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Kids Used to Fly Free, Now Bags Do: More Thoughts on Brand Transparency & Authenticity

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Philadelphian’s love their local history. I’ve talked to many folks who have moved here and, to a person, they usually are quick to point out how friendly and genuine our citizenry is. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods; individual families here might trace their regional roots back several generations. In fact, one of the few chronic complaints newcomers will voice about this city is that — when a Philadelphian starts talking about local stores, history and events — it’s easy for a transplant to feel lost and alienated. For years, the retail scene in Philadelphia was dominated by the two department store chains formerly based here, Strawbridge & Clothiers and Wanamakers. These were chains born in an era when department stores were meccas for a grand shopping experience. Both chains were anchored by fabulously designed, grand stores in Center City, Philadelphia. Both offered shoppers a sense of urban refinement that made the indulgences shoppers are inclined to succumb to that much easier to justify. Finally, both conducted business in typically “old school” ways, emphasizing great customer service and a marketing strategy that featured fair, non-sale pricing, punctuated by periodic sale periods. Why in tarnation am I rambling on about two now-defunct, Philadelphia-based retail giants? Because I’m a little obsessed with this “brand authenticity and transparency” rift I’ve been on for two posts now. And I think there are lessons here. In my earlier post, I made the observation that, if brands want to summon up feelings we customarily associate with meaningful personal relationships — feelings like “authenticity” or “loyalty,” then they need to start acting more like people in relationships and less like corporate brands in faux relationships.They need to take some lessons from Strawbridges, or other smaller businesses. Or the people you actually choose to have relationships with. Remember when I noted that Strawbridge’s marketing strategy was straightforward and premised on selling quality, well-respected brands which were periodically sold at discount? That strategy is sound and predictable. Combined with a local aura that was supported by the grand experience of shopping at a flagship store, Strawbridge’s created a brand that Philadelphian’s still reminisce about, years after their glory days have passed. Now, let’s look at how corporate America typically markets. One of my favorite corporate marketing ploys is the rebate. You gotta love a retailer that claims to be marking down a product by 20% but only allows you to collect that discount after you:

  • dissect the packaging
  • scan the receipt
  • stuff everything into a big envelope
  • wait six to eight weeks
  • cross your fingers
  • say a prayer to your favorite Norse God

Rebates combine the thrill of the impulse-purchase-justified-on-price-discount with the high likelihood that the consumer won’t actually follow through on collecting the rebate. It’s a brilliant marketing strategy. And a terrible relationship strategy. Imagine if the family dry cleaning business you like so much offered you twenty bucks off your cleaning bill this week but only after you filled out a form, scanned your receipt, collected a few scraps of wool and sent everything off to a clandestine location and waited six weeks. Would you still have warm, fuzzy feelings about him or maybe think he’s  a bit of a weirdo or shyster? Luckily, there are some corporations that seem to “get” that consumers prefer an honest deal to a disingenuous “kinda sorta” deal.  Southwest Airlines — a company which made its reputation based on the simplicity of its value proposition —  is capitalizing on their reputation for straightforward pricing in their recent commercials featuring the “bag police.” These commercials remind people that Southwest would never “game the pricing” of their airfares. The would  never start charging their customers fees which they had not charged before. In relationship terms, it tells their customers that — just like a friend you might trust in the long term — Southwest is not going to remain consistent and trustworthy. In a future post, I’m going to point out some other marketing tactics which, in their simplicity and transparency, preserve a brand’s trustworthiness and extend the relationship with their customers…

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