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December 30, 2006
Rescuing Lost Brands

Last month at a Home Depot in Texas, a store manager called a customer a c…well, let’s just say he dropped the 4-letter C-bomb. It’s a nasty word.

How do I know about what happened? Because I read about it on her husband’s blog. He happened to be a witness. He also works in PR, so he had both a personal and professional take on the incident. As the story was recounted later on consumerist.com, I noticed that across the Internet, customers and former Home Depot employees have posted a myriad of “yeah, I hate Home Depots, too” comments. Doing more research, I realized that the Home Depot brand has problems—a customer service problem, a PR problem, and even an investor relations problem.

It wasn’t always this way, as the Home Depot brand was built with an early emphasis on helpful service and its down-to-earth founding executives.

So what happened? How did the brand lose its way?

I should say this phenomenon is not limited to Home Depot. The recent Wal-Mart/Julie Roehm salaciousness demonstrated how far that brand has strayed from Sam Walton’s original vision. Other companies, like Starbucks, Borders, Nike and The Gap, have been attacked for typifying corporate America imperialism and facelessness despite the fact those companies were founded by passionate individuals in fairly progressive communities.

Nor is it limited to massive chain stores or monolithic conglomerates. Ever been disappointed in a restaurant where the food went downhill thanks to a new owner or chef?

Quite a number of companies, and the brands they make, ascribe themselves “core values.” While nearly every company promotes those values internally to its own employees, companies that deal with the public like to tout those values as an enticement to do business with them. Sometimes you can read these core values on a company’s website. Sometimes you see them on product packaging. But core values are meaningless unless the actions of the company, the way it conducts business, and the behavior of each of its employees match those values as closely and as often as possible.

As advertising professionals, we often have to make sure our work reflects our clients’ core values, even if those values are only words on a page.

Sometimes, advertising invents those values. Many years ago, I saw some Timberland ads that read like a corporate manifesto, a raison d'être. The ads were passionate and well-written. They were also bullshit. I noted to myself that in all likelihood, these ads would run for a few months and then the brand would be on to the next thing. And sure enough, the corporate manifesto advertising and its key message disappeared almost overnight, as if it had never existed.

To me, that’s dangerous. The core values of any brand or any company should be solid enough to transcend one ad campaign, not concocted and discarded on a whim.

We’re living in a very interesting age—where companies such as big-box stores grow ever bigger because of mergers or consolidation, yet consumers have the power to voice their dissatisfaction via the Internet, reach a worldwide audience, and find like-minded people. Brands and consumers don’t necessarily engage a two-way conversation or dialogue, but both sides now have large megaphones.

So it’s up to us to ensure that our clients adhere to their core values in their advertising, marketing, and PR efforts. We know how to detect bullshit since we’re so good at creating it. But beyond that, we’re not helping our clients by promoting their “great customer service” if that service is notoriously lousy.

Whether our clients are small businesses or large multi-store chains, the perils are the same: When a brand loses its way, customers won’t follow.

So let’s make the adherence to core values a core value of our industry. And by doing this, hopefully the ad industry won’t lose its way, either.

An update from Danny G.: I wrote and posted this column on 12/30/06. 4 days later, the CEO of Home Depot, Bob Nardelli, resigned. Perhaps this brand can be rescued after all.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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