The Difference Between ‘An Opportunist’ and ‘A Great Brand’
This is my site Written by Alora on February 19, 2009 – 2:58 pm

Ambulance ChasersThere may be no more pervasive and unsavory cliché about lawyers than ‘the ambulance chaser.’ The lawyer who follows an emergency medical team to the scene of an accident for the express purpose of leeching off the pain and misery of others – for the less-than-noble reason of making money – is generally regarded as one of the negative side-effects of a litigious society.

Yet, the fact remains, it is inevitable that one person’s tragedy is another person’s opportunity. So how does one walk the fine line between the two? In a word: brand.

For the airline industry, 2008 was an epically bad year – in some ways, even worse than 2001 and the time immediately following the 9/11 attacks. For as drastic an effect as 9/11 had on the industry’s solvency, it did not shake business models to the core the way that the oil prices of 2008 did: suddenly entire enterprises found that this single change in economic conditions rendered a previously viable business model entirely unsustainable. An ‘unofficial’ count of 2008 airline bankruptcies by Airline.org places the number at 13 – most of which completely ceased operations and permanently closed down, ranging from long-standing carries like Aloha, to new startups like SkyBus.

SkybusBut what happens when – in the case of SkyBus – a Friday afternoon press release is issued stating that the company is incapable of maintaining operations and will close its door in less than 24 hours? An airline with 74 flights per day across a network of 15 cities has easily transported thousands of customers (and couple hundred employees) to destinations away from home and then effectively stranded them with no way to get back. The immediate shock and outrage by ticket-holding customers notwithstanding, what is or should be the standard for how the rest of the industry reacts to news like that? In another word: JetBlue.

JetBlueWithin hours of the SkyBus announcement JetBlue had mobilized a response. Just past midnight, less than half a day after SkyBus declared it could not continue to operate, JetBlue offered to assist SkyBus customers and employees who were stranded with a plan to get them home. Given that JetBlue was not offering free travel, was not deploying special planes and was not the only airline to step in with a helping hand, why do they get special credit for their approach? Urgency. Unlike the other airline offers to help stranded customers and employees (which trickled in over the course of the next couple of days), JetBlue’s response demonstrated an understanding of the anxiety levels experienced by customers holding suddenly worthless tickets and made a special effort to help assuage those concerns as quickly as possible.

One could argue that this is a chicken/egg-type of debate: was JetBlue’s offer seen as genuinely helpful instead of self-serving because they have a good brand? Or was the helpful nature of the offer what makes them a good brand? The answer is both. The value in JetBlue’s brand is hard to dispute – both internally, across the industry and among the general marketplace, JetBlue is regarded as a marquee brand that has derived its success from doing everything possible to live up to its original operating philosophy: “Bringing humanity back to air travel.” And while anyone stuck on the tarmac at JFK on Valentine’s Day 2007 would be quick to point out that, like any other business, JetBlue makes mistakes, even that day – regarded by the company as a major turning point in its maturation – was the result of mistakes that were rooted in that philosophy.

When SkyBus collapsed under the weight of unfavorable economic conditions and stranded thousands of people around the country, JetBlue was not in a position to send off planes to pick everyone up and take them back to where they needed to go; and truthfully, the two airlines had very different routemaps that did not necessarily help most customers. So most of SkyBus passengers did not make use of JetBlue’s offer. But that wasn’t as important as JetBlue making the offer and making it quickly. Being the first ‘on the scene’ to offer help, and to maintain a sense of sincerity in the effort is what makes JetBlue a great brand.

CogheadToday, in a completely different space, we see a similar example: last night TechCrunch reported that Platform as a Service solution provider Coghead is closing its doors, and in doing so, leaving customers stranded for a solution. This morning, Intuit, one of Coghead’s competitors, steps in and offers to help both customers and employees. In the press release issued this morning, Intuit offers Coghead customers, partners and employees support via its QuickBase platform – ranging in everything from discounted rates and special transition services for customers, to potential jobs for employees who suddenly find themselves facing an increasingly dismal economy with no paycheck.

Intuit-QuickBaseDid Intuit need to do this? No, of course not. Coghead’s customers are, no doubt, scrambling for a new solution, and not all of them are going to take Intuit up on its offer to use QuickBase. But the point is that Intuit made the offer. Like JetBlue, they recognized that the people who are impacted by a business’ closure still have things they need to get done, and having the rug pulled out from under them causes anxiety. By providing a solution, offering support and publicly declaring their desire to help, Intuit is doing what great brands should always do: recognize that customers are people, and not merely numbers.

Is there opportunity gain to be had by the JetBlues and the Intuits of the world in situations like this? Absolutely. But if their only concern was profit, there are other tacts they could have taken – not the least of which is the ultimate ambulance chaser mentality: jack up your prices in the immediate term to stick it to people who are desperate for an immediate answer to their problems. But that is short-term thinking: while that might help sales numbers this week, that is not how you build long-term brand value.

SkyBus customers who’s travel plans were restored thanks to JetBlue’s offer to get them home have reason to like JetBlue now that they never had before. And while they may not live in a BlueCity (JetBlue’s term for cities they serve), you can be sure that the positive brand association those customers now have to JetBlue is strong enough that, if given the chance, it would hold sway in future flight purchasing decisions.

As the fallout from our current economic crisis continues to have a ripple effect from one industry to the next, it will be interesting to watch how those who are left standing adjust to the roles they find themselves in and the opportunities that present themselves. It will be easy for some of them to get very short-sighted and opportunistic; while others will make decisions that more closely resemble JetBlue or Intuit. As a consumer, these are valuable insights into an organization’s culture and priorities. And when it is time for me to spend my money buying goods or services, I would always rather support a business who demonstrates that it lives up to the old State Farm motto, and acts “like a good neighbor.”

To quote an episode of The West Wing, “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the price of a garden hose.” Companies that understand the value of a good brand know that, and that’s what they strive to build over time and through multiple channels – both directly and indirectly. In an increasingly interdependent world, it is more important than ever for consumers to recognize their power by supporting organizations that behave as responsible corporate entities should, instead of like the vampyric parasites that we see splashed across the news every day.

Great brands shouldn’t just be a product of a good management philosophy; they should be an expectation of employees and consumers. Anyone can provide a product. Providing true value, though, requires more than that. And the organizations that realize that are the ones worth supporting.

So good luck to the employees of Coghead. My condolences for having to watch your efforts be capsized by a turbulent economic sea. Best of luck in your future endeavors, and I’d love to know if any of you do indeed end up at Intuit.

Note: In the interest of full-disclosure, I will state that I have worked with and/or for Intuit and JetBlue for several years for precisely the reasons I have highlighted in this post.

  • http://webappsatwork.blogspot.com Jane McCarty

    Taking into consideration the situation Coghead customers got in, helping them out is not only about brand value building, but about gaining a substantional adding to the existing customer base. Not only QuickBase has developed a migration plan. This is brief overview of offers:

    http://webappsatwork.blogspot.com/2009/02/helping-coghead-customers.html