Why brand integrity matters

Brand integrity is how consumers perceive your company or brand through its products, image, and reputation. And while every customer experience may not meet or exceed the brand promise, when a brand loses integrity, its meaning and value to consumers is diminished.

I experienced that last year with American Express. As long-time Platinum Cardholders, my wife and I booked a recent trip to New Orleans through Amex’s Travel Concierge. Three days before our departure, my wife contacted the hotel to request early check-in and she was told that there was no reservation. She immediately contacted Amex and learned that an error occurred on their end and a "trainee" wiped out our plane and hotel reservations. We could have arrived at the airport with no plane ticket and missed the wedding we were attending in New Orleans. Worst of all, most of the festivities were being held at the Windsor Court, yet the hotel was now overbooked and the Amex customer service representative was unable to accommodate our request to stay there -- even though we made our reservations three months prior. So Amex suggested the Ritz-Carlton, one mile away. They also could not get us seats on the original flight and booked us on a later afternoon flight with first class to New Orleans.

When we returned to Florida, we submitted our Ritz-Carlton and airline costs to Amex for reimbursement. However, they now claimed that they were not going to pay for their errors as promised, but only the difference between the Ritz and the Windsor Court. To add insult to injury, they charged us $1,400 each for the round-trip flight that was originally paid for by Reward Points. For almost 10 days, my wife struggled with Amex via phone and emails to get this situation resolved, but to no avail. Coming to her rescue, I posted a comment about our experience on Amex’s Facebook page and got a response in two days. After some back and forth with the supervisor, American Express resolved the matter to our complete satisfaction and refunded our money.

So here is an example where brand integrity was lost, and then found. But as cardholders who have been members since 1980, we felt greatly disappointed in Amex: First, for losing our reservations, and second, for not quickly resolving the matter directly and forcing us to resort to social media channels. Yes, they were able to restore some of that trust, but certainly, their brand integrity was diminished.

Protecting a brand’s integrity starts with knowing what a brand stands for.

When CVS announced it would remove all tobacco products from its stores in October 2014 (more than a year and a half after I wrote a blog urging them and Walgreen’s to do just that), the leading drug chain realized that supplying consumers with harmful tobacco products was inconsistent with its goal of being a trusted health provider. In other words, selling tobacco products did not align with its brand integrity.

Although CVS stated in press releases that eliminating tobacco products from its store shelves will cost the company more than $2 billion in sales annually, the company felt that this action would ultimately result in creating new business that would more than make up for lost sales from tobacco products.

The company, now rebranded as CVS Health (a stroke of genius that I feel has been brilliantly executed by their ad agency) has reported that its tobacco-free position has not only proved helpful and healthful for its valued consumers, but prescriptions for smoking cessation products have increased 63% every month from September through December 2014.

A marketer’s brand purpose is to understand the difference they’re making in the lives of customers.

There was a marketing professor named Theodore Levitt in the 1960s who talked about how customers don’t care about a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole. My greatest challenge as a creative director is getting my clients to talk about the quarter-inch hole. And an even greater challenge is getting them to recognize the emotional connection that a quarter-inch hole makes in people’s lives.

In other words, you enhance brand integrity when you can have more relevant and deeper relationships with customers and are able to build systems of engagement to create better experiences. That includes not only responding quickly and effectively to customer problems (Amex), but to also being more innovative about how to solve them. If you require customers to resort to social media to get attention from the company, brand integrity is already being diminished. However, if you resolve the problem efficiently and quickly through normal channels, brand integrity is improved.

Brick-and-mortar merchants with e-commerce channels must maintain brand integrity across channels.

Two summers ago, my wife purchased a pet gate from Petco.com. Unfortunately, when we received it, we realized it was 2 feet higher than we wanted, so we packed it up along with our online receipt and went to a Petco store 5 miles from our home.

At the store, the clerk said that she cannot take the return at the store since we didn’t have a form that should have come inside the box. We told the clerk that no form was included inside the box, but were incredulous why that really mattered since we presented our online receipt and the order number. "No," she said, "Petco.com and Petco stores are two different entities and they are not allowed to take returns at the store without the online form." Talk about eroding brand integrity.

We were then told that we needed to call Petco.com to get a form before the item can be returned at the store. I told the clerk, "Don’t you think you would be serving the customer better if YOU made the call and got things ironed out on YOUR end?" After 15 minutes of insistence, and my wife’s more level-headed handling of the situation, the manager called on our behalf and got the matter resolved. But once again, here was an example of brand equity being eroded by an omnichannel retailer who was not customer-centric.

What can we learn from American Express, CVS and Petco? 

Actions that reinforce a brand’s core values speak much louder than words. Marketers and ad agencies give a lot of lip service to the term "brand integrity." CVS Health is a good example of a brand drawing a clear line about its principles, even if it risks a financial hit in the process. Eliminating tobacco also forced CVS to rethink its brand identity and create a new name, CVS Health, which will help differentiate them in the decades ahead against competitors like Walgreens and Rite-Aid.

As for American Express, the CEO was recently quoted as saying he thinks the company made a mistake years ago by becoming so elite, leaving a lot of business on the table that other credit-card companies such as Visa and Mastercard ended up acquiring. Certainly, while members can make their own choices about whether the Amex of today is as good as the Amex of yesterday, CVS Health is betting that its mission of bolstering brand integrity will pay big dividends down the road. As for Petco, before they go public, I suggest they get their online and offline channels in sync and begin putting customer service first.

Stuart Dornfield is an award-winning freelance creative director/Copywriter with more than 40 years experience in marketing, strategy, advertising and production. He offers his creative services and marketing insights as a freelancer with offices in New York and Miami. Stuart is the former senior vice president-creative director of Zimmerman Advertising (Omnicom), the 13th largest agency in the U.S., and the co-founder of Gold Coast Advertising, the third largest agency in South Florida.