A brand of people

This is a guest post from Mitch Joel — President, Twist Image and author of “Six Pixels of Separation.” His new book “CTRL ALT DEL” comes out in May 2013. See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.

It’s strange how much of a brand’s foundation is laid by the people who represent it.

It could be a pristine service with a genius business model that is created with the latest in cutting edge technology, but none of that matters if the people who represent it fail to live up to the basic promise of the brand. Case in point: Uber. Without a question, I think Uber has one of coolest and most interesting business models.

I interviewed Tim Ferriss for my Six Pixels of Separation podcast (you can listen to it here: SPOS #333 – Learn To Do Anything With Tim Ferriss), and he described the service brilliantly: Uber allows any person to feel like a European diplomat. You initiate the app, hit the pick-up button, and a driver in a black town car is there within a handful of minutes to deliver you to your destination of choice.

Uber has a simple sign-up process that includes your credit card information. All you have to do is leave the car once you have arrived at your destination. Uber handles everything from the tip to the transaction to the very detailed billing. The app also enables you to see how many cars are in your area, approximate waiting time, and once a driver has decided to engage you, their information (name, mobile number, and license plate) is sent to you, plus you can track their position via GPS.

It works like a charm when it works like a charm.

You would think that this is an amazing story of entrepreneurship with a brilliant, beginning, middle, and end. It’s not. On multiple occasions, I have had drivers text me to find out where I am going, and if the trip is too short or there is too much traffic, they make up some kind of excuse as to why the trip must be cancelled.

It happened again the other day. It was rush hour and I needed to get from our Twist Image Toronto office to the downtown airport. It’s a ten-minute ride. The Uber driver started texting me requesting my destination and then told me he’s coming, and then claimed he had a flat. I found a cab in the rush hour traffic and barely made it to my flight on time. When I got to the airport, I checked my email and saw that the Uber driver charged me $15. When I texted the driver back that I will report him, he offered to pick me up. That was a pretty fast tire change. The system was working fine, until human beings started looking for an edge or angle that best serves them, but not the brand and the consumer.

This is not a customer service rant against Uber.

Uber is a great brand. The people who run it probably care deeply about a great consumer experience. By the time my flight landed, Lucas (one their community managers) wrote me a personal email of apology and refunded the money. The few drivers that have given me issues are not indicative of the Uber service, but they are a reflection on how I feel and interact with the brand. In short: It’s not an ideal service for me as I use it to get to airports and important meetings, because that extra 15-20 minutes of frustration that happens on occasion taints the experience for me.

It’s nothing new. There’s the old saying that our IP leaves the building everyday at 5 PM. The people who greet us at the door, handle our projects, and more are not just employees or team members, they are the brand. The living and breathing embodiment of it. All of the advertising, marketing, pomp, and circumstance in the world doesn’t add up to a hill of beans if you get a frown, an “I’m sorry, but that’s our policy,” or other infuriating interactions.

Thinking about the brand of people.

People are not software. They’re not apps. They’re not programmed to respond in a fair, balanced, and equal way. People are emotional creatures, and this makes us all fall prey to things like innuendo, bad moods, a feeling of resentment, and more. If you look at the top business books on leadership and leading people, you’ll note one constant and common theme: motivation. People need to be reminded and motivated to turn that frown upside down, to serve the client, to deliver what was truly promised, and to push back when being taken advantage of.

We often let emotions get the better of us. Walking in the snow, dragging my carry-on in sub-zero weather while hoping to find a cab was not fun. The truth is that I don’t blame Uber for this. I blame one individual (this driver) who lacked the integrity to live up to the commitment he made to Uber when accepting to be a driver for them. Sadly, it limits my ability to use the service, because that service is based on speed and reliability.

Uber’s job is not easy. Few brands have an easy job. Your brand probably deals with multiple similar scenarios every day. It’s a reality and a fact of life. The marketing lesson is about how brands handle it, train, and motivate their people to stick to the plan and do the right thing. The external marketing lesson is a little trickier, because we all expect brands to live up to a baseline of serviceability. As we all work our way through the people that represent our brand, we want to celebrate their individuality and empower them to be true evangelists. Values and philosophy must always align. Sadly, they don’t.

Another reminder that managing our brand is a big, important, time-consuming, and all-consuming task.

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About Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. He is also a blogger, podcaster, journalist, speaker, and the author of "Six Pixels of Separation" and "CTRL ALT Delete." Mitch is frequently called upon to be a subject matter expert for BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Marketing Magazine, Profit, Strategy, Money, The Globe & Mail, and many other media outlets.

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