are aligned like in the case of Harley-Davidson who understands that people who park cars at there HQ need to do so in the back lot. The front is reserved for bikers—as it should be. Corporate disconnect means that the culture if your company has become incompatible with the culture of your customers. Once this happens, yet another barrier is formed.

So off the top of my head—at a gut level I’m thinking some of these things could be challenges. What are your thoughts? How can we do better? How can the "walls of separation" (if the indeed exist) be torn down?

Original Post: http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2009/02/walls-of-seperation.html