Why is managing brand perception so important? The answer is simple: because your customers’ perceptions of your brand constitute reality, their reality, the experiences and knowledge that accrue to your brand. Or in the words of Aldous Huxley, “There are things known, and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
Often when marketers talk about “branding,” they are referring to corporate or brand identity. The truth is no matter what efforts are labeled “branding,” the brand belongs to your customers and exists in their minds. Marketers can influence the customer’s perception of the brand, but they can’t create it. The customer experiences your brand on both an intellectual and emotional level, and a powerful marketing vehicle for managing brand perception is face-to-face marketing where there is actual personal engagement.
What are some ways a customer forms a perception of your brand? Advertising, strategic ad placement, starts to create an image or affinity, particularly in the minds of those who are not customers or who have had limited experience with your brand. Social media activity is increasingly influential as well.
Most of all, a customer’s perceptions of your brand arise from direct experience, from interactions with the sales force, with customer service teams and call centers, with employees of the company, and from media impressions. It also comes from peer recommendations, and more and more often, from third party reviews, particularly those on-line.
Trade shows are the optimal occasion for managing brand perception. With perhaps the exception of sales calls, trade shows are the single occasion where customers can have a face-to-face brand experience. When you are planning a trade show marketing program, addressing how to manage brand perception is critical.
Reinforcing positive brand attributes is easy. Customers visit the exhibit, see familiar faces, learn more about the products that have made them happy and/or successful, and get introduced to new solutions coming from the brand that has served them well.
However, countering negative brand perceptions is trickier, and planning a response to negative brand perceptions should be a brutally honest conversation as you develop your trade show strategy.
What contributes to negative perceptions and how can you address them at trade shows?
Bad customer service. Perhaps the quality of customer service is out of the immediate control of the people staffing the trade show exhibit, but the ability to listen to customers, to document their experiences as completely as possible, and to commit to relaying their concerns to the proper department is part of the power of trade shows. Take names and contact information so that the appropriate department can follow up. Prevent these situations from happening by preparing your trade show booth staff in advance.
Product disappointment. Did the product launch later than expected? Did the product have obvious flaws? Did the product do damage? What was unsatisfactory about the experience with the product? Again, listen to the customer, and document the experience as above.
A negative encounter with a company employee. This experience could include everything from an employee criticizing the company at a neighborhood barbecue to a sales person telling an inappropriate joke or making unwelcome sexual advances. Listen to the customer. Depending on the seriousness and depth of the charge, you may have to refer the issue to human resources or senior management. Use good judgment. No doubt this is an uncomfortable situation, but obviously, bad behavior can have an impact on your livelihood.
Outrageous public behavior or offensive statements to the media. Media crises seem to be happening with alarming frequency. From off-the-cuff statements by corporate leaders to alcohol or drug-fueled incidents, there is no hiding from either the press or people with phones shooting videos. When there is widespread negative perception, a media-trained spokesperson should be in the booth, dedicated to handling sensitive questions and addressing the steps that are being taken to correct the problem. Under no circumstances should the rest of the staff offer an opinion or an answer. Consistency of message is essential in repairing the damage to your brand.
Finally, work with your exhibit designer and builder to create an environment that fosters a positive brand perception and engagement. Catering, informal seating areas, and other features can help build a powerful, customer-friendly brand in your market.