Why ordering a curry was a great lesson in branding

I write a lot on brands, I work with them and I advise clients on how to manage them. And I spend a lot of time convincing clients that whether they believe me or not, they have a brand. However small a business, however sceptical an individual, we all have a brand and they really do matter. 

I also read a lot about what brands are, the endless definitions we have for them, why they are important and what makes them strong … or weak. And through my work I have come to the conclusion that a strong brand is the combination of two pretty simple things: 

  1. having a good product (or service)
  2. and creating a positive customer memory (through their experience of you and your product or service)

And this is all fine. Not particularly technical but based on solid research and many years working in design and communication. But of course, I also experience brands, just like everyone else, daily, in daily life, and it is the experiences we have which I think bring the greatest clarity of all to the question, what goes in to making a successful brand?

Here is the tale of one experience I had recently. 

It was a Saturday night. We had a take away. A curry. From a new, boutique home delivery service. Word of mouth marketing is one of the most powerful forms of marketing there is and they came highly recommended. 

It was ordered well in advance, as per instructions, as it was cooked to order, the ‘personal touch’. The cold beer was opened at the alloted time, expectations were high. And then we waited, and waited, and waited. To cut a long and tawdry story short, it was the best part of two hours late, arrived in a broken bag, barely warm enough to eat. 

We had booked a meal for a specific time – was assured three times it was ‘five minutes away’ and when I asked what state a curry that had been in transit for nearly two hours would be like, I was assured it would be pristine and piping hot. By the time it was probably as warm as my beer. 

And I was charged the full price: the service and subsequently the product, was awful, the response just screamed ‘we don’t actually care, we just want you off the phone’ and as a result the totality of the experience was overwhelmingly negative.

A cold, late meal was bad enough, but I think that simply no effort whatsoever on the companies part to understand, or care about how I felt about the interaction and my experience of them, of their brand annoyed me even more. 

What’s done is done, but the measure, the value you place on a business is how they deal with their customers. For instance, they could have:

… Made the effort, show willing, “it was late, not good enough, have one of the meals for free.” A token gesture yes but also an acknowledgement of their business understanding my feelings, and caring just a little that I was not happy with them. I still would not use them again but in time I would concede their efforts to soften the blow, do something to make good and in consequence, not be such a negative advocate of their service.

Another option would have been to …

… Take the hit. “Have it on us. It’s yours, accept our apology and please give us the chance to make good by trying us again.” And you know what, I would probably be inclined to do so. We all go into these experiences, in cafe’s, bars, restaurants, wanting a good experience, of course we do, nobody wants a bad meal, and a full and frank admission of fault would be enough for me to give them another chance. 

I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all had bad experiences of customer service. We’ve all got frustrated when we feel overlooked, ignored or undervalued as a customer. In fact, when we have a positive experience of customer service, it often catches us by surprise. And today, without question, consumer expectations are higher and word of mouth travels faster. Consumers are empowered like never before and all of this just puts increased importance on the customer experience.

So, what makes a strong brand? A good product and the positive feelings that come from a positive customer experience. Writ large in my memory this morning is an experience that was far from positive, a product far from good.

I was going to write a tutorial session on branding for small businesses today, but this was in my mind and it was, because I experienced it, because it happened to me, an insightful and instructive lesson in what a brand is, how it impacts on me, us, the consumer and why brands really do matter.