Change the image, or change the business?

The other day, Time writer Justin Fox (a colleague of mine at Fortune, once upon a time) had a piece titled “How To Succeed? Make Employees Happy.” It focuses on Whole Foods and The Container Store, which “pay better than most retailers, offer good benefits and entrust workers at all levels with sensitive financial data. The idea is that happy, empowered employees beget happy customers.” (Somewhat related note: July 30, 2006 Consumed on Wawa, the convenience store chain whose success is partly attributed to treating employees well.)

Maybe these companies are exceptions, but I think there’s some value in at least considering the idea that Fox is writing about. And also about the broader idea underneath it, which is one I’ve thought about a lot lately as I’ve been out and about talking to some manager-and-executive-type people about Buying In. That broader issue is that I think a lot of companies that sense the need for a change are way more focused on changing their image (via marketing) than in changing their business practices.

Recently I answered questions from readers of The Alpha Consumer, a blog associated with U.S. News & World Report, in connection with Buying In (which was picked as the first selection of the Alpha Consumer Book Club). Part one is here, and part two is here.

In relation to the above, I wanted to bring up one of the questions (and answers) here. The answer is a little long so I’ll leave it up to you if you want to follow on after the jump.

From Meg Marco of the Consumerist.com: As you point out in your book, consumers often join their identities and even sense of self with brands (such as with Apple). When consumers reach out with complaints to companies whose brands they’ve incorporated into their sense of self, they’re operating in a state of emotional pain. When a brand fails them, they seem to feel as if they’ve failed, too. What effect do you think this level of emotional participation has on a company’s customer service responsibilities? If companies are adept at selling “ideas about products,” do they need to work hard to maintain that special feeling once the honeymoon is over? Or has all the hard work been done?

This is a great question—and one I wish I would get more often from, say, marketers and business owners. Read more