Brands Live Or Die By The First Impression
by Alf Nucifora
All too often it's how we are initially attracted to our lifetime mate…the flash of the eyes, the timbre of the voice, the particular appeal of posture, pose or body part. Ditto with brand appeal. What strange pheromone cements our connection to a brand at a fleeting first touch? The truth is that first impressions can indelibly define the brand, and if those first impressions are negative, untold effort will have to be made to rectify the damage, if, in fact, such reparation is possible.
I'm always reminded of the significance of first impressions upon returning from the classic business warrior excursion, the type of trip that requires visiting multiple cities in a mad dash to meet a demanding timetable. One such trip over the course of a week had me in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit and Albuquerque. Four brands warrant critiquing as a result of the sojourn, Avis, Four Seasons, Hyatt and Holiday Inn Express.
In the case of Avis all the signs point to a rudderless brand, an organization that's lost its consumer compass and operates with a flawed culture that fails to respect its customers. Makes sense for a company that has been through the wringers of buy-out and orphan-child exploitation. There is obviously no one at the top who holds and articulates a strong belief about appreciating and respecting the customer. That's why the troops don't give a hoot. At both the Atlanta and Philadelphia airports, personnel were surly, abrupt and unresponsive. Warmth of greeting, smiling faces and customer empathy have long exited the Avis building. The cars are poorly maintained and generally dirty. A complaint about an assigned vehicle with windshields liberally coated with bird droppings received no acknowledgement, let alone an apology, just a replacement set of keys silently thrust across the counter accompanied by an attitude that implied that a favor was being done rather than a legitimate customer complaint being rectified. Nauseating, easy-listening music pap is piped into buses at high decibel volume with little regard to the traveler who is still coming alive in preparation for an early morning trip, or an arriving passenger who has had to endure the indignity, misery and stress induced by the average commercial airline flight in the U.S. So much for the much-vaunted Preferred status. That has about as much pull as a Police Benevolent Society bumper decal in a traffic arrest. I plan to change to Hertz or National, but instinct warns me that it probably won't make any difference. Just changing colors.
Four Seasons continues to intrigue. The first impressions remain right on target, with quiet elegance fortified with unobtrusive service and a sense of naturalness, as if they not only get it, but practice it without really trying. Over-the-top solicit ness and pomposity give way to the projection of professionalism and an aura of calm reassurance exuded by all the staff. And yet something seems amiss. There is now a palpable sense that everything looks the same, that uniformity of experience, albeit very high-end, is inadvertently resulting in an image of blandness for the brand. There's little excitement upon entering the building or the room. The eyes are no longer assaulted. The senses no longer challenged. Excitement has given way to impeccable manners and not-a-hair-out-of-place conformity. In the travel and hospitality sector, driven by experiential desire as it is, particularly on the part of the rich and affluent, being perceived as mundane can't be good for the brand.
Albuquerque delivered two decidedly unexpected experiences. The upscale Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa at which I was a guest speaker welcomed me at 11.30 in the evening, coming off a late-arriving flight, with a double-take look of disdain at my casual attire and two day-old face stubble. Try as he may, the check-in manager really couldn't forgive the presumptuousness of a disheveled traveler who either should not be in his house or should know better than to grace the Hyatt doorstep attired and comported in such an unseemly fashion. Perhaps he should spend some time with my local Ferrari/Maserati dealer who will attest to the common sight of under 40 male shoppers, unshaven and in flip-flops and t-shirts, who simply must own that little red job there on the showroom and have the $200,000 plus to buy it on the spot, in cash. While first impressions count, forming wrong first impressions can just as effectively hurt. A subsequent argument about the hotel's failure to honor a specific reservation ("All we have left is a smoking room or a room with pull out sofa-bed") reinforces the notion that nowadays you only get one chance. Strike Hyatt from the list of acceptable brands. It will be used only as an alternative to sleeping in the park or in prison. Don't need them. There are too many comparable flags that want the business so why go where I'm not wanted.
The big surprise was the replacement Holiday Inn Express close-by, at $90 an excellent value, with a spotless room, free internet, in-room coffee complementary morning breakfast, a shower head that performed like a fire hose, and a bed that delivered a night of sumptuous slumber. What more does the road warrior need? I gave up on Holiday Inn a long time ago. Based on this first impression, I'll be back for another try.
There's a lesson in these travails. The old adage states that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Good advice for job seekers, spouse hunters and brands on the make. It's a cold unforgiving marketplace out there, populated with Cassandras and crusty malcontents like me who will only spot you the one chance. Don't blow it.