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Episode #152: Brand Authenticity in the Age of Technology, with Rob Harles

Grad Conn

August 4, 202123 min read

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Your brand is not what you say it is. Your brand is what your customers think it is. And that’s built on experiences, including purchasing, support, and customer care. In part 2 of my discussion with Rob Harles we talk about our unhealthy obsession with scale, and why we need to spend more time listening, engaging, and communicating with our brand communities.

Rob Harles is the Global Lead for Modern & Emerging Channels for Accenture Interactive. You can find him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Grad 
All right, and we are back for Episode Two of our conversation with Rob Harles, Global Lead for Modern and Emerging channels for Accenture Interactive. Welcome to the Unified CXM Experience. And I am Grad Conn, CXO or Chief Experience Officer at Sprinklr, a New York Stock Exchange listed company, ticker symbol CXM. And I am going to be moving on to the conversation with Rob now, enjoy this episode.

There was a time when I think people were trying to stay connected. But as we move, Bill
Bernbach ushered in a creative revolution. And much of his work, I think is incredible. But I think he was misinterpreted by many people that followed him. And we entered an era of very anonymous advertising that was very just image focused. And there’s a really great book by Julian Lewis Watkins, called the World’s Greatest Advertisements. It’s like 1858, to 1878 to 1952, or something like that – so the range of the ads. And what is interesting when you read this book, and they’re all print ads, what’s interesting when you read this book is that in the mid 1950s, when this book was published, these were seen as the 100 greatest ads, that’s what it was, the 100 greatest ads that have ever been written. And when you look at them, a few are a bit like very modern in terms of very image focused, but most are very heavy in copy, like very heavy in copy. And there was the theory back then, which I still believe in that while not everybody reads long copy your prospects will. So write long copy because you have a headline and have a subhead, but then have the long copy because the people who really are your prospects will actually read all of it, maybe most people won’t, but the prospects will, and that’s what’s important.

And when you read these ads, what’s so striking is how personal they are, in some cases, almost uncomfortably personal. And they’re the copywriters are trying really hard to get in the head of their prospects and trying to get in the head of the buyer, trying to walk a mile in their shoes. And it’s an art that has been lost. And so we went to very, very mass, very anonymous, and I think the core thing of it is very anonymous advertising. And it wouldn’t be bad idea for all of us to read a few of the ads from the 1920s and 30s and recall how they were talking to prospects at the time, and then try to bring that … the language has changed a bit, the idioms have changed and it’s a little bit different in terms of tonality. But there’s still the basic idea of trying to connect with your needs and wants and desires is there and it’s a book that not many people read anymore, it’s kind of hard to find, but it is something that would be great to be part of everyone’s education.

Rob Harles 
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s why I keep saying things have come full circle, which is we’ve spent a long time apart from one another without really putting ourselves in their shoes, not being empathetic enough for our customers. But now we’re not going to have a choice – that’s the double-edged sword of where we live right now in the 21st century, because we have all these capabilities, technologies, and they’re simply growing exponentially by the day, not by the month or year. This is a different Moore’s law. Every day there are more people having access to information that hit or two you might have wanted to control. In the past, and we’ve talked about this, just as we want at the very least to control your brand, brand message, your brand image, well, you have no control in this day and age. It’s whatever your customers and even your detractors tell you your brand is and how you react more than what you tell people you stand for. And if you tell people you stand for something, that’s not good enough on its own anymore. The thirst for transparency and authenticity requires you to put your money where your mouth is. So if you say you support diversity you better well show what you’re doing for diversity. If you say you’re into sustainability, it’s not enough to say we throw away the paper cups and we recycle the plastic ones at our offices. It’s like no, what are you doing, dollars and cents, pounds and pecks. And that’s where we’re at. And I feel like we’re not prepared. That’s my feeling.

Grad 
Well you’re right, actually that’s exactly it. I think what people are forgetting is that their brand is no longer under their control. You know, you can say “my brand is blue”. But if everybody else says that the brand is red, I’m going to take the word of everybody else over the word of you. And it’s this idea that people are sharing, in many cases, the brand has become its’ experience that it lands. I will kind of bring this full circle back to customer experience because the experience that you land, from the way you do customer support and customer care, to the way it feels when you’re buying it, etc., that sort of full circle makes your brand whatever color it should be. And you can yell your brand is blue all day long. But if you’re delivering a red experience, your brand is red. And then maybe that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not trying to be judgmental on the colors, but it is like it is what it is. And I think this is a very hard thing for a lot of companies to wrap their mind around. They’ve got vision statements, and they’ve got brand creative strategies and all this kind of stuff that they’ve invested all his time and energy into. But meanwhile everyone’s saying something else.

