Pic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D6eMpox3i4

How to counteract the WTF effect

Why did I buy this???

How often have you invested in a new car, motorcycle, fridge, air-conditioner, etc, with pride. And then felt doubtful about it? All the other brands in your consideration set seem so much better. Some have better features, others seem to be better value. Friends and colleagues seem to know so much better. And you may have taken forever to decide, but that gnawing feeling of discontent seems to grow.

And how often has that been exacerbated by your post purchase experience?

You’ve been hit by what’s called “Post-purchase cognitive dissonance” (PPCD).

When you’re the one selling the product or service — how do you prevent it. Or at least minimise the impact of this phenomenon? It’s ironic that one of the causes of this is, if the brand has been sold too well. This raises expectations. Sometimes to unreasonable levels. Which can become an albatross post sale. Maximum effort is put in to complete the sale. Once the sale is done the attention goes to the next victim, sorry, customer!

This does not mean that the pre-sale effort needs to be reduced. That would be like suggesting that children should be starved so that they don’t become obese. But when creating the pre-sale package it is critical not to over-sell. Exaggerated, over-generous promises and ardent courting become millstones for the brand. It is critical to tailor brand promises to what will be delivered.

There are three reasons for this. The first is the speed with which bad news travels in the highly connected world of today. A disgruntled customer no longer influences his or her immediate community alone. They can, with an evocative rant or video, spread the word around the world. The dissonance can snowball with rapidity if others have similar experiences to share. And the resulting fallout can cause serious brand damage. Complaints and cavilling, whether with words or video, get wide circulation.

Even with resolved issues, there could be endless discussion. And a shadow is cast on the brand. Few people are so ardent about spreading the news of a job well done. And often it’s when there are unusual circumstances surrounding it. Also in the post-truth world good news is often perceived as motivated. So bad news travels fast and good news often gets ignored.

The second reason is because someone who owns or has had firsthand experience with a brand, is an oracle. A key driver for categories like automobiles, consumer durables and luxury brands, is word of mouth. Referral from someone with a satisfactory experience with the brand, is invaluable. And dissuasion can be very injurious, if an individual’s experience is disappointing. That word of mouth depends a great deal on the post purchase experience. What happens after purchase is at least as important as the effort put in before. People may love a brand because of its advertising. But it’s unlikely that it’ll make up for a disappointing or indifferent post purchase experience.

The exact opposite of this was a recent personal experience. I made a purchase that I believed to be extravagant. I did not suffer from mere dissonance. I was attacked by a severe sense of guilt. The entire purchase experience was excellent. And very much what I expected from a luxury brand. So that wasn’t at fault. It was the sense of extravagance that caused it. But ever since I made the purchase I have been made to feel part of an exclusive club. I’ve been given classy offers, beautifully designed, from brand’s senior management. Information on upcoming styles and offers keep coming my way. I know the cynics would say that the brand is only trying to sell me more stuff. And they would be right. But a task of any brand is also to sell. What matters here is the way this brand has done so. The feeling that the brand’s messaging gives is one of “informing” rather than trying to “sell”. The distinction is a very important one. It requires an understanding of tonality. And the form in which the information is delivered. And an understanding of who the brand wants to address. Most important, my post purchase experience means that I now feel that it’s been money well spent. It’s inspired by a brand that I believe, is worth every rupee that I spent on it. And I will prefer that brand again.

The third reason is that often the dissonance is created by emotional disappointment. And this emotional disappointment becomes fact. Perception is reality and brands also dwell in the realm of perceptions and emotion. Many decisions may have objective beginnings. But final choices for brands are usually driven by emotion. Whether they’re happy, satisfied or disappointed is driven by the emotional value delivered by the brand. This disappointment is driven by a host of reasons. Many of which are intangible. Supposing your new luxury car is delivered with about enough petrol to get you to the nearest petrol station. You’d be justified in feeling disappointed. A luxury brand shouldn’t need to be such a pointless penny-pincher.

But supposing the head of the dealership himself drove it out for you. Ensured it was perfectly clean. And with a tank full of gas. And then handed over a box of your favourite chocolates. Then your relationship manager actually kept in touch. To make sure all is well. A tank-full of gasoline, a box of chocolates and a few calls are minor things when compared to the price of the car. But they can speak volumes about the way a brand perceives and values its customers. Sales are getting more difficult. And people are ever more knowledgeable, discerning and activist. The sales’ frontline will make the difference between sustaining brand success or failure. Doing what it takes to retain the best will also sustain business success and build brand value. Because they are the brand’s key PPCD warriors. Making promises that the brand must keep. And managing peoples’ expectations. These will be critical in the future and are often critical already.

There was a time when patent medicines would make wild claims about their efficacy. Those days have long gone. But the wild promises of “patent branding” have not. But people are also ever more vigilant and demanding. The days of brand hype are numbered. Brands have to be driven by fundamental authenticity. Promising to deliver and delivering on your promise is critical. PPCD might have been a “typical” post sale phenomenon. One that brands had to live with. Especially when there were ever lengthening lines of people willing to buy them. But it is an unacceptable cost now.

In a market driven by aspirations PPCD is not only damaging but corrosive. In many categories people extend themselves for the brands they choose. The cost of making a dissatisfying brand choice is high. And the internet is an amplifier for this dissatisfied word of mouth. It is the most powerful force in brand choice. So PPCD can no longer be an acceptable “cost”. Brands need to be active in preventing it. First by understanding the implications of what they promise. By the expectations that this generates. And then by being obsessive in ensuring that they are met every time. Monitoring this is as important as tracking customer satisfaction. Measuring market share. Controlling costs. Building distribution and product innovation. It can no longer fall under the condescension of “customer delight”. It is already essential to the continued success of a brand. Rational issues can be addressed. But if people stop preferring your brand because it does not live up to its promises, it will die alone.

So here’s a new meaning of PPCD for brands — Promises, Pledges and Commitments — Delivered!