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Incomprehensible
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Why Do So Many Brands Do Such a Bad Job of Communicating?

I was surprised to receive this subscription renewal notice from The New Yorker last week, as I dimly remembered having re-upped a few months ago. It took me a minute to locate the proof on the invoice (I'm good for another year and a half). Why am I getting a notice now? Do they think I'm stupid?

Don't answer that second question. But I do see so much bad brand communication that it begs the question of whether the marketers' motives are sinister or just inept.

Do you understand your monthly mobile phone bill? I sure don't, or can't, as it's full of categories and ledger entries that seem compliant with the computer system that spit them out (and that's programmed in Esperanto). My mobile provider isn't trying to provide me with any useful information...no, quite the reverse. It's as if it doesn’t want me to comprehend how it arrives at my charges.

I'd throw many cable TV, Internet services, and even brokerage and bank statements into the same category. My meager investments require a monthly 10-page printout of entries and debits and transfers even though I haven't bought a stock in over a year. For all I know they've outsourced my account management to Bernie Madoff.

It's hard not to suspect that this happens on purpose.

My recent magazine invoice falls into another category of consumer confusion that's the opposite of too much information: the absence of information. We pay our bills and then move on. Many invoices are paid automatically directly from our bank accounts, so consumers aren't generally up to speed on what was paid when (or how much). The point is to take care of this stuff, kind of like managing a chronic affliction. There's nothing wrong with it as long as we can rely on the businesses we've entrusted with our ignorance.

The New Yorker invoice reminds me that we can't, as did my realization a few months ago that my cable bill was egregiously larger than the going rate for new customers. I had to call my provider and demand the same discount, which they were happy to provide. But I had to ask. Someone had made the decision to not disclose the cost disparity on my monthly invoice, and to not proactively offer it to me.

Complex invoices...bills when nothing is owed, or charges that exceed going rates...I'd even throw mouseprint warnings into the equation, as the required admissions that your interest rate could go to 120% or a drug could make your head explode aren't required to appear in a font size legible to humans. Information -- or call it "content" if you want to make my point topical -- becomes meaningless when it's incomprehensible, lacking, or hidden.

And we wonder why corporate reputations are at all-time lows, or why people don't trust advertising much more than they believe in the Tooth Fairy. Consumer empowerment is fine and good but it's not really empowerment if the alternative means companies can take advantage of you.

Brands can be funny or engaging. I'm all for Facebook fan pages and discounts on Twitter, and I promise to laugh at the next UGC video. But The Conversation is so much bigger than using technology tools to entertain people and, for starters, it happens via less sexy channels like billing, service statements, and warnings/usage instructions.

Brands that do a bad job in these areas are telling their customers some very important things, whether the strategy is purposeful or simply crummy by default:

  • You're stupid
  • You're not paying attention
  • Don't worry, be happy

Either way, I find the strategy incomprehensible.

Added: 5th July 2010

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