At Sprinklr we do a lot of listening for a lot of the world’s biggest brands. I don’t know if you know this or not, but we’re up to 91 of the world’s top 100 brands are now Sprinklr customers. Isn’t that awesome? That is 91. Although I told my dad the other day, and he said what’s with the missing nine? And I’m like, “Thanks, Dad. Appreciate that”. We’ll get to 98. And he’ll be like, so what’s wrong? You can’t get the last two? Were you not trying hard enough? What’s going on? Come back to me when you’re 100. Call me when you’re 101. Anyway, Oh, my God. Anyway, so what we see across all these brands is that they’ve got all this stuff that they say about themselves. And then we do a sentiment study of what people say about them. And in some cases it’s completely different. And, and they’re like, “well, that’s not what we’re all about”. And like, “yeah, it is, I mean, you may not want it to be but that’s what you’re all about, because that’s what people are saying about you”. And the only way to change that is to change the way you’re operating with people and the way you’re interacting with people if you want to.

And I think that is the exciting thing about modern channels and the world we live in today is that for a long time, I think that companies and brands have been able to pretend that they are a certain thing, they’ve been able to pretend that they’re this, pretend that they’re that, you can’t really hide from that anymore because the conversations are exposed now. And if people think you’re red then people think you’re red. You can yell that you’re blue all day long and it won’t make a lick of difference. And that to me is the very exciting thing about the times we’re in because now we have truth and when you when you have truth and we can match perception to reality, often real breakthroughs happen because people are no longer hiding behind a false reality. They actually start to embrace the reality that’s true and then actually try to do something that’s more compelling and more significant. I really want to change my brand. I really want to change my experience. I’m going to have to actually change the experience and I would say that generally most people are excited and waiting for it. It’s not like a big mea culpa. Just start doing it better, just start doing it differently, people will flock to you, and they’ll love you for it.

Rob Harles 
Yeah, I actually have something I wanted to run by you too. I don’t have hard and fast stats for it but I’m thinking about doing it, which is I think there’s a resistance, there’s a fear of the risk you take on when you get closer to the customer. I don’t know how I can put my finger on it but …

Grad 
Okay, I’m with you, I’m with you, keep going.

Rob Harles 
Even if you’re in modern channels, let’s say you made your career in social media, whatever, number one I feel intuitively, I don’t think those groups that have made their careers on social media have been integrated sufficiently within the organization to make a difference with all this information as the I Love Lucy thing with chocolates. I’ve got all this stuff that nobody actually looks at and…

Grad 
By the way I’m going to use that I Love Lucy clip. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m going to use that in my live presentations. I almost had my first live show in September. They just canceled it and made it virtual only. But they’re coming. I can tell people are jonesing to get out there in person again. I’m getting some new videos and new decks ready and kind of getting myself ready for the tours again. But that Lucy video – great idea. “Is this what your data management system feels like?” Brilliant, it’s like brilliant!

Rob Harles 
Yeah, no, I look I’ll tell tales on myself, which is you know, I think I was about as early as there could be in social media when it started up and I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was thinking about all this stuff. And, but what sort of pulled me towards it was this thought that, you know, for the first time you’re going to do stuff, you’re going to do God’s work, you’re going to be, you are going to do things to break the mold, and you’re going to revolutionize how people interact. And you’re going to make companies more responsive, honest, transparent, and you’re going to, for the first time, you probably get rid of market research, and this is going to be live as a snapshot in time, we’ll be through with Winscribe, video, all that good stuff. But I feel like the folks that started with that camaraderie of, you know, this our Summer of Love fifteen years ago, we’ve kind of gone the other way. And the only evidence I feel I increasingly see for that is that there is a tendency to invest in things that pull you further from direct connection to the customer and more towards broadcast media. It is so much easier to spend ten to one dollars on paid media, because I can point to it and say, “Okay, I reached this audience, and here’s the level of engagement and here’s my sentiment”, versus I set up a community, I listened for a while, I interacted with these folks, I learned these five things that are really important and I didn’t make money off of it. But that three to five things could transform our company. And I say that, because I often go into a company and say, “If you have a litmus test about how connected you are to your customer, answer this question. Take a piece of paper and a pencil, no technology here needed, write down three things top of mind that you know about your most valuable customer”. And here’s the kicker, “that your competitors do not know”. I guarantee you, people might get one, but very few, if any get three. And that’s where I think the miss is because we spend all our time on just automating our marketing, rather than really listening, engaging, and communicating, building community, authentic community with our most valuable customers, and the people that we want as our prospects.

