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Alf's Articles

Musings on the Theme of Life (with a hint of Marketing)

by Alf Nucifora

There will be little preaching or proselytizing in this column. Instead, I offer you observations of the times as viewed through the aging, yet always optimistic eyes of a marketer.

It's All About Image

I have to acknowledge the truth. I'm 0-for-2 in the political prognostication department. In 2000 I called it for McCain who was on his way to the White House before the Bush hit squad took him down at the knees in South Carolina with accusations of fathering an illegitimate black child. This time around, I called it for Dean as the Democratic nominee, a prediction based on his acceptance of the Internet as the future protocol by which politicians will forge a following. Dean was ahead of the pack on the communication front, but his failure to define an elect-able image or respond to the establishment, that of the media and his own party, factored in his demise. And lest we forget, Janet Jackson who out-Madonna'd Madonna and who with the tear of a bodice re-established a sagging reputation (no pun intended). An unrestrained, yet authentic yip destroys a Presidential ambition; a calculated and contrived rip generates headlines and reignites a fading career. O tempora, O mores! Increasingly, it's about the marketing, the iconic behavior, the flash over substance, the sizzle rather than the steak. It's an unfortunate reality for brand marketers - it's not how good you are, it's how much noise you make…and the right noise at that.

Even the Scarred and the Bitten Seek Closure

As a twenty-five year veteran of the advertising business, I really haven't given much thought to the profession or the craft in years. But a recent lunch time conversation with a fellow practitioner from the halcyon days of the 70s and 80s, led us to ponder the whereabouts and fate of many of our long forgotten associates. We decided to hold an informal reunion. No promotion, just a small viral campaign spread by email to get the word out. We anticipated 20-30 attendees for a quiet evening of talk and drinks. Close to 400 attended. As one person was overheard to remark, "Even the dead people showed up."

Aside from the overtones of a high school reunion, what surprised was the genuine and palpable need to renew friendships, settle scores and seek closure…all this from a hip, cynical, aging ad crowd that tends to roll its eyes at anything faintly touchy-feely. They all seemed to be surprised by the fact that they enjoyed themselves. Amazed, in fact. It's got to be a Boomer thing. Somewhere there's a message for marketers, even if I'm not sure what it is.

Persistence Pays

I receive scads of invitations to media events, the vast majority of which I don't attend. But I recently received an invitation to, of all things, the launching of a new product by British Airways…the announcement of "a revolutionary new seat which converts to a fully flat, 180 degrees, six foot long bed" as a business class product on the Atlanta/London route. It normally takes two to three seconds for such invitations to find themselves in the waste bin, accompanied by the proverbial "out of town" RSVP. But, this time I went even though the launch party broke into an exceptionally busy day. Why? An extremely persistent PR professional who followed up incessantly, pestered without being a pest, lathered me with flattery, and offered just the whiff of an incentive (a possible seat on the inaugural flight). Who could resist? And it worked, didn't it?

Contrast that with the PR folks at Google.com who have failed to return two phone calls seeking a briefing on their product for an up-coming column on Internet search. The trouble with being #1 is always the risk of hubris and arrogance, leading to laziness and lack of follow-through, resulting inevitably in failure or defeat. I hope I'm wrong about Google. It's a great product, with lackluster PR support. I hope they remember that in the world of technology, memories are short and there's always a better alternative just around the corner.

Finally, Some Customer Service Venting

A close friend and associate reports an unexpected experience with Dell Computer. The company's failure to enter her address correctly into the billing system resulted in her account and good credit being placed in jeopardy. This, incidentally, is a loyal customer (three systems) and a true evangelist for Dell products. Her calls to Dell's Customer Service Center and Dell Financial Services, both of which it seems, from the accents of the phone reps, are located in India, resulted in robotic responses which included "Nobody can assist you in this matter," and "We are sorry, but it's your error."

In my own case, I have an outstanding doctor's reimbursement (legitimate) that has remained unpaid by United Healthcare for more than twelve months. Repeated calls to the company's "customer service" department result in a request to have the doctor's invoice faxed to the company "because the claim is not in the system." After sending six faxes, talking to six different service representatives and any number of supervisors, it's obvious that United Healthcare is not going to pay the claim. It's not malfeasance on their part, but certainly misfeasance and a glaring lack of empathy for the customer. (Incidentally, the next step is to sue in small claims court. At least I can teach them a lesson by running up their legal costs.)

The lesson is clear. Always give the customer an opportunity for settlement and closure. Provide a communication channel where the complaint can be heard to a point of resolution. Bureaucratic procedures and boiler rooms that run by rote are a migraine to the angry customer who seeks nothing more than fair play.

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