“The customer’s voice is the one that really matters,” said Tina Sharkey, cofounder and CEO of consumer packaged-goods startup Brandless at the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week. “The brand becomes a platform for . . . the customers to be heard . . . for the products to tell their own stories, and . . . to express the purpose and meaning of what is hopefully the company’s larger mission.”
Sharkey, who calls Brandless “a community,” vigorously lives that ethos–often helming the company’s social media accounts herself and using it to communicate directly with customers, rather than going though a corporate communications intermediary. “I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram,” she said. “And I am not only on there as Tina Sharkey. I am on all the brand’s accounts. I’m interacting all the time.”
During the panel discussion, which included Rick Wise of creative consultancy Lippincott, Fast Company deputy editor David Lidsky asked how Brandless addresses customers’ ethical concerns about how products like oatmeal get to them.
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“You have to think of all your employees as spokespeople,” she said, describing the company’s weekly schedule of Facebook Live events. “Our buyers from Minneapolis, who actually buy and develop that oatmeal, they’re live. And so people are asking those questions, and we are answering them in real-time.” She’s proud of not providing media training for those employees, because she wants them to be authentic members of the team, not polished spokespeople.
Reframing customer relationships
Brandless was conceived as a community-based company, but more traditional companies can develop a customer-centric ethos. “Because of who we are, we tend to think about a company’s relationship with its customers in terms of its brand purpose,” said Wise. “That’s another way to shift your focus from products and features and functionality and price dimensions to, ‘What am I trying to do for customers? What purpose am I serving? And how does the product play a role in that?'”
Lippincott has brought that approach to re-imaging of major brands, such as Delta Air Lines after its emergence from bankruptcy in 2007. Delta decided to remake itself as an airline oriented to business travelers. Lippincott helped insure that the change went beyond logos and slogans, and beyond the marketing and communications department. That required working across the company to develop meaningful aspects of the service such as the online tools and amenities in the terminals. “It was all about taking the brand and translating it into tangible experiences,” said Wise.
One of many upshots to community is that companies already have a level of trust that softens the blow when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.
“The more a company does have a well-understood purpose that’s embodied by the people [who work there], that’s lived everyday, the more there’s a buffer to absorb things that go wrong,” said Wise.
Lippincott also works with Southwest, a popular brand, with a heart right in its logo, “in an industry not known for lots of warm and fuzzy brand building,” said Wise. Southwest’s lost baggage rate is higher than United’s, he said, but its complaint rate about lost baggage is lower. “They try so hard on so many other things that you kinda cut them a break when they lose your bag,” said Wise.
“We’re going to make a mistake every day, and the most important thing is to own it,” said Sharkey. That morning, for instance, she had received an email confirmation that food she had not ordered for herself had been delivered to her home. Sharkey wrote in to the regular customer support email line and, she said, got a quick explanation and apology for receiving an alert (and not the actual groceries) meant for another customer.
A much bigger snag came earlier this years when Brandless moved its distribution centers. The goal was to provide better delivery, but the transition introduced a period of unexpected delays–“a world of hurt,” as Sharkey describes it.
Before customers even started experiencing problems, Sharkey wrote an email to them providing a heads up and an apology–something that customers greatly appreciated. “I got notes back saying, ‘You have nothing to apologize for. A few days–it’s fine,'” she recounted. “I wanted them to know what was really happening, and people were rooting for us.”