Do consumers care if a company comes across as authentic and genuine? If a clothing salesperson, for instance, exuded down-to-earth charm and a sincere interest in the kind of jeans you were shopping for, would it be OK if every pair delivered to the changing room were something other than your requested size? How many times have you heard a sales rep “authentically” say, “I really wish I could help you, but it’s against company policy for me to authorize a refund?” Did sincerity carry the day after those exchanges?

Midwest PR and marketing agency FleishmanHillard decided to find out the difference between what consumers expect from companies and what they actually experience. The resulting study, entitled “Mind the Gap”, looked at 20 different industry categories in the U.S., Germany and China. FH’s partner, London-based research company Lepere Analytics, crunched the data from “expert customers” and came up with a few major points:

  • Every brand is subject to the authenticity gap between what customers expect from an industry category and what a company or brand actually delivers. Which, of course, is why marketing and PR companies exist in the first place. So, nothing earth-shattering there.
  • The concept of a global market is just that – a concept, not a reality. Consumer expectations in “virtually every one of the 20 categories studied” vary from one country to the next. While this only makes sense, it’s good to see that the study recognizes this fact. After all, imagine applying the same sorts of customer service standards to Chinese companies as to American ones. It’s easy. Just multiply the levels of complexity by about 10. Or, in some cases, 1,000.
  • Categories which look to be enjoying the greatest success in meeting customer expectations include major appliances; online shopping; pharmaceuticals; and, tablets/e-readers. Those struggling? Internet service providers; vacation and travel; and, wireless carriers. All 7 categories scored consistently in all three countries. Translation: Businesses that require less direct human-to-human contact apparently are meeting consumer expectations, while those requiring more constant human-to-human contact ain’t gettin’ the job done.
  • Consumers look at three major areas when assessing a company’s authentic behaviors: customer benefits, management behavior and society outcomes. The data supposedly indicates that consumers value the latter two behaviors as much as what they get from a company or brand. In other words, we want good service, but if the company is a lousy global citizen and/or a haven for corrupt management, customer benefits alone won’t save its reputation. This explains why everyone stopped buying gasoline from BP after the Gulf of Mexico drilling disaster.

FleishmanHillard further breaks down these three major areas as follows:

Customer Benefits

  • Better Value
  • Customer care
  • Innovation

Management Behaviors

  • Doing right
  • Consistent performance
  • Credible communications

Society Outcomes

  • Employee care
  • Community impact
  • Care of the environment

FleishmanHillard says that it launched this new research as part of an effort to jump start the company’s Center on Reputation and Relationships, a think-tank-y site that will feature “insights and workshops from luminaries across the industry” on issues that relate to brand and reputation.

“Too often the reputation research that exists today only asks half the question: what was your experience,” says Marjorie Benzkofer, global lead of FH’s Reputation Management practice.

We also have to understand expectations to fully appreciate how a company is being perceived in the eyes of its consumers, employees, or any important audience.Marjorie Benzkofer

Beyond that, though – and this is where the FH study promises to provide some useful guidance – keeping customer/brand relationships healthy has gone beyond the traditional rounds of data review, strategy meetings and adjustments to marketing plans. The amount of information and data out there is so huge, and travels around the globe so quickly, that the only way to make effective use of it is for charting a course going forward – in real time.

“It’s like polling for an election,” says Marc Lepere, chairman and CEO of Lepere Analytics.

We need to understand what the outlook is, where the momentum is carrying the consumer and therefore their opportunities for growth.Marc Lepere

Say what you want, but mean what you say

Apart from the obvious problem of pretending that elections, much less politicians, are authentic, Lepere’s comments allude to a different point: Authenticity is only part of the game. Consistency – of message, of service, of value and of values, corporate and otherwise – is the real force to harness. And a consistent message is only as good as the planning and work that go into it. Which means that, no matter how fast life moves, sincerity only guarantees a fairly blameless ride, not a successful outcome.

Comedian George Burns, when asked the secret to what makes a great actor, supposedly said something like,

That’s easy. Acting is telling the truth. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

It would seem that the crafters of the Authenticity Gap could use a lesson or two in consistency from Mr. Burns. One they’ll likely get either by hard preparation – or by hard experience.

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