How to Avoid Watering Down Your Brand

What Carnival Cruise Lines & Maker’s Mark Can Teach Us About Brand Decision Making

By Kelly O’Keefe (@kellyokeefe)

What a month it’s been for brand blunders. In recent days, the world’s largest cruise line, one known for its luxury accommodations, handed its travelers plastic bags and asked them to use them for their solid waste. That image may revile you, but fear not, Carnival’s owner, Mickey Arison, is made of sterner stuff. He didn’t let the plight of his passengers interrupt his plans to watch the Miami Heat game from his VIP suite.

In a less unfortunate incident, another category leading brand, Maker’s Mark, decided on a great plan to increase production: Just water down the bourbon! They figured that nobody would mind too much if they just poured a little more tap water in the barrels. They figured wrong.

Maker’s Mark was forced to quickly abandon the new recipe after a costly customer revolt, while Carnival is due for years of lawsuits and a brand that’s sinking faster than the Titanic. In both cases, managers responsible for protecting the brand made mistakes that anyone on the outside could see from a mile away. And actually, that underscores the problem.

Instead of looking at the issue from a distance, like the public and the media look at it, most companies are observing from an internal perspective. The voices ringing in their ears are those of the CFO and other managers, eager to protect the bottom line without realizing the significant risk that lies outside their doors.

We may not find ourselves in situations like these very often, but all of us are at risk of falling into the same trap. How often do we make a decision about the best way to address a customer or client issue from the comfort of the management suite, and how much of our thinking is about what’s best for us, not the customer?

The best way to protect our brands and reputations is by looking at situations from the customer point of view. We must work very hard to imagine what they’re feeling and thinking. If Maker’s Mark had really been in touch with the customer’s point of view, would they have watered down their own booze? If Mickey Arison had more empathy for his stranded passengers, would he have jetted in for the game, or helicoptered out to the ship to see how he could help? And if he did spend some time on the ship, among the passengers, how might Carnival’s response have differed? I’m betting he would have moved heaven and Earth to get the travelers some relief.

The lesson for all of us is simple: When faced with business challenges, get out of the conference room and into the customers’ living room. The answers are never hard to find.

Images courtesy of Reuters, Forbes.

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