Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lesson to be Learned - How are you Really Perceived?

Last night, while sitting on my rooftop, I noticed two things: first, it was getting too dark to read the book in my hand; second, the setting sun was a sight that could rival an impressionist painting. "Must capture," I thought, as I ran downstairs to get my camera.

When I returned to the rooftop and found the best angle to capture the sun, four people stood nearby. I positioned my camera and snapped a few pictures, growing more giddy with nature's little gift as the elongating pink sky intensified, blending yellow into orange into purple.

Suddenly, one of the women in the pack of four noticed my activity and said to her friend nonchalantly, "pretty sky."

What happened next makes me laugh and squirm - the disjoint between intent of perception versus what is actually perceived.

"Well," said the other woman in the pack, standing up straight and looking in my direction, cocking her head to the side with an air of self-importance: "I just got back from Brazil. I saw the sun set every night there."

Now let me comment on the funny connection I made.

Right before I sprinted downstairs to get my camera, the book I had in my hands was the updated version of Groundswell written by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li of Forrester Research. If you haven't read it - it takes a look at how and why marketers are increasingly focusing their time and budgets on social media technologies. And what is so ironic is that the section I had just finished talked about how a company's brand is what its consumers say it is, or quite simply, how it is perceived.

The example given was of a cancer research center called M.D. Anderson that "prides itself on its reputation. If a cancer can can be treated, M.D. Anderson can treat it." Enter next a real-life customer, Lynn Perry, who needs the treatment but has a bad experience with the facility. Each time he goes in, he has to wait for hours. While the center thinks that it is best in class, the reality is Perry just thinks of the M.D. Anderson brand as making him wait (the center's marketing team later worked to change this perception).

Or think about Alaska Airlines, who in the late nineties advertised themselves as the "last great airline" - a perception perhaps not exactly shared by travelers.

"What do your customers think your brand is about?"

Tying this question back to the rooftop Brazil-goer, I am intrigued. This woman made this claim with me in earshot, tossing around her recent experience with myriad perfect sunsets - such that she didn't need to stay to enjoy the one on our rooftop. Who was she impressing?

Yet while M.D. Anderson thought its brand maintained a pristine reputation ringing in 4 stars - Perry's actual perception was of a painful experience. And while the rooftop debutant may have thought she sounded elite, to a listening ear she just sounded pretentious.

If she were a brand, with no real information on how she was externally viewed, she would probably be surprised to hear the reality.

And too bad she didn't stick around to enjoy the sunset. It really was a nice one.