Grad 
But it’s almost like there’s this kind of bizarre obsession with scale. It’s got to scale, it’s got to scale, it’s got to scale, to the point where people never get to the point of understanding the impact. I think if you can get the impact to happen and see the results, then work on scale. But often people put scale first or they use scale almost as a way of shutting it down. You know, and I think you’re right, I think it’s almost like this, the way you framed it was interesting, ‘a fear of engaging directly with customers’, a very interesting way of putting it.

Rob Harles 
That epiphany I had around the tools thing. I was doing this community before Facebook was even really getting involved in commerce, and commercial things. And I was also the asking people and sort of interviewing them and using the forum to ask questions and send out surveys every other day. And this one guy wrote back and like, ‘it’s great that you’re reaching out to us and taking the time to really get to know us’ quotation marks, “valuable customers, loyal customers”. But he went on to say but as a former loyal customer, I’m never buying anything from you again. And he just left it that and I was actually afraid. I don’t think I said that to you when I told you that story. I think I was afraid to respond because I didn’t know what he was going to say. I thought he was going to say how terrible, which he was saying, how terrible we were and maybe even how terrible I am for even being naive enough to ask him the question when clearly as a representative brand, we blew it. But I asked that simple question. “Well, what went wrong?” You were formerly a customer, you’re in this group, because we knew you bought a lot, or at least I knew you bought a lot from us. And he wrote back, you know, that weekend? Well, you know, here’s what happened. You stand by your products for life. Great. I buy thousands every year because I’m an avid DIYer. But I bought this one that was obviously not your brand, I bought it at your store. And it broke after the warranty was up after one year and I know I wasn’t expecting to get a new one. But I did go back to the store going, “Hey, what’s up? What’s up with this?” not thinking that we’re going to replace this for them, but I think he was thinking, as a valuable customer we would know who he was and say, “You’re a valuable customer. Let’s see what I can do. Not promising anything but I will see what I can do”. And he said after remonstrating a few times being told, just go buy a new one and, like, hit the road as though he were a deadbeat or something, he said, “Well, clearly you don’t know who I am, clearly, you don’t care. So I’m not going to buy anything from you again”, and he took his store card out of his wallet stopped buying, across the board, not just this. And so I said, “I don’t know if I can do anything”. But I signed up to see if I could do something. I did the thing that it was already too late to do properly. And I reached out to a colleague at a personal level and said this sounds wrong, like, what’s going on here and left it at that. And that Monday, I should have looked back on Sunday, because he’d written back, you know, War and Peace on this forum limited to 140 characters. And he put exclamation points and bullets and everything. And he said, “Hey, I just want to tell you three things. One, I was just blowing off steam, I really didn’t expect you to have to do something or anything like that. I wasn’t going to buy anything from you. And you couldn’t change my mind about it. But yeah, thanks for listening. Two, you went a bit further than listening and you thought you could actually fix this problem that I just told you about. I’m thinking like an idiot, He thinks I’m an idiot, that you’re naïve; you’re not going to get me to change the way I think about this brand”. And then he wrote at the bottom, “Number three, I just want to let you know your colleague, whatever you did, your colleague was fantastic. She called me up on Saturday. She apologized profusely for the story that I went through and how I was treated and in fact he said that that apology was worth its weight in gold because my wife doesn’t apologize to me like that. This really touched me.”

Grad 
That’s either very sad or I don’t know, there’s a mixed blessing in that particular comment. Well, let’s not go there.

Rob Harles 
… and she gave me a gift card for forty-nine bucks or whatever this thing was, but I didn’t even need that. What I needed was to know that I mattered.

Grad 
He might need some more time with his wife as well.

Rob Harles 
Yeah, and it’s like the best indication …

Grad 
If a $49 gift certificate is way better than what his wife …  I think maybe there’s some other problems there. Maybe that’s why he was blowing some steam off. Maybe you walked into a completely different issue. Maybe it’s the whole domestic issue here. You have no idea. All kidding aside, sometimes that is part of it. You know, people have a bad day and then, and then just to top it off, you couldn’t even get my damn bagel right? You know? That’s all it takes sometimes for someone just to completely lose their mind. But it’s not the fifty things that came before. It’s like, “Now you don’t know how to toast a bagel? Alright, this is it. I’m going downtown”.

