One of my guilty pleasures is fried chicken. So, when KFC ran out of chicken this February, you can only imagine my dismay. The problem, which was caused by a new supplier, should have spelled disaster but a witty and transparent reaction turned the whole episode into a strange success. Honest communications, including a website that showed the closest store with chicken, a provocative advert in the national press and an admission that “it had been a hell of a week”, turned a PR disaster into another reason to love the brand.
KFC isn’t the first brand to turn failure into success through transparent communications. Back in the late 2000’s Domino’s Pizza was in a muddle – poor share prices, declining sales and no clear direction. CMO Russell Weiner recognized the problem as a lack of consumer trust and started experimenting with new ways of making the company more open. He began with a devastating admission: Domino’s pizza sucks! An advertising strategy followed, which honestly admitted the issues with Domino’s pizza and also targeted consumers’ mistrust of corporations and ‘the man’ in general. He followed this up with total transparency in the kitchen; a new pizza tracker was a real winner; it revolutionized Domino’s, allowing customers to see the progress of their order and send pre-loaded messages of encouragement to staff. Domino’s stock shares have grown from $5 a share in 2009 to $226 a share in 2018 and Mr Weiner credits transparency as a key factor in that success.
Now, with “hyper-transparency” on the rise it seems that nothing is off limits, often with unintended consequences. When figuring out just how transparent to be, modelling human relationship behaviour can be a useful starting point:
Have you ever met someone who seems intent on oversharing, revealing details about their life that you’d really rather you didn’t know? It’s odd, right? While transparency, or honesty, is broadly valued in human relationships, it also comes with caveats. We decide how much to reveal of ourselves based on our relationship and the context. For example, your husband will know more about your parenting philosophy than your boss, but your boss will probably have a better handle on your chances of promotion this year.
Similarly, we tolerate different levels of transparency from business, depending on our feelings towards them and our need in that moment. Businesses that decide to create a transparent customer experience tread a fine line between trusted, mistrusted and laughing stock. The upside – and the downside – reflected in revenues.
A great example is McDonald’s Canada’s ‘Our Food. Your Questions’ campaign, which was designed to re-build lost confidence in its supply chain and quality of ingredients. The campaign enabled consumers to pose questions like “do you really use 100% beef?” But the portal also seemed to provoke uncertainty among consumers, who ask questions like “why did you need to open this portal in the first place?” and “should I not have trusted you?” Rather than increasing consumer confidence, the McDonald’s campaign shows that ‘managed transparency’ can have the opposite effect – creating mistrust as disengaged consumers subvert the brand’s efforts to look good.
More recently, beauty brand Deciem took a rather less managed approach to transparency. In 2017, the business look set for success, securing investment from Estee Lauder after developing a cult following for its no frills products and transparent ethos which set out to debunk the pseudo-science of the beauty industry. Early this year, the CEO took to Instagram to let fans know he’d cancelled his marketing strategies and plans and would now be communicating directly with them via Instagram. What followed were a series of posts depicting, among other things, dead goats, garbage and pot shots at competitors. Most damming were the spats with customers, including one where he appeared to suggest a skin whitening product to a woman of colour in response to her negative feedback. As QZ Magazine wrote: “Deciem claims to have created a community of honesty, kindness, and transparency—but in the outside world, it is becoming synonymous with divisiveness and resistance to collaboration.” Aside from the negative PR, one lucrative contract has already been cancelled and the full extent of the fall out remains to be seen.
In any company, a move towards open doors in all departments requires insight into what is appropriate to share, what customers care about and in which contexts. For the uncertain, the best strategy might be to cultivate enough core trust in the business that transparency over and above that isn’t demanded of them at all.
Until then however, there are 3 principles for any brand to follow when it comes to transparency in customer experience:
Clean the laundry before airing it
Unless in a drastic situation, brands should first prioritise ensuring smooth operation before taking the step towards greater transparency and ‘open doors’. Consumers will trust brands more if they can do what they’re expected to consistently, without needing to share every detail with them.
Clarify your intentions
Brands that are open and transparent in order to build trust can inadvertently create the opposite effect if it’s not clear why the information is being shared, or if too much information is shared from every part of the business. Be clear internally with what you want to achieve through opening up information to the consumer and be clear to the consumer in what the benefit will be for them.
Give the consumer control
Sharing information for the sake of it can create a poor response if your customer can’t do anything with it and ultimately, consumers want transparency so they can take more control of their interaction. If you’re telling a customer about something you did badly or that you failed to deliver on something you promised, make sure they can use that information to take action – otherwise it will only create anger and confusion.
*The author makes no apology for the fact that two of the examples cited in this article were fast food chains – it’s 12:55pm and he’s hungry
Laurence Lidington – Consultant at C Space London
Laurence is more than a C Space consultant. He’s an integral member of the Product, Technology and Innovation team, constantly immersing himself in the tools and methodologies that we use every day to make our work just that bit more effective and meaningful. After a long day of creating impactful work for some of our major tech clients, he can be found dusting off his running shoes and racing up some of Yorkshire’s steepest hills in the annual “Tour de Yorkshire” sportive. Wish him luck…Email Laurence at: email@example.com