4 Reminders About the Impact of Brand Reputation from A Chance Interaction with a Restaurant Owner

I had a very interesting interaction the other day with a man who is a partner in a Poke bar chain that has a couple of locations nearby. The interaction served as a great reminder as to how the Customer Experience is built from every interaction with a brand, including moments such as a seemingly innocuous conversation with a person representing the brand.

First, some background...I was out at a wonderful restaurant that offers a delicious modern Cantonese menu for an early dinner when a man sat next to us at the bar. He started speaking about his restaurant, and it seemed like he might be there to try and do some "marketing" and get people to go to his place. While he started out well, telling us his purpose and his mission of people being able to eat a healthy alternative...the interaction then started to go a little downhill.

From every interaction, even ones such as this, you can always take away some great learnings. While the conversation was a minor moment, it certainly reminded me of some deeper points regarding brand; here are just a few.

1. Make sure to inspire the right kind of curiosity

While creating some mystique and curiosity is a great way to get potential customers curious enough to try something, this man started by telling us how, being relatively newly open, he was finding it hard to compete with the McDonalds next door. He mentioned that even his own employees do not eat there and go to McDonalds. Usually, places see a good spike on opening, and people in this area do seem to love Poke and fresh fish dishes, so such a comment made us wonder what could be the cause of his difficulties.

Being in the experience design domain and given that I am always thinking about the topic and evaluating experiences, I was very interested, as we know so well that customer experience is bigger than product and price point alone. We are spoiled with overwhelming choice of places to go to for similar product so it is imperative that the brand evokes an emotion that makes us want to go to this particular place. Given that we are a target customer, we started talking about his experience, and other factors that could play a role. Could it be the location, the product quality, the cost point etc.? Could it be that the price did not match the perception of the value?

2. It is when you get complacent that you miss opportunities to improve

We then started getting into ideas as to how he could see why customers preferred McDonalds so much; perhaps a taste test with children (since he mentioned making kids healthier as a core purpose), letting them describe to him how things tasted so he could appreciate the feeling they get. Or, perhaps he should try an experience review, secret shopper style, to see what else could be impacting his experience.

This is when he got extremely defensive. He informed us, multiple times, over and over, in an aggressive tone, that he knows his product is amazing, and that basically, everything was perfect. That the eatery had a 4.5 on Yelp.

Guess what, while that's great, when we looked it up, it was actually a 4, and the various locations within a mile radius that were both direct and lateral competitors also had 4's and 4.5's, even a few 5's...I say no more. The fact remains that if you are not seeing the end result you expected, the most important thing is to focus on asking and learning why? Is it cost, is it the product, is it the fact that the in-restaurant experience doesn't evoke the right emotions to make a customer pick it over another? What is it?

Here is a key reminder, when you think you are amazing but are not seeing the outcomes - it is time to think about why this is. Thinking you are perfect at any time, let alone in a competitive landscape, is not the best way to tackle customer experience. Opening your mind to thoughts, ideas, what your customers think and feel is key. After all, if you become complacent and fail to realize the need to constantly change your approach to customer service, you will lose customers to competitors who are willing to adapt continuously.

This also inspired some mistrust in us, as if you keep telling someone how great you are, it is likely to make them feel that you are actually not.

Experience Quantified

3. Feeling is what is remembered, and this impacts brand loyalty

After we had spoken about ways to test his experience and, genuinely wanting to help, we explained how we love testing out experiences and that often will do a few a month for our own research purposes, we even offered to pop in and try it out next time we were at the mall, then email him any thoughts. His response was to keep asking what we were selling to him. Then we explained again, nothing, and that often we do research like that for our own purposes, so it would be no problem for us to email him afterwards with our findings, and, given that we love this type of food anyway, it really wouldn't be a bother. He then asked us if we had eaten, and we said unfortunately, yes, we just did. Clearly ignoring everything that we'd just said, he proceeded to tell us that we could go with him 'right now' and taste the food. I politely explained, that if he wanted a more objective view of the experience, we were best going without his accompaniment.

Regardless, he kept repeating his offer over and over in more of an aggressive command type of tone. While we appreciated the invite, we had already eaten, and now what could have been a pleasant interaction was tainted with much more negative feelings such as annoyance and frustration.

Unfortunately, it is this feeling that we now remember and associate with his brand. Feeling is so important. It is what is remembered long after the interaction and has a huge impact on brand loyalty . It is imperative to remember that as a consumer we have so many options as to where to spend our money, and if a brand is associated to negative characteristics, it can limit the chance that a consumer chooses to spend their money with you.

4. Power of the collective reputation

People talk and telling stories still has a huge impact on brand experience. This moment reiterated two very important points:

After he left, people nearby us who had seen how he was being confirmed that he is in fact known for eating elsewhere, not his own food, and that he can also be quite rude. When multiple people see and feel the same, regardless of what you may think, this becomes their reality.

For days to come I conversed with many people about the interaction, so now what was just a moment in time talking with two people has become a story shared with several. When a story is shared with such emotion, it is extremely impactful as the listeners can almost feel the experience. This has huge impact, as now the brand has this feeling associated with it in other people's perceptions, even if they have never eaten there or interacted with it themselves. It is critical to recognize that as consumers overwhelmed by product choices tune out the ever-growing barrage of traditional marketing, word of mouth cuts through the noise quickly and effectively.

In summary:

Some key reminders for anyone representing a brand:

  • Don't be complacent: Understand where you are amongst the competitors and ask how can you improve to meet desired outcomes.
  • Practice empathy: What your customers think and feel is the reality you have to deal with, not what you may think yourself.
  • Feeling is what is remembered: Understand how to evoke the right emotions, ones that will be remembered positively and will also encourage brand loyalty, recommendation, and love.
  • Understand what your real differentiator is: Understand how you compete more broadly. For example, with a healthy alternative to fast food, you will need more than that alone as the market is saturated with many products, services, and solutions.
  • Every interaction counts: Experience is a composite of all the ways and all the moments spent interacting with a brand. Some may weigh more heavily than others, but remember all interactions spark feelings that holistically create the experience.