Rob Harles 
But remember the end of this, I have no way of checking that he actually did it, but he wrote. He said, “Today I rummaged around in my desk drawer for that card I tossed away, and I put it back in my wallet”, and I’m like, “Well, I have no quantitative way of knowing if this guy’s going to actually start buying from us, but he took the time to tell me that this changed him somehow”. And I thought, “Why did we wait this long to make that happen?” It’s a lot easier to do it earlier on rather than wait and go through this thing. It’s not scalable. So I think that your point is spot on which is sometimes, again, we’re afraid to get close to the customer and that is the key. However we do it, whether we do it through automation or we do it digital kisses on the cheek, you know, making it feel like you got that email from them and the video from the Pedestal but maybe they do that for everybody and that’s fantastic but for you it meant a lot. Whatever it is, that’s what we should be doing. And the other fear is that fear has driven us into compartments and those compartments don’t interact and I rail against this. Everyone, that person who just manufactured that thing is a salesperson, a marketer and they’re a service person. They are the face of the company. Whoever touched the customer last, that’s the impression they’re stuck with. So if you haven’t empowered your people to feel like that, to make a human connection, to do what’s right, to be honest, to be transparent, to be therapeutic. If you’re like, you had a bad day, remember when we were talking about the bad flight you had, wouldn’t it be nice if someone at the check-in desk at the hotel already knew that and did a couple kisses on the cheek that made you feel better about it.

Grad 
It wouldn’t be much, it wouldn’t be much, a cold beer would do the trick most of the time. It’s the recognition. So what you’re saying, in some ways, the new statement is, instead of ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, it’s Ich bin ein marketer. We’re all marketers now. Right? Is that where we are? I like it. That’s awesome. Well, you know, people have always thought they’re marketers like you know, it’s the one profession everyone thinks they can do. So it’s good to see people actually have to have the responsibility as well now.

Rob Harles 
And to define it, what is it that they do now? Because I think it’s different than it was fifty, a hundred years ago, right? It has to be different.

Grad 
Well, I think we’re all customer-facing and, in a customer-facing role, your job is to make sure the customer is happier after engaging with you. And if you have a unified CXM platform that pulls that together, and you can see all the things you’ve done to the customer, it makes it a lot easier to, to know what that impact on the customer has been. So well, Rob, we’re a little over time, but I’ve got to tell you, this has been an awesome discussion, I’d love to do this, again, maybe in the fall. I’m about to go on a bit of a Maine vacation. And of course, we’ve got the end of the summer and stuff. But maybe we can pick this up again in the fall. I’ll kind of get an update from you on what you’re doing and some of the things you’re connecting with. And hopefully I’ll have another great Pedestal Source-like story that I can share with you. And we’ll sort of jam on that again. Is there anything else you want to just kind of end with or any sort of last thought you want to leave the audience with?

Rob Harles 
I still remember that you admonished me in our last conversation.

Grad 
Admonished you, really?

Rob Harles 
Yeah, about, you know, doing things in pieces. Like quick wins versus … And it stuck with me. So it’ll always stick with me as a scar that I’ll need to …  But I think you’re right. I kind of leave it with this, which is, my point was, whatever you’re going to do, do something. Don’t keep doing the exact same thing over and over. That’s the definition of insanity, which is doing the same thing, expecting a different answer, a different outcome. But even if you do a little thing, do it. But my thing is, if you’re going to scale, scale, the Nike versus right, just do it, do something different, and maybe make the pact every day that you’re going to do one thing differently as a marketer, as a service person, salesperson. Be real bold.

Grad 
Be bold. Don’t be afraid. Absolutely. I totally agree with you. Be bold, get out there because if you do something bold and it works, the world’s your oyster. If you do something bold and it doesn’t work, well, you did something bold and you tried. If you do something timid and it works, nothing happens. You do something timid and doesn’t work, you’re finished.

Rob Harles 
I’ll leave you with one other last thing, which was when I joined Accenture interactive, I was at this sort of getaway with a whole bunch of other managing directors, and we were just shooting the breeze in the evening, and I asked one, it’s one of those silly questions you ask, “How do you be successful here?” And he said, “Sometimes” and this guy was Russian; I can’t do his accent very well, “far better to fail big than to succeed small”.

Grad 
Oh yeah. Oh wow. Far better to fail big than succeed small; that is killer. That’s what I’m talking about. See? Damn, I love the Russians. They know how to make shit happen, man. Okay, that is a great way to end. That is a great way to end. Better to fail big than succeed small. Yeah. Fail big is always a good story. Like, it’s always a good story.

Rob Harles 
But hey, I tried something nobody else did. And it was a grand, grand vision. But if you succeed small, no one will ever notice.

Grad 
I have proudly failed big on many occasions. So I am a big subscriber to that. Okay, that is awesome. Some may argue failed too big. But anyway, that’s okay. We’ll move beyond that; we’ll save that for another day. Rob, this has been amazing. Have a great weekend and have a great summer and I’ll see you in the fall. If we can pick this up again, I’d be delighted to keep the conversation going. All right, well, for unified CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And today I had Rob Harles as my guest from Accenture and we had a really great discussion about all things CXM. And if you are interested in buying a pedestal, I would suggest you use Pedestal Source and I’m not being paid for them. And that’s it for today. Thank you very much and I’ll see you … next time.



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