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More Than Ever, First Impressions Still Count

by Alf Nucifora

Why is it that whenever I undertake a marathon business trip, I become acutely aware of brand depredation? In the competitive travel and hospitality sector, enhancing and protecting the brand should occupy a life or death significance. Mess with brand, its perception and/or delivery and you may never get them (travelers) back.

Much as marketers, and politicians, may silently disparage the average American consumer because of his/her supposed vacuous-ness when it comes to gauging communications, messages and meaning, the harsh reality is that, consciously or subconsciously, consumers are constantly processing subtle signals and cues which more often than not convey a silent and indelible impression about the brand. That's why first impressions count so much.

It's all in the sight and sound

In the majority of cases where the consumer touches the brand in a person-to-person transaction, in a retail store buying situation for example, the smell component has been finessed. With the exception of communal toilets and some public transportation, odor is rarely an issue in public spaces where brands are on display. In most retail and commercial environments, e.g., restaurants, supermarkets, banks, clean smelling air is a given, unless it's been enhanced with artificial aromas aimed at stimulating impulse purchase. Cosmetic aisles in department stores and free-standing cookie stores inside shopping malls come to mind.

Sight and sound? Now that's a different issue. When it comes to eye and ear, many brands display a disregard for the consumer that is monumental in its capacity to erode brand perception and value. You heard it here first. Silence is about to become a competitive weapon that smarter, more perceptive brands will co-opt. Remember that 2006 is the year that the first Boomers turn sixty. These are people for whom noise becomes less tolerable to both the ear and the soul, NASCAR events notwithstanding. It is one of the reasons that movie theatre attendance has dropped off so dramatically. Once faithful movie theatre patrons are no longer willing to pay through the nose to have their ears assailed by loud talking, heavy chomping buffoons in the seat behind.

And yet, the decibel count grows. On my most recent trip, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport roared and shrieked with the aggregate cacophony of noises emanating from bleating people movers, self-important, loud-talking cell phone blowhards and strident CNN terminals affixed to the ceilings. In what must be one of the most consumer-unfriendly airports in the nation, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, authorities play an annoying, piercing looped security warning every three minutes without break. Nobody pays attention to the message, yet this Orwellian torture is inflicted upon airport staff and passengers in order to satisfy some obscure, bureaucratic dictate. Then there are those, of horrendous voice and diction, who are entrusted with the microphone, loud flight attendants reading the standard, stilted FAA message in bored but intrusive tones, and their airport counterparts, gate agents being the worst of breed, who prattle on without regard to what they say, how they say it, and who and what it interrupts or disrupts. God forbid that one should seek a quite, reparative moment to read, think or quietly contemplate the soul. I predict no-noise rooms, side-by-side with the "smoking only" Siberias.

Stepping over the threshold

In previous writings, I've identified the "threshold factor", that imaginary line that customers cross as they interact with a brand...entering a retail store, hotel or restaurant; communicating for the first time with a company's customer relations department by phone or email; walking into a commercial or corporate lobby. In every threshold journey, first impressions are formed, and they stick. At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, the surviving perception is decidedly negative…rude security staff (a private firm not TSA), an abundance of sheriff's deputies with little to do but hang around and convey the impression of "law enforcement at work on your behalf", and a tired, dirty terminal reeking of tropical malaise. Ironically, the same airport offers free Wi-Fi, a valuable passenger benefit that gets trumped by the more obvious and visible deficiencies. You can see dirty carpeting, not a Wi-Fi signal.

In Atlanta, the once pristine MARTA railcars are now marred by internal graffiti. Rail stations, lacking security personnel, project an aura of insecurity and danger. If Bratton's "Broken Window" theory is correct, MARTA is on the beginning of a downward path to neglect and decay, similar to the New York Transit system of the '70's. That how brand decline takes place…inch by insidious inch.

At a recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, where the nation's and world's gourmet foods are on display for all to see, the mind grows numb after sampling the fifteenth slab of chocolate, the twentieth cup of flavored coffee and the thirtieth dipping of virgin olive oil. An hour into the display aisles and all the brands begin to blur. Except for one smart enterprising brand, Bella Cucina which has designed a trade booth that jumps singly out of the crowd because of its adroit design incorporating elegance, simplicity, superior merchandising and an arresting lightness of tone in an environment otherwise beset by a confusing and numbing jumble of color and visual imagery. It makes you want to stop, linger, probe, inquire and buy. That's the threshold factor working at its best.

What's the message? Simply stated, it's a matter of maintaining threshold vigilance. When was the last time that a brand custodian in your organization visited the transaction or interaction through the eyes of a customer? All too often we take both the brand and the customer for granted. If that airport manager in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood had sat in his/her own terminals and spent a day as an average passenger, I suspect that improvements to the service would be immediately forthcoming and passengers like me would have supportive word-of-mouth comments to pass on that would enhance rather than vilify the brand.

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